For Sharks, NHL expansion draft has become more about who the Seattle Kraken didn’t select

SAN JOSE — The Sharks exposed nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie to the Seattle Kraken for its expansion draft in July and ended up losing center Alexander True, who would be returning to the city where he played his junior hockey.

But for the Sharks, the expansion draft later became more about who the Kraken didn’t select.

Among the players who were exposed by Sharks general manager Doug Wilson were Jake Middleton and Nicolas Meloche and forward Matt Nieto.

Middleton has been Erik Karlsson’s defense partner all season, averaging 18:31 of ice time per game, and Meloche has shown he’s capable of playing in the NHL.

Nieto, now on the Sharks’ third line with Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano, is averaging over 14 minutes per game and is one of the team’s top penalty-killing forwards.

Those players might not be making any NHL All-Star teams anytime soon, but they have played a role in the Sharks’ 15-12-1 record.

“Obviously, you’re a player that’s exposed so you know it’s a possibility,” Nieto said of being selected by Seattle. “It’s one of those things where you don’t really think about it and whatever happens, happens. So I was really happy that I didn’t get taken and I was able to stay here.”

Middleton only played in 23 games during the 2020-2021 season, including one with the Sharks. He figured — correctly — that he would be staying put.

“I don’t think 22 games in the American League last year was a very good option for me going into an expansion draft,” Middleton said. “It was nice to see Truesy get picked up, as much as we’d love him here. But for myself personally, I had no expectations going into it.

True, who was recalled by the Kraken on Saturday from the AHL and played that night against Columbus, could be in Seattle’s lineup Tuesday when it plays the Sharks in its first visit to SAP Center.

The Sharks might have liked to keep True, who played 19 NHL games over four seasons with the organization. But San Jose was able to fill its fourth-line center role with Jasper Weatherby, who turned pro in August.

“I was worried about losing a guy like (Middleton) or (Radim Simek), guys like that,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. “It was good because True got an opportunity there within the organization. You like to see that for one of the guys that’s been around for a while. It’s a good opportunity for him.

“But (Kraken general manager Ron Francis) had a plan going in there for what holes, what positions they wanted to fill, a certain salary structure that they wanted to be at. So I was thankful that we didn’t have to worry about losing a veteran guy.”

Simek’s contract, which has two more years remaining on it at an average annual value of $2.25 million, might have scared off Francis.

Similarly, there was little chance Francis was going to take Martin Jones, the goalie the Sharks exposed who had three years left on his deal at a cap hit of $5.75 million per season. The Sharks later bought out Jones’ contract, and he went on to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers.

But all in all, much like the 2017 expansion draft when the Vegas Golden Knights took defenseman David Schlemko, the Sharks came out of the process relatively unscathed. Some of the exposed players are making regular contributions with the club, and several others are no longer with the organization.

“A lot of us had conversations, I’m sure, around the league with trying to move money or explore contracts and creative deals,” Wilson said in July after the expansion draft, “but that didn’t take place in many cases, here.”

Another player the Kraken selected was winger former Shark Joonas Donskoi, who has 13 assists in 27 games. Donskoi had 122 points in 283 regular-season games with San Jose from 2015 to 2019 before he signed a four-year contract with Colorado. He was exposed by the Avalanche to the Kraken.

The Sharks also exposed Ryan Donato, who had 20 points in 50 games last season for San Jose. Donato became an unrestricted free agent after he was not given a qualifying offer by the Sharks, and he signed a one-year deal with the Kraken in September and has 10 points in 24 games.

Off the ice, the Kraken has sold out all 15 home games so far, with Climate Pledge Arena filled to its 17,151-seat capacity.

On the ice, the Kraken (9-15-3) are acting more like an expansion team. Seattle entered Monday in eighth and last place in the Pacific Division, 18th in the 32-team NHL in average goals per game (2.85), but 30th in average goals allowed (3.59).

The Sharks entered Monday one point back of a playoff spot, partly because of the guys they were able to keep in the expansion draft this summer.

“Knock on wood,” Middleton said, “things have been good here so far.”

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