Rookies taking on large roles straight out of training camp can be a slippery slope. On one hand, seeing the future stars of an organization already warrant large minutes can reinvigorate a fan base. On the other, watching rookies struggle when playing better opposition will lose the confidence of a team’s supporters.
For example, John Leonard had a two-point night in his NHL debut when he slotted alongside Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. Eventually, when the team played more fierce competition, he was not able to maintain that role. Leonard has bounced around the bottom-six and AHL the last two seasons, despite winning a large role early in 2020-21.
However, sometimes youngsters winning large roles can go incredibly well. Jonathan Dahlen’s transition to the NHL has been pivotal to the team’s success, potting eight goals and 14 points in his first 27 games. Mario Ferraro in his second and third seasons has been excellent on the first pairing alongside veteran Brent Burns.
There is always going to be mixed results surrounding skaters making the NHL at such young ages. In 2022-23, I anticipate a massive surge in Sharks youngsters to break into the league. Success in the recent NHL Drafts will see young talent on rookie contracts burst onto the scene in short order.
Eklund’s Large Role
William Eklund will return to the team’s top-six next season. After his four points, primarily on the man-advantage, in nine NHL games were not enough to stay in North America, the Swede was sent back to his country to play large minutes with Djurgardens IF and the Swedish U20 National Team.
Unfortunately, Eklund’s return has not gone to plan. In the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Eklund has been held to five assists in nine games. However, that minimal offense is probably expected on the SHL’s worst club. At 7-20-3, Djurgardens IF looks likely to be relegated.
At the World Junior Championships, Eklund looked primed for a breakout. He centered the top line and played a pivotal role on the top power-play unit that featured fellow seventh-overall pick, Alexander Holtz. After three power-play assists in two games, Sweden’s tournament came to an end after the IIHF halted the competition due to COVID-19 concerns.
This is especially devastating to Eklund, who was forced out of last year’s World Junior Championships due to contracting COVID-19.
Despite the underwhelming point-production, including no goals scored on the year in any competitive matches, the Sharks should not worry about the Swedish youngster. NHL Central Scouting’s top European skater of the 2021 NHL Draft will return to his top-six and first-unit power-play role next year in San Jose. Paired with a strong goal scorer like Hertl or Timo Meier, Eklund could be a dominant force next season.
Young Defense Core
Next season, I would not be shocked to see one or both of Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic bounced from the starting lineup. While that will have a poor perception given their current contract lengths, it will be largely in part to youngsters warranting NHL minutes.
The club already has Ferraro and Jacob Middleton as the left-handed defenseman in the team’s top-four defense group. Currently out with injury, Nikolai Knyzhov will also return to the Sharks’ roster in the next couple of months after an impressive 2020-21 rookie season pairing with Erik Karlsson.
Next year, both Santeri Hatakka and Ryan Merkley should be primed to take on NHL roles. Both currently play on the San Jose Barracuda, but saw NHL time during the team’s first COVID-19 outbreak in late October.
Hatakka, a Finnish 2019 sixth-round pick has transformed into a dynamic two-way defenseman. He started 2021-22 as the team’s seventh defenseman. At 20 years old, he will continue to grow into a minute-eating defenseman.
In his seven NHL games, he was deployed in a similar role to Middleton’s usage this year, with about 12% of shifts beginning in the defensive zone. He was a narrowly negative impact on shot-attempts (Corsi%) and scoring chances, which was expected for his NHL debut and transition to North America
Merkley saw six games of NHL action, which were highly anticipated given his high selection in the 2018 NHL Draft. The 21st-overall pick had a goal to show in his six games, in a pretty sheltered role alongside his usual Barracuda defense-partner, Jaycob Megna.
He had a defiantly negative defensive impact in those games. However, defensive play is not why Merkley was drafted in the first round. This year on the Barracuda he’s tied for second on the team in points, with a goal and 16 assists in 21 games. After he struggled offensively last year, he’s putting up the points one would expect from his great junior career.
