The San Jose Sharks’ top prospects engaged in a scrimmage on Aug. 19, 2021. The team was unable to hold development camp in 2020 so for some young players, this is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to play in a Sharks’ uniform. The players were split into two teams, Team Marchment and Team Ricci, named for the coaches for the scrimmage. Of note, absent were Tristen Robins, Santeri Hatakka, Ivan Chekhovich, and Jonathan Dahlen; all of whom hoped to be at training camp, but had visa issues.
Obviously, 2021 seventh-overall pick William Eklund was a primary focus, but 2020 draftees Thomas Bordeleau and Ozzy Wiesblatt garnered a fair amount of attention as well. Don’t forget to check out where the prospects rank in the most up-to-date Sharks prospect pyramid. So, who stood out? Who looked good and who seemed to struggle?
1. Eklund & Bordeleau Shine
Two of the top prospects in the Sharks’ pipeline looked really good on the line together. William Eklund scored the opening goal of the scrimmage on a great play from defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk who passed it to Thomas Bordeleau who then tapped it over to Eklund. In addition to scoring, he showed great creativity with the puck and rarely made a bad decision with it. Eklund has said he wants to make the Sharks this season and his strong performance in this scrimmage makes me think he has a strong case to do so.
Bordeleau has come a long way since being drafted in 2020. He looked much stronger on the puck. He won several battles against bigger opponents. His creativity in the bumper spot on the power play was like nothing we have seen from a Sharks player. There is still refinement he needs to his game and that should happen with one more season at Michigan, but I would expect him to join the Sharks in the spring once the NCAA season concludes.
If you tuned into this game with the sole purpose of seeing if the hype about Eklund was for real, you didn’t need to wait long for that to be confirmed. Not only did he score the goal, but also had a breathtaking spin-o-rama pass from the corner to the slot precisely on the stick of Brandon Coe who hammered the puck on net. Unfortunately, Alexei Melnichuk made the save, but it was a glimpse into the vision and skill Eklund possesses. The prospect of Eklund and Bordeleau playing together for the Sharks in the near future should get any Sharks fan excited.
2. Great Gushchin
Daniil Gushchin was a third-round pick by the Sharks in 2020. The undersized winger was supposed to play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), but when it didn’t get started, he went back to the United States Hockey League (USHL) to play for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, where he had played during his draft season. Based purely on hands and pucks skills, Gushchin would have been a first-round pick, but the fact that he is on the smaller size, he fell all the way to 76th overall. Now 5-foot-10, he is still undersized, but not as small as when they drafted him.
Gushchin is from the same hometown — Yekaterinburg, Russia — as Pavel Datsyuk. Datsyuk is just one inch taller than Gushchin, and while I doubt Gushchin ever becomes the player Datsyuk was, he has some fantastic puck skills. Datsyuk was known for being spectacular at shootouts and Gushchin is making a name for himself after a jaw dropping move at this scrimmage. I’d probably still give the edge to Datsyuk based on how bad he made the goalie look, but Gushchin’s move is arguably more skillful.
Not only did Gushchin have that fantastic shootout goal, but he was very noticeable during the game. Despite his size, he shielded the puck well against bigger opponents. He was able to maintain possession in the offensive zone, extending play. It was his hard work that directly led to the second goal by Adam Raska.
According to Sheng Peng at San Jose Hockey Now, Gushchin hopes to play in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. His performance at the development scrimmage was a strong step in that direction. I guess the most likely outcome is he plays for Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), but since he has yet to play in the OHL, he won’t be bound by the CHL-NHL agreement and can play in the AHL even though he is not yet 20 years old.
3. The Goalies
Each goalie that suited up for the scrimmage played one period. Team Marchment started with Zachary Sawchenko in the first, followed by Pierce Charleson in the second, and Magnus Chrona in the third. Team Ricci led off with Melnichuk, followed by Benjamin Gaudreau, and lastly Zachary Emond.
