San Jose Sharks prospects participated in the rookie faceoff tournament in Arizona. This is becoming a yearly tradition with Western Conference teams participating, and this year, that included the Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights, and Los Angeles Kings. There were only three games apiece, so the Sharks only played the Ducks, Golden Knights, and Avalanche.
Nearly all of the Sharks’ top prospects were at this event, with notable exceptions of those away at college in the NCAA like Thomas Bordeleau, Alex Young, and Magnus Chrona, all of whom participated in development camp held a few weeks ago. There were also a few notable names who were not at the development camp, but did take part in the rookie faceoff tournament, like Santeri Hatakka, Tristen Robins, and Timur Ibragimov. Here are my 10 takeaways from this tournament.
1 – William Eklund Really Is That Good
There was a lot of hype and excitement surrounding the Sharks drafting William Eklund at 7th overall in the 2021 Draft. We saw him for the first time in a Sharks uniform at development camp and scrimmage. He looked good in that scrimmage, and it’s no surprise that he looked good again in this tournament. Besides just saying that he looked good, I thought I’d try and dissect exactly what makes Eklund so good and why many of us are so excited about him.
Eklund thinks the game at such a high level that hockey sense allows all of his other skills to shine through. Seeing the play two to three steps ahead of everyone else allows him to be confident with the puck and try things that maybe other players won’t or pull them off with a greater success rate. He is also an excellent skater, which allows him to move nearly as fast as he thinks the game. On one particular play, he entered the offensive zone and saw the left defender cheat to the middle, so he spun 360 degrees to the outside and had a shot on goal from within 10 feet. On another play, he was in the high slot and with excellent edgework. He pivoted right around his defender for a bad angle chance at the goalmouth.
Later in the period, the opposite happened, where Eklund saw too wide of a gap between defenders and split them after taking an entry pass from Adam Raska. Unfortunately, neither of those plays led to a goal, but it’s the ability to create those chances that really matter right now. Another tremendously underrated aspect of Eklund’s game is his passing. He can make the perfect pass, whether it is six feet or 60. He will land it in stride so that his teammate doesn’t need to break his stride.
One knock against Eklund is his slight build, so it was nice to see him beating opponents on the wall. Especially since these are his first few games on the smaller North American ice. Eklund will never be able to use his size to his advantage like those much bigger than he, but I only saw one instance in three games where he got easily rubbed out against the boards. His speed and smarts usually allow him to take higher percentage routes to the puck and avoid lanes where he will too easily get rubbed out. He was also able to separate players from the puck on more than one occasion.
Young offensive players often struggle to make the NHL as they just don’t do enough early enough to warrant their roster spot. This is another situation where Eklund is different. He backchecks with tenacity, but not in a reckless fashion. He creates turnovers in the neutral zone, which helps the team generate offense and stay out of their zone. On one particular play on the penalty kill, he was filling in for one of the defenders and skated backward effortlessly and forced a dump-in that was retrieved for an easy zone exit. There is a legitimate chance Eklund makes the Sharks out of training camp this season. That will be a fun storyline to follow.
2 – Merkley’s Future Is Still Murky
Ryan Merkley remains one of the most offensively talented prospects the Sharks have. In these games, he reinforced that idea in spades. He was a staple on the top power play unit, and he was dynamic. He used his feet to create lanes for him to either pass or shoot the puck. He found teammates for one-timers and near open nets. He probably could have had 20 assists in the three games had most of those chances been converted.
On the other hand, he was a turnover machine. Yes, it’s true that offensively creative players tend to turn the puck over more. Per Evolving Hockey, Jack Hughes, Leon Draisaitl, and Mitch Marner were forwards with the most giveaways in the league in 2021-22. Thomas Chabot, Jeff Petry, and Morgan Rielly were the defenders with the most giveaways. I doubt you could find many experts who would call any of those players bad, though they do play with risk.
What makes Merkley’s turnovers so hard to watch is that many of them are of the egregious variety in that they led directly to odd-man rushes. One could say he is creative on the offensive blue line, while others could characterize it as dangerous. Will the Sharks welcome such risk when they already have at least six competent defenders and two in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns who already play a similarly risky game? I doubt it.
Then there is Merkley’s defensive game. In the development scrimmage and the first game against the Ducks, he was not good defensively. I hesitate to call him bad against the Ducks as the whole team was not good, and it looked like he was just trying to generate any amount of offense, as no one else was doing much. On the other hand, he was part of the reason the Ducks scored eight goals in that game. Though against the Golden Knights and Avalanche, he was much better.
Merkley will never be revered for his defense, but it was refreshing to see him breaking up zone entries and actually be the one defender back on the two-on-one. For most of the tournament, he was the one turning the puck over, and his partner was defending the two-on-one. As the tournament went on, he took fewer low percentage risks, used his teammates better, and was all-around much, much better in all three zones. I can’t wait to see how he does at training camp against NHL players.
