SAN JOSE, CA - San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson repeatedly has talked this offseason about his plan to rebuild the team around its younger players.
Mirco Mueller, a 19-year-old defenseman from Switzerland, heard Wilson's message loud and clear.
"When Doug Wilson says he trusts in younger players and he wants to build on our age group, that gives you a lot of motivation and confidence that you really have a shot to make the team," Mueller said during Sharks Development Camp this month.
Among all of San Jose's prospects, Mueller could have the best chance to break through and make the team out of training camp.
The Sharks traded veteran defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart. Although Brent Burns is returning to defense after spending last season as a forward, and veteran Scott Hannan re-signed, there are spots to be won on defense, and Wilson has said Mueller is among the top young candidates.
The Sharks chose Mueller with the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, moving up two spots in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings. The move cost the Sharks their first-round pick and a second-round choice, which shows how much they valued Mueller.
"He's a really solid player," said Sharks forward Matt Nieto, who also took part in development camp. "He's a really smooth player who makes all the right decisions. He's got good size on him. He's got a good defensive stick. I think he's got a really good chance of making the team out of camp. He's a really good player.
"He's got a lot of skills. He can handle the puck really well. He's got a good shot. Like they've been preaching all offseason, jobs are up for grabs. I think by his effort here at this camp he's really telling them that he wants to make this team."
Mueller had five goals and 22 assists in 60 games in his second season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. When his WHL season ended he had two assists in eight games with the Worcester Sharks of the American Hockey League.
Mueller described himself as a two-way defenseman and said he tries to pattern his game after two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
"I just try to keep the game simple and move pucks," Mueller said. "I spend as [little] time as possible in the [defensive] zone. Just get the puck into forwards' hands. Offensively just try to get pucks to the net if I can or keep it in. Just join the rush. That type of stuff.
"I think Duncan Keith is a really good role model. He's an outstanding skater. He sees the game really well. He's really someone I try to learn from."
San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic provides Mueller proof that a teenage defenseman can make the team. Vlasic was 19 in 2006 when he arrived at Sharks training camp one year after being drafted in the second round. Vlasic made the team and played 81 games as a rookie.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said a teenager earning a spot on an NHL roster is more common than when Vlasic was a rookie.
"It's a younger League now," McLellan said. "There's a lot of young players that are playing and being effective. We have to encourage that, and we are as an organization. But we also want players to be in a situation where they can grow and have some success, so [Mueller] and everybody else that may play here have to be able to maintain a standard of play that allows them to grow throughout the year."
Playing those eight games for Worcester gave Mueller a small taste of what to expect if he makes the jump to San Jose.
"It definitely wasn't an easy transition," Mueller said. "That's a really good league and there's a lot of good players. I think the biggest difference was the speed of the game. It was way faster, and guys were way more skilled and bigger. In junior from time to time there's smaller guys, but out there all the guys were the same height as me and easily 200 pounds. That was a big challenge, but I think I learned a lot and that helped me for this year."
When the season ended, Mueller went to work trying to get bigger and stronger. He said he's added 12 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame and weighs 205 pounds.
"I've been working out this summer because I knew that was going to be a big part for me to make the team, to get stronger and bigger," he said. "Just followed [Sharks strength and conditioning coordinator] Mike Potenza's tips and tricks, and the nutrition also."
McLellan said he noticed changes in Mueller on and off the ice.
"He's obviously physically more mature," McLellan said. "He's put some weight on; he's put some muscle on his body. His presence is greater now than it was last year. He obviously feels a little more comfortable around the coaches and his teammates."
Mueller has made an impression on his fellow prospects with his size and skill.
"He's a big boy," said forward Chris Tierney, a 2012 second-round pick (No. 55). "That being said, he's not one of those big guys that can't move. He's very mobile. He's always got his head up and he's making good plays and he's smart with the puck. It looks like he's got the whole package, so I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
Author: Eric Gilmore | NHL.com Correspondent