Melnichuk had some fantastic scrambles, including a sequence of several point-blank saves after he’d lost his stick. Overall, though, he seems a bit too active in the net and needs to be a bit more precise and measured in his movements when a scramble is not needed. Gaudreau is probably the goalie who stood out the most in that he made every save necessary. He also made several saves that were quite difficult look easy, the mark of a truly great goalie. It’s too early to proclaim any of these goalies great, but Gaudreau is building a case.
Emond has been trending down in his performance in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) since the season after he was drafted in the sixth round. His play in the scrimmage was just one period, but it was a step in the right direction. He made some very good saves in the shootout and hopefully that will build his confidence. Chrona is one of the newest members of the Sharks’ system and it’s fair to say he had about the toughest time during the scrimmage. Team Ricci was really taking it to Team Marchment at the time Chrona was in there, so he wasn’t getting the best support.
4. Player of the Game
No question, the standout of this scrimmage was Artemi Kniazev (also spelled Knyazev). The Sharks’ second-round pick from 2019, 48th overall has progressed nicely over the years. This year he was fantastic for Chicoutimi during their push for a QMJHL championship. It didn’t materialize, but he did all he could with nine points in nine playoff games. The 20-year-old should compete for a spot on the San Jose Barracuda this season and after a taste of professional hockey this season in the KHL — I imagine he will do quite well.
He was all over the ice in this scrimmage jumping into the play, making cross-ice passes, and hammering shots from the point. More than just the velocity of the point shot, he was adept at getting shots on net, even when under pressure, which led to several scoring chances and two goals. In his own zone, he made slick escape moves and skated the puck out of danger with ease. I hope for the sake of the Sharks’ announcers that Kniazev doesn’t eventually get paired with fellow Russian Nicolai Knyzhov. That would be a tongue twister.
5. Ozzy the Thief
Sharks 2020 first-round draft pick (30th overall) Ozzy Wiesblatt was extremely noticeable in this game, particularly in the first period. Halfway through the initial frame he already had three takeaways that directly led to scoring chances. He wasn’t able to convert on any of them, but he seemed to shift the direction of the game after Team Marchment was able to grab the early lead. In addition to stealing pucks from opponents, Wiesblatt transitioned the puck extremely well and was able to generate offense from the rush.
Wiesblatt has stated that his goal is to make the Sharks out of camp this year. This is a positive first step for him as well as a great performance during camp. He stayed in the bay area after his time in the AHL, utilizing the resources the Sharks afforded him to train and get stronger. If he doesn’t make the team, he may have to go back to the Western Hockey League (WHL) as he won’t be 20 years old until March 9, 2022. He didn’t reach the minimum of 20 AHL games to qualify for an exemption to play regardless of age.
6. Gordie Howe Hat Trick Alert
One of the less heralded participants in the scrimmage was Montana Onyebuchi. The undrafted, 6-foot-3, right-handed defender was signed to a tryout contract with the Barracuda in May. Seems like he will be competing for a roster spot on the Barracuda. Getting a Gordie Howe hat trick is a good way to draw attention to yourself. The rangy defender looked good in his own end and when his teammate Gavin White took a hard, high hit from MacAuley Carson, he took care of business.
Oneybuchi certainly got the best of Carson during the fight, though the two seemed friendly as they left the ice toward the end of the period. Onyebuchi showed a bit of offensive flare too as he jumped into the play and took a perfect pass from Wiesblatt and deposited the puck in the back of the net. Tough, physical, right-handed defenders can be hard to find. Especially those who can jump in the play and contribute offensively. I am eager to see if Onyebuchi can display similar contributions for the Barracuda this season. I wonder if he can do what Knyzhov did two years ago when he was a standout at development camp and earned his way into a top-four role on the Sharks.
