The San Jose Sharks are in the middle of a “reset.” Whether or not retooling and building around the current-and-expensive core is a better option than a full-scale rebuild will be seen shortly.
However, the Sharks’ future seems to be in quality hands. William Eklund will be joining a stable of offensive firepower in Thomas Bordeleau, Ozzy Wiesblatt, Daniil Gushchin, Ryan Merkley, and Artemi Kniazev in short order. However, how far are Sharks fans from seeing these highly-touted prospects?
Last season, the Sharks saw nine rookies make their NHL debuts in teal: John Leonard, Sasha Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich, Jeffrey Viel, Fredrik Handemark, Nicolas Meloche, Brinson Pasichnuk, Josef Korenar, and Alexei Melnichuk.
Given general manager Doug Wilson’s aggressiveness this offseason to bring in talent, I would be shocked to see a similar number of debutants this season. Although, some of the talent the Sharks are sure to see this season should excite the fanbase about their future.
Certainly Debuting This Season
There are two players that will certainly make their NHL debuts in 2021-22. Jonathan Dahlen and Merkley are two of the team’s best prospects and will warrant looks on the top club shortly.
Dahlen, 23 years old, recently signed a one-way contract with San Jose, likely guaranteeing his debut next season. The Swedish product will turn 24 in December, meaning this season will be pivotal to determine his long-term fit in North America.
The Swedish winger was selected 42nd overall in 2016 by the Ottawa Senators. However, he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks at the 2017 deadline when the Senators made their run to the Eastern Conference Final. Dahlen was then flipped for fellow Swedish prospect Linus Karlsson at the 2018-19 deadline. He was not enjoying his time in Utica, and demanded a change of scenery.
The previous two seasons, Dahlen has tried single-handedly willing his hometown Swedish club, Timra IK, to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). After leading the second division in scoring for a second time, he qualified his team for promotion. His 2020-21 season saw the dynamic forward score 25 goals and 46 assists in just 45 games.
The second prospect I see as a guaranteed debutant is Merkley. His selection 21st-overall in the 2018 class solely came from the Sharks focusing on his superior skill and offensive ability. This came at the expense of defensive liability and supposed personality issues that labeled him “uncoachable.”
The right-hander’s offensive instincts are undeniable. In 2019-20, his final Ontario Hockey League (OHL) season, he tallied just over an assist-per-game, and 15 goals in 60 games. However, transitioning to the AHL went less smooth, tallying just a goal and 11 points in 31 games with the San Jose Barracuda.
I would not be harsh on the soon-to-be 21 year-old, however. He was partnered with Jaycob Megna, who provided minimal offensive help. The youngster also was forbidden from the top powerplay by head coach Roy Sommer, when utilizing his talents could have added a lot to the top unit.
Any personality issues have been silent the past few seasons, but the defensive ability is still a huge red flag. Merkley can make extremely poor choices at the offensive blue line, or in the neutral zone, that lead to easy odd-man rushes against. He made such mistakes twice during overtime last season, and those immediately led to the game-losing goals.
However, Merkley should be playing. Many prospects gain NHL-experience in their D+4 seasons out of principle. For example, the Sharks gave Chekhovich and Chmelevski looks in their D+4 seasons due to their pedigree and age, not their under-performing AHL performances.
Whether they make the opening night roster out of training camp, or debut later in the season, the Sharks surely showcase Dahlen and Merkley’s talents in the NHL.
Only in the Right Situation
I do see scenarios in which Bordeleau or Eklund debut in the NHL.
Beginning with the latter, Eklund was the seventh-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. He played all of 2020-21 in the SHL for Djurgardens, where the playmaker tallied 11 goals and 23 points in 40 games. An 18-year-old producing that way in a top European league is quite impressive.
Prior to the draft, Eklund appeared set on returning to Sweden for the 2021-22 season ahead of debuting in the NHL. Although, Doug Wilson and Doug Wilson Jr. after the draft appeared curious if the forward could step into the NHL immediately. Eklund was the second-best player in the draft behind Matthew Beniers, at least according to Wilson Jr..
