Barracuda putting pieces in place

Photo: Andreea Cardani

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Coming into the 2023-24 season, the positives for the San Jose Barracuda are easy to identify.

Head coach John McCarthy has a year of experience behind him now as the former AHL captain works to establish his own presence behind the Barracuda bench after Roy Sommer had led AHL prospects in the San Jose Sharks organization for most of the past quarter-century.

Intriguing pieces are beginning to come together as the Sharks continue to rebuild under general manager Mike Grier. Defensemen Shakir Mukhamadullin, a 2020 first-round pick, and Nikita Okhotiuk, a 2019 second-rounder, came over from the New Jersey Devils in the blockbuster Timo Meier deal in February. Another product of the 2020 first-round class, forward Ozzy Wiesblatt, is back for his second AHL campaign. Forward Danil Gushchin put together a 22-goal rookie effort with the Barracuda last season, while fellow rookie Tristen Robins scored 17 goals a year ago. In came 22-year-old defenseman Valtteri Pulli from Finnish club TPS Turku on an offseason move to North America as well.

The Barracuda also had a strong finish to last season, going 13-9-2-1 from Feb. 15 on to stay in the Calder Cup Playoff race until the final days of the regular season.

Development will be the story for the Barracuda this season. But the Barracuda intend to win, too. Sharks prospects have only won two Calder Cup Playoff series since 2010, both coming in the Barracuda’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 2017 with a team that featured Meier, McCarthy, Barclay Goodrow, Kevin Labanc, Ryan Carpenter and Jacob Middleton. They have missed the postseason cut the past two springs, and the Sharks want to get this young talent that coveted playoff opportunity.

“We’re here to develop NHL players,” McCarthy said, “but we’re all here to win games, and those two things aren’t completely separate. We feel the best development takes place in a winning environment, and the best development also takes place when you have those standard-bearing players, those older guys that lead by example, show the younger guys what attitude they have to come with to the rink every day.”

So led by Barracuda general manager Joe Will, the organization went to work this summer on building just that type of environment for their Sharks hopefuls.

For one thing, last season’s club struggled to score. Their 2.85 goals per game stranded them 28th in the AHL. Their power play ranked just 24th at 17.9 percent. It was a nightly grind for a group trying to find its way through the potent Pacific Division.

So when July arrived, the Sharks organization moved quickly. They brought back Carpenter, a veteran of 330 NHL games and someone who can offer both mentorship and offensive production; his 21 goals for Hartford last season were a career high. They acquired restricted free agent Leon Gawanke, whose 20 goals last season tied him for the AHL lead among defensemen, from the Winnipeg Jets, and quickly signed him to a one-year deal. Cole Cassels, one of the most respected two-way forwards in the AHL, came over after a career performance last season in Belleville, where he produced 51 points in 64 games. Scott Sabourin and his reputation for toughness also came over from the Senators after setting career highs with 16 goals, 17 assists and 33 points – and 177 PIM – last season.

Limited by injury to 16 games in Springfield last season, Nathan Todd still picked up 14 points, including eight goals. And as recently as the 2020-21 season with Manitoba, he was named a Canadian Division All-Star. Justin Bailey, who had 15 goals in 30 games for Abbotsford just two seasons ago, came aboard Oct. 12 on an AHL deal after spending last season with Bakersfield. Oskar Lindblom is with the Barracuda after spending the past five seasons exclusively in the NHL. Tanner Kaspick came over from Iowa for further depth.

With that kind of proven talent now on the Barracuda roster, competition for ice time will not be easy.

“We lost our way for a few years,” Will acknowledged. “When we make the playoffs, I love to tell the players good things happen for everybody. When you make the playoffs, people take notice of it, and players get promoted. Not just our club, but players that leave here, they tend to get better deals.

“Go back to that 2016-17 Barracuda team where we went to Western Conference Finals. So many of those players went on to NHL careers, and a lot of it was sprung off of what we did in the playoffs. So the playoffs are incredibly important in the American Hockey League. My job is to really put together as much internal competition as we can.”

“I think those two goals can be aligned,” McCarthy said of developing and winning. “It’s not one or the other to me. Winning is a learned habit, and we want to develop that at the American League level.”