Bob Boughner had a heart-to-heart with Timo Meier in his exit interview at the end of last season and made it clear that he needed to see improvement in just about every facet of the power forward’s game.
Meier had 12 goals and 31 points in 54 games in 2020-21 — good enough to be the Sharks’ third-leading scorer in the second straight dismal season for the franchise, but nowhere near adequate for one of the team’s offensive leaders after he had scored 52 goals in the prior 148 NHL games.
Well, look at Meier now.
After his thoroughly impressive two-point performance in the Sharks’ 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, Meier has 14 points in 10 games, putting himself in the same company as a couple of the team’s all-time greats.
Per NHL Public Relations, Meier’s red-hot start through 10 games is bettered only among Sharks alumni by Owen Nolan’s 17 points in 1999-2000 and Joe Thornton’s 15 points in both 2009-10 and 2010-11.
Meier has at least one point in all but one of his 10 games this season, with the exception being a 4-0 Sharks loss to Montreal on Oct. 28. He needed 19 games to get to 14 points last season.
For Boughner, though, Meier’s offensive production is a by-product of the work he’s been doing away from the puck.
“I think he’s finally bought into the better he plays defensively, the less he’s going to be in his own end,” Boughner said. “He’s even doing some great things in the offensive zone that he wasn’t doing last year.
“Instead of throwing pucks away, he’s holding onto pucks. He’s playing heavy, using his body, and being physical. Those are all things that are going to make him successful.”
Meier was a force in the first period against the Wild.
On the game’s opening goal, Meier carried the puck into the Minnesota zone, drew two defenders toward him, including Matt Dumba. Meier then fed it to Logan Couture, who found Mario Ferraro with a backhand pass for a pretty tap-in past goalie Cam Talbot.
Meier then made it 2-0. After he again carried the puck into the Wild offensive zone and again drew a pair of Minnesota skaters toward him, he stopped and fed Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the blue line. Vlasic’s shot went off a body in front of the net, but the rebound came right to Meier, who picked up the loose change and scored his sixth of the season.
“He’s got some more urgency in his overall game,” Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson said of Meier. “He works hard away from the puck. We know he’s a good skater. He’s a big body and so far this year, he’s used that to his advantage.”
Meier got run over by Dumba just before the Sharks’ first goal, one of a few times the Wild defenseman made his presence felt. Dumba also delivered a hard hip-check on Alexander Barabanov in the second period.
Meier took the hit and had something to say to Dumba after Ferraro’s goal — but he didn’t shed light on the exchange during postgame interviews.
Meier did elaborate on his talk with Boughner at the end of last season, though.
“I’m probably the toughest guy on myself and I have high expectations for myself,” Meier said. “I knew going into the summer where I wanted to improve and what I needed to do to have success for my personal game, and obviously how to be a better player for the team.
“I think as a team, we played some good hockey and tonight was an example. I’m trying to come in every day and keep getting better.”
Meier missed five games after he was placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol on Nov. 2. The Sharks went 2-2-1 in his absence, starting with a 5-3 victory at home over Buffalo on Nov. 2, and finish their five-game road trip Thursday in St. Louis.
But the Sharks are now 6-3 in games where Meier has a point, and 4-0 when he has multiple points.
“The start is not bad, but I know I can take another step and make some better, more consistent plays and even take the next step,” Meier said. “I want to be the best player I can be for the team.”
“He’s at the point in his career,” Boughner said, “where he understands the way he has to play to have success.”
Other takeaways from Tuesday:
VLASIC’S BEST GAME: Put on notice by Boughner that his spot in the lineup was no longer a sure thing, Vlasic responded Tuesday with a vintage performance.
Paired with smooth-skating rookie Santeri Hatakka, Vlasic had an assist and was credited with two blocked shots in 14:47 of ice time. He and other players who had been in the protocol for close to two weeks looked much stronger in their second game back than they did in Saturday’s 6-2 loss to Colorado.
“I thought that was (Vlasic’s) best game of the year,” Boughner said. “I thought he had great stick, was blocking some shots, playing hard defense. I thought Hatakka came in and was a good complement there.”
Hatakka played in place of Radim Simek, who was a healthy scratch for the first time this season and will probably be a spectator again Thursday.
Boughner said Monday and reiterated Tuesday morning that he needed more urgency from Vlasic and Simek on the third defense pair. Simek was the one who sat out, but Boughner said Tuesday morning it could have easily been Vlasic.
Couture thought the Vlasic-Hatakka pair played well, adding that, “they’re at their best when you don’t notice them on the ice, and I say that in a good way. I thought they defended hard, blocked shots and moved the puck well.”
IS IT REIMER’S NET?: James Reimer was solid against the Wild with 26 saves and one has to wonder if Boughner will stay with him for Thursday’s game with the Blues. Reimer is 4-2-1 this season with a .943 save percentage (tied for No. 1 in the NHL) and a 1.71 goals-against average (second-best).