3 – Haute Hatakka
One of the players I was most excited to see in this tournament was Santeri Hatakka. He was not able to make it to development camp due to visa issues. The now 20-year-old played the entire 2020-21 season professionally in Finland. While he might not be the most offensively gifted defender, playing the entire season in a tough league against men suggests he’s one of the most NHL-ready prospects the Sharks have.
It was a bit surprising seeing him get power play minutes over Artemi Kniazev, though Kniazev did get time too. Hatakka was arguably the best player in all three zones, certainly the best all-around defender for the Sharks. His skating is so smooth and effortless. He never got beat, was never out of position; he practically played just about every situation perfectly. Unlike Merkley, he didn’t try to do too much. He did what was within his skillset, and he did it very well. There is something to be said for that.
Watching Hatakka skate around with number 61 on his back makes it hard not to think about Justin Braun. Both were late-round picks who were slightly undersized but were great skaters and had great hockey sense. Braun was a seventh-round choice in 2007, 201st overall. Hatakka was a sixth-round pick in 2019, 184th overall, the same year they selected Kniazev in the second round. I imagine Hatakka could follow a similar path to the NHL as Braun and who knows, maybe he too will someday be a top pairing, shutdown defender like Braun was with Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
4 – Weatherby and Reedy Are Ready
One of the biggest problems for the Sharks is the lack of depth down the middle. Acquiring top-end centers is really difficult to do, and the Sharks have two good ones in Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture. Beyond that, though, there really aren’t great options. Dylan Gambrell really struggled to take a step forward last season, and there really weren’t any other options, which forced Patrick Marleau to play center.
Jasper Weatherby played so well at development camp that the Sharks signed him to his entry-level contract about a week afterward. He will forgo his final season at the University of North Dakota to play in the AHL. Weatherby is a large man at 6-foot-4 and uses his size very well to protect the puck and create space for his teammates. Weatherby saw some top unit power play time during this tournament as his role was mainly to win faceoffs and stand in front of the net. He did have a very nice tip-in goal on a Ryan Merkley shot and showed off his extensive reach with a nice backhand tally.
Scott Reedy completed his fourth season at the University of Minnesota last season, putting up a point per game. He got in 17 games for the Barracuda after that, so he already has some professional experience. Reedy is two inches shorter than Weatherby but still has good size, though he doesn’t use it quite as effectively as Weatherby. On the other hand, Reedy has more speed and is able to create offensive with his feet more so than Weatherby. Reedy had a good shot that he can get off fairly quickly.
Both Reedy and Weatherby should compete for a roster spot on the Sharks this season, though it’s possible that both end up on the Barracuda. Gambrell is certainly no lock to hold down that fourth center spot, especially with his lackluster play last season. If I had to guess, I’d say Weatherby has the edge. The Sharks could really use his size and grit. The team was noticeably worse in their final game against the Avalanche prospects where Weatherby did not play.
5 – Gaudreau Is Now the Best Goalie Prospect
Zachary Emond really struggled in his last two QMJHL seasons. This is a big transition for Emond going from junior to professional hockey, as he will be competing for ice time on the Barracuda. He did not look great in this tournament. He seemed to overplay his angles at times and was beaten more than once on an open look wrist shot. Once one of their best goalie prospects, he is much further down the list now.
Benjamin Gaudreau, on the other hand, looked really good. The Sharks just drafted him in 2021 in the third round, 83rd overall. Gaudreau didn’t play last season since the OHL didn’t get going, which is why he was available so late for the Sharks. He was great at the U18 World Championship, winning goaltender of the tournament, so it was exciting to see what he could do in this setting with a less than stellar team in front of him.
Gaudreau was impressive. He was calm and almost always on his angles. He saw the puck well, except for one screened (possibly tipped) shot that beat him from the point. He moved and scrambled well when he needed to. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Sharks looked the best in the game Gaudreau played in its entirety. Gaudreau will be back in the OHL this season and likely one more after that, as he won’t be eligible for the AHL until the 2023-24 season. Even though he is further away from the NHL, the excitement for what Gaudreau can do when he arrives seems pretty justified for me. He has the best starter potential of anyone in the system except maybe Melnichuk.
6 – Wiesblatt Takes a Big Step
When the Sharks selected Ozzy Wiesblatt with their first-round pick in 2020, I wasn’t super happy about that pick at the time. I thought that there were more skilled players on the board and that he was a bit of a safe selection. Wiesblatt has shown a strong all-around game since his draft season. His WHL campaign was abbreviated due to COVID-19, but he looked like he got better with every Barracuda game he played, and he certainly looked like he belonged at that level.