7. London Connection
Max McCue and Liam Gilmartin, who were both drafted by the Sharks in 2021, in rounds five and six, played together on Team Ricci and will be playing together for the London Knights of the OHL. McCue did not play this season due to the OHL not playing games, but Gilmartin played for the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) scoring 50 points in 73 games. Gilmartin also represented the Americans at the U-18 World Junior Championship and put up one assist in five games.
8. Major Merkley Disappointment
Ryan Merkley has been no stranger to headlines since being drafted by the Sharks 21st overall in 2018. As one of the oldest prospects in this game, you’d expect him to be amongst the best. That could not have been further from the truth. Not only was Merkley soft in his own zone allowing just about every other player to get body position on him for the puck, but he didn’t generate much offense either.
On multiple occasions, Merkley tried to skate through the entire opposition to score. He lost it at least three times in the neutral zone, causing a break for the other team toward his net. On the rare occasion he and his team had the puck in the offensive zone with control, he would try to walk past defenders near the point instead of making a cross-seam pass.
It wasn’t all bad — the power play with Merkley, Sasha Chmelevski, Eklund, Bordeleau, and Coe was scary. They controlled the puck nearly the entire time and got several quality chances. They also were adept at puck retrieval and zone entries. Though there was some good, I would expect Merkley to play well with all players, not just the best of the prospects. The best players make everyone around them better, which was definitely not the case with him in this scrimmage. He is hoping to crack the Sharks’ lineup in 2021-22, but nothing I saw in this scrimmage indicates he is ready, save for the power-play time.
9. Raska is Going to Raska
Raska is quickly gaining a reputation and it isn’t a good one. Known as a physical player, he has also crossed the line more than once both in international play for his native Czech Republic and for Rimouski of the QMJHL. In this scrimmage, he kneed Merkley on a completely avoidable play. It seemed obvious that he stuck his knee out to clip the defender. Not sure taking out one of the organization’s top defensive prospects is going to raise your stock much.
On the other hand, Raska was dogged on the forecheck and created time and space for his teammates. He was able to score two goals, though one was due to the hard work of Gushchin. Raska should compete for a spot with the Barracuda and he may make it if for no other reason that his unique style is something coaches generally want on their team. He is a pain to play against, and as long as he isn’t kneeing your players and your team can kill off the occasional penalty, he may be worth the risk.
10. Other Observations
Chmelevski, who tasted NHL action in 2020-21, looked like clearly one of the better players. His work on the half wall during the power play may be foreshadowing to an NHL role. There is still a ways to go, but it was a reassuring performance. John Leonard was another prospect who had NHL experience in 2020-21. He didn’t stand out as much as some of the other players listed above. He was good at times, but largely invisible at others, much like his time in the NHL. It sure seems like he needs a full AHL season to really pump up his confidence and regain his scoring touch.
Jasper Weatherby was the third piece on the line with Wiesblatt and Leonard, and the North Dakota alternate captain did not look out of place at all. He made some nice passes and was an excellent complementary piece. He should get some time playing professional hockey after his North Dakota season ends. Gannon Laroque was selected in the fourth round in 2021 by the Sharks. The 6-foot-2 Edmonton, Alberta-native is a strong-skating, physical defender. On more than one occasion he stopped Eklund from making a fancy play and got around him. He used his size to his advantage and made several great outlet passes to spark transition out of the zone.
Coe was not an insignificant part of the Eklund-Bordeleau-Coe line. He used his big body effectively to win board battles and protect the puck when necessary. He found soft spots in the ice to unleash his powerful shot. Since he played the majority of the 2020-21 season in the AHL, he should be back with the Barracuda for the 2021-22 season.
We have to keep in mind this was one scrimmage and even though it felt like a game at times, the goal was not necessarily for either team to win. The coaches and Sharks management wanted to see certain aspects of the players and see how they reacted to certain situations. It is just one point in time in the evaluation and development process. Even though we can’t overrate the importance of the positive performances, we must also give some slack to the poor performances. What each of these players do at training camp and during the season will be much more telling. That being said, the future of the Sharks appears to have a light at the end of the tunnel.
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