William Eklund played more NHL games during the 2021-22 season than most expected. After playing in his ninth game, the San Jose Sharks announced they had assigned him to his Swedish team Djurgardens IF of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). I’ll take a look at how far the seventh-overall pick has come since being drafted, the reason behind his demotion, and what the Sharks can expect from him moving forward.
Sharks Follow the Money
Part of the reason to assign Eklund to the SHL before his 10th game is, no doubt, financially motivated. For those uninitiated, the entry-level contract can slide if a player suits up for fewer than 10 NHL games. This can be done more than once and allows the team to cost control their asset for a longer period of time. It also allows the team to evaluate where the player is and if they are ready to be a full-time NHL player.
The Sharks have several long and bloated contracts on the books. Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Erik Karlsson account for 42 percent of the team’s salary cap this season. Burns and Vlasic will come off the books first after the 2024-25 season, while for Couture and Karlsson, it will be after the 2026-27 season. Based on the lack of salary-cap flexibility over the next few seasons, it does make sense to push the point where the Sharks will have to sign Eklund to his restricted-free-agent deal to the 2025-26 season instead of the 2024-25 season.
Sharks Lose a Top Forward
Eklund finished his tenure as the ninth forward in average time on ice, so by usage, he was at least the ninth-best forward. According to Evolving Hockey, he was the seventh-best forward in expected goals for per 60 minutes and the fourth-best defensive forward. His expected goal differential placed him ahead of veterans Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, and Matt Nieto. All of those numbers represent great contributions for any player, but especially for a 19-year-old.
Eklund’s benefit was even more pronounced on the power play, where he will finish his tenure with the eighth-most ice time with the man advantage. Despite this relatively low usage, he will end with the second most power-play points on the team at the time of his demotion. Only Kevin Labanc had more power-play points after 10 games. The Sharks were 15th in power-play percentage after 10 games, and Eklund was an important part of that. I’m not saying the Sharks will fall off just because Eklund is no longer there, but he certainly contributed to their early success.
Eklund’s Elite Skill Foreshadows Future Success
As a very young player in the NHL, Eklund was able to demonstrate elite two-way skill. He was not a liability defensively, though he certainly could have been better. Most current NHL players could stand to improve defensively. Eklund’s offensive prowess, particularly on the power play, cannot be understated. After another season of skill refinement and growth, Sharks fans should expect Eklund to be a mainstay in the top six and on the best power-play unit.
Development is not linear, so it’s unreasonable to think Eklund will be substantially better when he returns, but the foundation for an elite player is laid. One of the best positives for Eklund’s time with the Sharks organization is that he looked better and better the more he played. He has always been regarded as a smart player, and his ability to learn and adapt to situations was uncanny. He did not make the same mistakes more than once.
2021-22 Eklund Expectations
Eklund has played a lot of hockey since the organization drafted him. He was at the Sharks’ development camp and then at the Rookie Face Off Tournament. After doing exceptionally at those events, he attended the main camp for the team and appeared in every preseason game, effectively earning his spot on the team. Adding all of those games to the nine games he played in the NHL, and it becomes obvious that playing the rest of the 82-game schedule with the Sharks would be a tall order.
Djurgardens has already played 18 of its 52-game season. They currently sit as the second-worst team in the SHL. Eklund should get the opportunity to play a prominent role with the team and help them avoid relegation. Djurgardens is only ahead of Jonathan Dahlen’s former team Timra IK. Those two might be battling to avoid relegation, and Eklund should help Djurgardens chances tremendously, whereas Timra IK is obviously without Dahlen as he is producing for the Sharks.
The shorter SHL season should allow Eklund to spend time training to get stronger. As a smaller forward, he will need to be as strong as possible to battle against the bigger, stronger NHL players. With all the games he has played so far in 2021, he certainly hasn’t had as much chance to dedicate himself to his off-ice training.
Since he won’t be in the NHL, Eklund should be a prominent member of the 2022 Under 20 World Junior Championship (U20WJC) team for Sweden. He was unable to compete in the 2021 U20WJC due to a positive COVID-19 test. Sweden should have a strong team, and he will certainly help them be a better team offensively and defensively. Hopefully for Sharks fans, Eklund and the Swedes battle the United States and Thomas Bordeleau in the final, with both players leading their respective teams.
Sharks Fans Yearning for More
Eklund gave Sharks fans a taste of the tantalizing skill he possesses. Rather than see him hit a rookie wall or struggle to maintain his spot in the lineup, the Sharks chose to return him to his SHL club. While Eklund and his agent were certainly disappointed in the decision, in the long run, this should work out favorably for all parties. He’ll no doubt come to training camp before the 2022-23 season with extra motivation to prove what he has worked on since his last NHL game.
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