At this tournament, Wiesblatt was a force. He caused several turnovers with his relentless forecheck, his stick position, and his skating. He also showed that he does have offensive creativity, generating his fair share of offense. It shows how much the Sharks think of him, as he was a mainstay on the top line and top power play alongside Eklund. Due to his birthdate, Wiesblatt is not eligible for the AHL this season, but he trained all offseason with the goal of making the Sharks. He seems like a long shot, but there is no doubt he is determined, and there hasn’t been much he hasn’t been able to achieve yet.
7 – Raska Is a Real Pain
Adam Raska is going to be a player Sharks fans will grow to love. They will certainly be much happier with him in teal than any other jersey. He’s the kind of player that is very difficult to play against. Raska rarely passes up a hit, and many of the collisions he creates can catch players off guard. He’s only 5-foot-10, so he’s not a large player by any means, but he uses his size very effectively and is tenacious.
Aside from the truculence he provides, Raska has some offense to give. At least, that’s what Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer thinks, who was the bench boss for this tournament. He lined Raska up in the bumper spot on the power play, and he had multiple one-timers. He didn’t convert on any of them, but giving him that role is an interesting development. I suppose his fearless nature and inability for opponents to push him around gives him an edge there.
The edge is exactly where Raska needs to play and not over it. He did that very well in this tournament, and he’s another player who could make the roster with a strong showing at training camp. The most likely outcome is that Raska will play this season for the Barracuda. He’s another Sharks prospect who has an outside chance of making the Olympic team.
8 – Kniazev Slight Step Back
Artemi Kniazev looked so dominant at the development camp scrimmage. It’s not that he looked bad in this tournament, but comparatively, he didn’t stand out much. Part of the reason is that his role was a bit reduced, as he was behind both Merkley and Hatakka in this tournament and neither previously.
The offense wasn’t there with Merkley getting top power play and Hatakka and Kniazev splitting second unit duties, but the strong defensive play was. He showed off his excellent skating and proper positioning on nearly every shift. This will be a big transition year for Kniazev, who should play primarily for the Barracuda after three seasons in the QMJHL and a cup of coffee in the MHL and VHL. He’s still one of their top defensive prospects, though it does seem like Hatakka has passed him.
9 – Robins Shows Up
Due to visa issues, Tristen Robins didn’t get to attend development camp. But he certainly came to play in this tournament. One surprise is that Robins played a lot of center, despite playing mostly right wing in his draft season. I think the Sharks would love to see if he can resume his natural position at center since they are relatively thin down the middle.
Robins showed great skill when he was out there. He enters and exits the zone with relative ease and is likely only second to Eklund and Wiesblatt in those departments. He was able to beat a defender one-on-one for a great scoring chance. He got a fair amount of power play time but generally was not with the top unit. In his more limited ice time, he showed some strong skills, including a really nice pass to Brandon Coe, who just missed converting. Due to Robins’ earlier birthdate, he is eligible for the AHL, and I expect him to compete for time there, perhaps making a cameo on the Sharks but most likely competing for a spot on the team in 2022-23.
10 – Invites Show Some Skill
There were a few players in this tournament who were not drafted by the team, do not have a contract with the Sharks, but earned an invitation to the 2021 Rookie Faceoff Tournament. Montana Onyebuchi, Jeremie Biakabutuka, Kyle Topping, Cole Moberg, Nick Cicek, Vladislav Kotkov, Krystof Hrabik, and MacAuley Carson. Most of these players will never play a substantial role on the Sharks, but a couple of them did stand out a bit.
Onyebuchi has great size and is a right-shot defenseman; that combination is something of a commodity in the NHL these days. Not only that, but he can skate fairly well and is positionally sound. He’s not going to have tremendous offensive numbers, but if anyone is going to be the next Nicolai Knyzhov, I’m betting on Onyebuchi. Even though he is more of a shutdown defensive type, he has a good shot and even got a goal in this tournament.
Kyle Topping is another name to remember. He was most noticeable in the final game of the tournament with a goal and a shorthanded assist. He was named alternate captain of the game, clearly a vote of confidence from the coaching staff. The 21-year-old Topping spent most of last season in the ECHL. He will compete for ice time on the Barracuda, and if he continues to develop, he may carve out a bottom-six role in the NHL someday.
Final Thoughts on Sharks at Rookie Faceoff Tournament
Even though this was a three-game tournament, it is still a small sample size. We can’t read too much into any one thing that happened, though certainly some prospect’s stock rose and some fell. It’s safe to say that Gaudreau and Hatakka saw their stock rise the most, and perhaps Kniazev’s fell the most. Weatherby continues to show the Sharks made the right decision in signing him to his entry-level contract. The biggest takeaway for me is that the depth of the Sharks development system has dramatically improved in the last few years, and that should translate to the Sharks winning more games in the next few years.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife. Follow me @VictorNuno12