Rink Notes: Barracuda’s Sommer Backs Mueller in Wake of Sharks Reassignment
SAN JOSE — Using the word, “rollercoaster” to describe the first two-and-a-half seasons of defenseman Mirco Mueller’s professional hockey career might be an understatement.
After splashing into the NHL as a 19-year-old rookie with the Sharks in 2014-15, Mueller’s development took as step backward last season as he was reassigned to the AHL Barracuda, and eventually, relegated to the team’s third pairing after struggling throughout the first half of the season.
But Mueller’s back on the upswing this year, playing key minutes on the Barracuda’s blue line, which earned him a recall to the Sharks on Jan. 2.
When Mueller returned to the Barracuda on Jan. 13, though, he struggled throughout the team’s bout with the Milwaukee Admirals, turning pucks over, losing battles and generally appearing disengaged.
The blue liner’s performance raised questions about his mental toughness and whether his reassignment after a brief, five-game stint with the Sharks undermined the confidence he’d developed over the first three-and-a-half months of the season.
But Mueller dismissed those concerns on Saturday, flashing the speed, skill and physicality that put him in line for a recall to the NHL on Jan. 2.
Although Muller appeared to be deflated after his return to the Barracuda last weekend, head coach Roy Sommer’s confidence in the 21-year-old defenseman didn’t waver. The post-reassignment lull is something he’s seen over and over and over again during his 19 seasons behind the Sharks AHL franchise’s bench.
“That happens,” Sommer said. “It’s hard. It’s human nature. But he’s already back in the swings of things.”
Road Warriors: After compiling an 11-4-1 record during a stretch of games in which they played 14 of 16 at home, the Barracuda (19-9-4) will try to keep the momentum going on the road.
Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Barracuda will play all seven of their games on the road, making stops in San Diego (Friday), Ontario (Saturday), Stockton (Wednesday), Grand Rapids (Jan. 27), Milwaukee (Jan. 28) and Winnipeg (Feb. 3 and Feb. 4). They’ll return home for practice after each weekend trip.
The Barracuda are 13-4-2 at home this season and 6-5-2 away from the SAP Center, but the team played most of its road games early in the season when its young roster was still gelling.
“We try to bring the same game every night, there’s no home games or road games to us,” goalie Troy Grosenick said. “It’s just a different rink, we’re still going to play the same game. This team, more than any other team I’ve been on since I’ve been here, if we stick to our game, we’re going to be fine.”
“We’re taking a flight and playing a game in a different rink, that’s the only difference.”
Captain John McCarthy said the trip will be a “good test” for the young team. Although the Barracuda have acquitted themselves well on the road so far, he said the travel during the dog days of winter presents its own set of challenges.
“Those games were at the beginning of the year when everyone’s excited,” he said. “This is the stretch of the season where the excitement of being here is over and the playoffs aren’t anywhere in sight yet. But if we can get some points, when the stretch run comes around, those points will already be in the bank, no one can touch them.”
“This is a huge part of the schedule for us.”
‘Stirring the Soup’: Approaching the season’s midway point, Sommer is getting used to stirring the soup.
After 19 years in the AHL, Sommer knows that part of his job is juggling a roster that’s constantly in flux. With injuries and internal competition for jobs, players are always moving up and down between the NHL, AHL and the ECHL.
But with the team now playing in the same town as the organization’s parent club, the movement between in the Sharks and the Barracuda is on steroids this season, which presents challenges in practice.
As the Barracuda prepare for weekend clashes with the San Diego Gulls and Ontario Reign, they’re practicing without Ryan Carpenter, Barclay Goodrow and Tim Heed, who were recalled to the Sharks with forwards Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi battling day-to-day ailments and defenseman Dylan DeMelo sidelined by a wrist injury.
How does a coach set his lines, prep the special teams and decide on matchups when he doesn’t know who will be on his roster on any given day?
“It keeps everyone on their toes. Hey, keep your phone on,” Sommer said. “You’re always stirring the soup.”