SAN JOSE –- One of rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller’s ambitions in the preseason was to become, in his words, “meaner” around his own net and in the slot.
There was a glimpse of that midway through the second period of the Sharks’ 3-2 loss to Vancouver on Saturday.
The Sharks were holding a 2-1 lead when Mueller glided back towards his goal crease, where Antti Niemi was getting ready to routinely freeze an oncoming sliding puck. Vancouver’s Brandon McMillan charged ahead and shoved Mueller from behind just before Niemi covered up, sending the lanky defenseman awkwardly into the end boards.
Mueller retaliated right away and grabbed McMillan, earning a roughing minor. While it wasn’t an ideal time to take a penalty, it was at least a sign that the six-foot-three, 205-pounder is working towards accomplishing one of his focal points.
“I want to be involved physically, around the net,” Mueller said on Sunday. “I’ve kind of got to limit it a little bit with the penalties, but I think it’s the kind of step I’ve been taking over the course of the year. I think I’ve gotten a little more aggressive and a little stronger around the net. I think that comes with just playing games, you get used to the pace and stuff.”
Todd McLellan said: “When you look at Mirco, I thought he’s brought an energy to our team. He’s playing hard, he’s playing fast, he’s aggressive. When you play that way, you will make some mistakes, but that’s OK. Make those aggressive ones, we’ll help you with those. Don’t be passive.”
The Switzerland native, chosen 18th overall in the 2013 draft, has played in less than half of the Sharks’ games this season, posting one goal, two assists and a minus-6 rating in 32 games.
He played in 21 of the first 24, but then just three of the following 28 as he was reassigned to play in the World Juniors, dealt with a wrist injury, and was a frequent scratch once he returned and got healthy.
He admitted that hasn’t been too easy, but again, he’s still learning.
“Just mentally not knowing if you’re playing or not…I was in and out, and I think it was tough on me mentally in the beginning,” Mueller said. “You start to learn how to deal with it, and just do your best and not really let it affect you mentally and keep working hard.”
He’s made his fair share of mistakes, of course, but that’s to be expected with a 19-year-old defenseman. A healthy debate can be had as to whether Mueller should have made the Sharks out of camp or would have been better off going back to his junior club, but he has reaped some benefits from being on San Jose’s roster since opening night.
“The pace is always high in practices, and games obviously, too,” he said. “I think it makes you better just being around all those guys and seeing how they train and how they practice. I’m definitely glad how the year went. Hopefully, I get a few more games in and we make the playoffs.”
Mueller will likely stay in the lineup for now, especially with Matt Irwin unavailable with an upper body injury, and like all of the other Sharks’ first and second year players he’ll have to perform at a high level if the team is to keep its postseason hopes alive.
McLellan likes what he’s seen in the three straight games Mueller has been a part of the blue line corps, paired with Brenden Dillon.
“I think his confidence level, for having not played a lot, is actually fairly high right now,” said the coach. “He feels good about his game, and we’re seeing that.”