Also soon to push for NHL time is Artemi Kniazev. The 2019 second-round pick is facing similar offensive struggles that Merkley endured in his first professional season. The Russian left-handed defenseman plays third pairing AHL minutes and struggles to add offensively with limited power-play time.
With Ferraro, Middleton, Knyzhov, Hatakka, and Merkley, I would anticipate the 2022-23 Sharks’ defense feature four-of-six defensemen age-26 or younger. Especially, the Sharks will need this as Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek age.
Forward Depth Gains Massive Boost
The largest story for me exiting the Sharks’ 2020 NHL Draft was the Sharks’ doubling down on their future-forward core. All nine selections were used on forwards as Doug Wilson Jr. created a stable of offensively gifted wingers for the club’s future.
The most notable, Thomas Bordeleau, will in all-likelihood turn professional after this season. While his 2021-22 point totals have been less impressive, he’s still producing over a point-per-game at the collegiate level. As Michigan’s second-line center, he’s still on the first power-play unit and is fifth in points on his team’s loaded roster. Especially if Hertl is not part of San Jose’s future, expect Bordeleau to make an NHL impact sooner than later as a center.
Ozzy Wiesblatt, selected seven spots before Bordeleau, has been struggling on a poorly performing Prince Albert Raiders. In the Western Hockey League (WHL) the speedy and physical winger leads his team with 23 points in 26 games. I would anticipate he begins next year in the AHL but slot into the Sharks’ middle-six at some point next year.
If the Sharks gave out a “Most Improved Prospect” award, Brandon Coe would easily win the title. After playing in the AHL last year in absence of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), he’s returned to the junior ranks in dominant fashion. The 6-foot-5 winger is tied for league-lead in scoring with 52 points. He looks primed to make his presence felt in professional hockey next season as he’s the most recent prospect to sign his entry-level contract.
In the WHL, Tristen Robins has continued his offensive success he showed in his injury-riddled 2020-21 season. With 12 goals and 34 points in 28 games, he’s shown continued success as a center at the junior level. He’ll likely transition to winger at the next level.
Daniil Gushchin, who was thought to possibly join the Barracuda this season, has gone to the OHL on a goal-scoring mission. With 17 goals and 29 points in 22 games, he leads the North Bay Battalion in both categories. As an undersized forward, his path to the NHL could be trickier but looks promising.
All these young forwards, besides Bordeleau, have signed entry-level contracts and can join the Barracuda at the conclusion of their junior seasons.
They would join fellow 2020 draft pick Adam Raska, who has come along recently in the AHL. Still, with only five points in 19 games, his speedy, pesky, and imposing playstyle has only just started appearing in AHL games. The Czech winger was one of the last skaters sent to the Barracuda during this year’s training camp, almost winning an NHL fourth-line role.
All these forwards, in addition to already debuted youngsters such as Scott Reedy and Leonard, will be competing for roster spots next season.
Young Talent Makes for Cheap Rosters
There’s no hiding it– the Sharks will be pressed against the salary cap for years to come. To put it in perspective, the 2025 offseason will be the free agency period when the team will have to extend Eklund, Bordeleau, or Wiesblatt should they play in 10 games in 2022-23. The organization is still on the hook to pay Vlasic, Karlsson, and Logan Couture a combined $26.5-million for the ensuing 2025-26 season.
One of the best ways to build a quality roster is by having cheap talent in the form of rookie contracts. The Sharks are currently blessed with having Dahlen, Middleton, and Ferraro costing a combined $2.4-million, however, all are in line for decent raises this offseason.
Next year, the Sharks can combat the expensive contracts of Burns, Karlsson, Vlasic, and Couture by saving money with the rookie deals of Eklund, Bordeleau, Hatakka, and Merkley. What do you make of the Sharks’ youngsters for next season? Let me know in the comment section below!
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Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!