Eklund played center in his junior career, prior to transitioning to winger for 2020-21. This could be a similar situation to Tomas Hertl, where the Sharks drafted the European professional as a winger then slowly transition him back to center.
Unlike when Hertl entered the league, the Sharks are in the midst of controversy due to one of their top-six forwards. If Eklund truly impresses in training camp, he could jump into a top-six role immediately should Kane not be part of the Sharks. Even with Kane, Eklund’s talent could outdo Rudolfs Balcers or Kevin Labanc for a second-line spot.
Bordeleau would be a different situation, where I could see him joining the Sharks near the end of the season. The 2020 38th-overall pick led the young and exciting University of Michigan with 30 points in 24 games. This saw him win the Tim Taylor Award as national rookie of the year.
If the Sharks are in a playoff race at the end of the season, Bordeleau’s power play excellence and playmaking could greatly help their top-nine forward group. Cole Caufield, while possessing much more upside than Bordeleau, joined the Montreal Canadiens after his sophomore college season for their playoff run. Bordeleau could see a similar storyline.
Eklund and Bordeleau could be considered the organization’s first-and-second-best prospects. Not rushing the players, and maximizing all three years of their rookie contracts, will be key. If the Sharks see their talents as NHL-ready, however, it could be hard to resist playing them.
The Sharks have three recent draft picks all joining the Barracuda with their entry-level deals just beginning. While unlikely, any of Artemi Kniazev, Santeri Hatakka, and Scott Reedy could receive call-ups during the season.
San Jose recently had a second-round pick defenseman make the NHL in their D+3 season, Mario Ferraro. And while it was in a small sample size, Kniazev’s recent success could point toward a similar result. In a shortened Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) season, the Russian tallied five goals and 18 points in 14 games, adding for goals and nine assists in nine playoff games.
The 20-year-old will turn professional, and begin his first of a three-year professional contract. He will certainly start with the Barracuda, given the Sharks’ plethora of lefthanded defenseman in Ferraro, Nikolai Knyzhov, Radim Simek, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. However, if Kniazev’s offense continues it’s sensational rate, the Sharks should call up the youngster.
Speaking of 2019 NHL Draft defenseman, Hatakka will be jumping from the top Finnish hockey league to North American hockey. The Finnish youngster signed a three-year entry level contract in May. He is a smooth-skating two-way defenseman who struggled offensively in the SM-liiga with Ilves Tampere. He had just a goal and seven points in 44 games. However, his team at one point was impacted by a Covid-19 outbreak that derailed their season that previously started incredibly. That likely hurt he and his teammates’ performances.
The blueliner was able to showcase his talents well on the international stage at the World Junior Championships. He only had two points on route to a third-place finish over Russia. Hatakka, an alternate captain for his team, stood out with his mobility and highlight reel goal in the tournament.
The Sharks, as mentioned, seem content with their lefty blueliners currently, so Hatakka likely completes an AHL season before making an NHL debut. However, given he already has played a full professional season in Finland, that experience could facilitate a quicker transition to the NHL than expected.
Lastly, I’ll mention Reedy as a possible debutant, mainly because of the massive strides recently taken by the University of Minnesota product. His first three seasons of college hockey were short of impressive, but his senior year saw him notch 11 goals and 28 points in 28 games. He was well above point-per-game to start the 2020-21 season, then eventually cooled down.
He then signed a professional tryout with the Barracuda after the college season. He had five goals and eight points in his first 15 professional games. The 2017 fourth-round pick has the versatility to play both center and winger with ease. Seeing as the center depth under fourth center Dylan Gambrell seems uncertain, Reedy could see NHL action eventually.
Reedy currently is on a two-year entry level deal and will complete his first full professional season in 2021-22. If the right-shot forward could build upon his college success from last year and begin producing at the AHL level, the Sharks should given him a look in the NHL.
While I believe none of the mentioned players are favorites to make NHL appearances in 2021-22, if they outperform their AHL expectations, they could debut shortly.
What prospect are you most looking forward to catching this upcoming season? Let me know down 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!