The San Jose Sharks entered their third 2021-22 preseason match on the heels of major roster cuts. The team returned numerous youngsters to their junior teams, including Brandon Coe and Daniil Gushchin, who are eligible to play in the American Hockey League (AHL) if that’s what general manager Doug Wilson wants.
With 46 players on the roster, down from 64, the Sharks put forth a quality lineup in their bout against the Los Angeles Kings. With injuries to Nikolai Knyzhov and Alexander Barabanov, they could not roll out their best players but featured most of their core for this season. Kevin Labanc, John Leonard, and Radim Simek also did not take part in the game.
Sharks head coach Bob Boughner opted to play his projected four centers for the season opener in mid-October: Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Nick Bonino, and Jasper Weatherby. The defense featured four projected starters in Mario Ferraro, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Erik Karlsson, and Brent Burns. However, many youngsters with something to prove also slotted into this game on the wing. Notably, 2021 seventh-overall selection William Eklund joined Hertl and Rudolfs Balcers on the team’s first line. Jonathan Dahlen returned to his top-six spot alongside Couture and Timo Meier.
In the bottom six, Noah Gregor, Joachim Blichfeld, and Sasha Chmelevski attempted to solidify their NHL roster spots among a very competitive field of wingers. Ryan Merkley slotted into the third defensive pairing next to Vlasic after an electric performance at the 2021 Rookie Faceoff. Santeri Hatakka found himself on the second pair alongside Karlsson.
With that influx of youth, the Sharks took on a Kings’ squad that mainly consisted of fringe NHLers and prospects. Due to a late second-period collapse, San Jose fell to the Kings 4-3. However, there were many positives in this preseason bout.
Eklund Makes Case for Roster Spot
One preseason game of success does not lock anyone into a roster spot because that is an insanely small sample size compared to the weeks of training that the coaching staff use to determine the opening-night roster. But, the young Swede was the best Shark in the game. As the only player to notch two points, Eklund displayed his NHL-ready playmaking ability, especially on the power play, where the 18-year-old showed incredible patience and often found his teammates in open areas.
As Boughner noted in his postgame, Eklund played a mature game, and he’s “not the biggest guy, but he doesn’t pull up in traffic, he doesn’t bail on the wall when he knows he’s gonna get hit. He’ll take a hit to make a play, and he keeps coming back for more.” That resilience and tenacity won him the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence last season, presented to the draft-eligible player who best shows “commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness, and athleticism.”
The Sharks’ recent first-rounder noted his willingness to play in the NHL, AHL, or Swedish Hockey League, depending on the team’s wishes. Given his previous scoring prowess, Eklund is rated very highly, and he should be a real offensive talent for the organization.
Eklund is incredibly shifty and uses spinning to find open space and his great vision to set up teammates. With the winger on the ice, the Sharks controlled 80% of expected goals (xGF%) and 61% of shot attempts (Corsi for%) at 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick.
The Sharks still have three preseason games, but look for Eklund to continue to make an impact in all of them.
Other Youngsters Make Strong Impressions
Dahlen tallied his first point of the preseason with an assist on Timo Meier’s deflection goal. The Swede was tied for the best xGF% on the team at 82% with him on the ice. He showed well on the forecheck and has great offensive tools.
After sporting an ‘A’ on his sweater in Las Vegas on Sunday, Ferraro showed his leadership again last night. After Eklund made a physical play, as much as he could with his 5-foot-9 frame, AHL enforcer Jacob Doty shoved him to the ice. Ferraro immediately charged over and challenged the 6-foot-3 Doty to protect his teammate.
When asked to comment, Ferraro argued that defending and supporting the rookie “goes without saying. That’s a standard that we need to have, sticking up for each other. The bond that we make in the locker room, it’s got to show on the ice too.”
Ferraro, newly turned 23 years old, is a core part of the Sharks’ future and will likely wear the assistant captaincy patch left by Patrick Marleau’s departure. He also has the spot next to Burns locked down for this season.
Alongside Vlasic, Merkley has made himself an option for San Jose’s bottom pair next season. He can occasionally skate himself into trouble, but against the Kings had a marginally positive impact on shot attempts and scoring chances. The 21-year-old could not crack any power-play time, however, but played 13:34 minutes, three minutes less than any other teal blueliner.
Hatakka and Chmelevski continued their successful preseasons and received praise from Boughner in his postgame interview.
Back To Anaheim
The Sharks will have little time to recuperate as they return to Southern California to face the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday when the missing and healthy Leonard, Labanc, and Simek will likely slot into the lineup.
An errant Burns stretch pass led to the second Kings goal, and poor boxing out from Ferraro allowed for a shorthanded tally. These mistakes must be fixed before the next game and in the next three bouts ahead of the team’s opener on Oct. 16.
Look for other youngsters to play alongside veterans in the next game. Artemi Kniazev, on the heels of an impressive 2020-21 junior season, will want to be in the conversation for a spot on the Sharks’ blue line. Nick Merkley, Lane Pederson, Scott Reedy, and Leonard should see more game time are they are still on the bubble of the roster.
There are plenty of roster battles to monitor in the remaining 2021-22 preseason games, especially on the wing. Who impressed you against the Kings? Let me know in the comment section below.
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!