McCarthy to usher in new era for Barracuda

Photo: Kavin Mistry

📝 by Patrick Williams

Change is in the water for the San Jose Barracuda.

The 2022-23 season will feature Tech CU Arena, a new home for the American Hockey League affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. A fixture behind the Barracuda bench will be missing as well with long-time head coach Roy Sommer transitioning to a newly created senior advisor role with the Barracuda after 24 seasons guiding San Jose’s AHL prospects.

But there will be some familiarity as well. John McCarthy, the organization’s long-time AHL captain, will now become the organization’s first AHL head coach since Sommer was first hired in 1998.

Introducing a new head coach is “something that we haven’t done very often,” Sharks interim general manager Joe Will wryly noted Wednesday.

The 35-year-old McCarthy takes over from Sommer after spending the past two seasons as a Barracuda development coach and concluding the 2019-20 season as an assistant coach following the end of his playing career. In 577 AHL regular-season games over 11 seasons, McCarthy had 297 points (130 goals, 167 assists) and served as an AHL captain for the organization for four seasons. During his final season in 2019-20, he won the AHL’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award in 2019-20 for sportsmanship, determination, and dedication to hockey.

“John was a natural fit for this post,” Will said.

In Sommer, McCarthy will be replacing a mentor and someone who had been guiding San Jose AHL prospects for longer than most players on the Barracuda roster have been alive. The Sharks hired Sommer to guide their first-ever AHL affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, on May 28, 1998; since then, he has sent more than 150 players to the National Hockey League. Sommer’s 1,742 games coached and 808 coaching wins each rank first all-time in AHL history. Along with his success developing prospects, Sommer also earned three trips to the AHL All-Star Classic, captured four division titles, and won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2016-17 when the Barracuda reached the Western Conference Finals.

McCarthy has his own lengthy history with the Sharks organization, having been drafted by the team in 2006 while playing at Boston University. The Sharks want McCarthy to expand his teaching with the Barracuda beyond that role as development coach. In that role, he has already built relationships with some of those young players.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of this organization,” McCarthy said. “And I think in this new role, it’s going to give me an enlarged opportunity to bring more value by developing these young prospects into NHL players.”

Will cited several prospects who will be competing for jobs with the organization at the NHL and AHL levels next season. First-round picks Ozzy Wiesblatt (2020) and William Eklund (2021) are both signed. University of Michigan forward Thomas Bordeleau had a two-game stint at the end of the regular season with the Barracuda before playing eight contests with the Sharks. Forwards Brandon Coe, Tristen Robins, and Daniil Gushchin are all eligible to turn pro with the Barracuda next season. The Sharks also signed forward Max Veronneau, who was the Swedish Hockey League’s most valuable player in 2021-22 and who spent time with Belleville and Toronto as a rookie in 2019-20.

Much of that young talent needs to be shaped and prepared for the rigors of pro hockey, however.

“He has so much poise and hockey IQ,” Will said in explaining why he believed McCarthy was the best candidate for one of only 32 AHL head-coaching jobs in the hockey world. “He’s got a lot of patience, and he’s got the knowledge to teach.

“And we can’t expect that many of our players coming in are going to know everything that it takes to become an NHL player ― that needs to be taught. John is our first point of contact for that in establishing our standards to teach this, and also to hold accountability for doing the right things once they’ve been taught. It’s everything ― not just having them ready to play in the National Hockey League, but actually getting performance out of them in the American Hockey League.”

With the Sharks in need of reinforcements this season, Will said that more help was needed for the Barracuda, who finished last in the AHL with a 20-42-4-2 record. In one of many hits to the AHL roster, the Barracuda lost captain Jaycob Megna on recall to the Sharks, and he did not play an AHL game after Dec. 31.

“We threw a lot of these young players in without a lot of the guidance of veteran players,” Will said. “That’s something John and I have talked about: how John builds out his team moving forward, his team of assistant coaches and staff members, and then those type of standard-bearing players on the ice that will be the guys that will help…that crop of good young prospects we have coming in.

“We just want to make sure that the environment is as good as it can be around them between staff and veteran players.”

John McCarthy has played for or coached with Roy Sommer since 2009. (Photo: Kavin Mistry)

Talk to AHL head coaches, and they will stress that their jobs today often are as much about interpersonal skills as the hockey side of the post. At just 35, McCarthy feels he is very much in touch with today’s player.

“I believe in communicating with the players on a daily basis,” McCarthy explained. “That old-school mentality of, ‘I’m the coach, you’re the player, you’re going to do what I say,’ it’s just non-existent anymore.

“There’s a firmness behind the communication that needs to happen every day. But I do believe players these days… They always say they want honesty. They want to know where they stand at all times, and that’s how I plan to coach.

“We’re going to have a standard: ‘This is the way we’re going to want to play, and you’re going to live up to that standard.’ And if you’re not living up to the standard, you’re going to hear about it.”

That sort of firm treatment is something that McCarthy believes still does matter. Sometimes players do not even know what they do not know as they make the difficult adjustment to the AHL standard. McCarthy will be asked to ease that transition.

“It’s not going to be avoided,” McCarthy said of holding his players accountable. “It’s going to make for hard conversations. It’s going to make for hard actions. But the whole purpose of it is that we’re looking to make you into an NHL player. So at the end of the day, that’s the goal, and the player and the coach’s goals are aligned.

“I want them to become an NHL player, and they want to become an NHL player. So, we agree on that. Now we both just need to get in sync on how we’re going to do it. And that’s the part where, come September, I think it’s going to be important to establish that standard right off the bat.”

But expect a lot of the Sommer influence to be reflected in McCarthy’s style. The two have been together since 2009, and McCarthy captained Sommer’s club for a reason as one of the most respected players in the AHL.

“He always preached, ‘You have to be able to compete every night,’” McCarthy stated. “There are always people watching you, right? There are always scouts in the stands. You have to find a way. It could be the Sunday of a three-in-three. You’ve got to find your game somehow. There are those moments where there’s every opportunity to let yourself off the hook, and he would never let anybody off the hook.

“It’s about competing.”

With a new arena opening for next season, the Barracuda have spoken recently of a team “refresh.” With a new crop of prospects on the way, they also want that shift to translate to the ice in a bid to both develop future Sharks and use winning at the AHL level as a means to fuel that growth. Calder Cup Playoff games can be some of the most valuable development time that a prospect experiences before advancing to the NHL.

“It’s not 100 percent about development of the players,” Will said. “It’s also about a winning team and culture with the Barracuda. That’s one of the things we are emphasizing here, too: winning breeds winning.”