The San Jose Sharks have rapidly grown their prospect pool since Doug Wilson Jr. began heading the team’s scouting department before the 2017 NHL Draft. After two seasons in which the club’s low status saw them embrace a revamping of their prospect pool, the Sharks now possess a true blue-chip prospect: William Eklund.
However, Eklund is not the only San Jose prospect turning heads. Thomas Bordeleau won NCAA Rookie of the Year at the University of Michigan, Ozzy Wiesblatt performed well on a rough Prince Albert Raiders squad, Ryan Merkley took on top-four minutes for the San Jose Barracuda, and Artemi Kniazev, Tristen Robins, and Daniil Gushchin showcased their offensive brilliance in their respective junior leagues.
The Sharks now re-tooled their team in the offseason, with the most notable additions including Adin Hill, James Reimer, and Nick Bonino. They greatly fill the holes the team clearly had through their 2020-21 campaign. However, the focus should likely still reside on the future core of the franchise.
The Sharks could become moderately competitive, given the weak standing of the Pacific Division teams. If general manager Doug Wilson sees a chance to reassert his club as a contender, I believe he would take that opportunity given his aggressiveness as a GM. In that hypothetical situation, there are three prospects the Sharks dare not move for the sake of their future success.
William Eklund, Left Wing/Center
This is probably the most obvious choice of them all. Eklund could potentially be the best prospective Shark since Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Logan Couture were looking to make their NHL debuts. For reference, Eklund is the highest San Jose selection since Milan Michalek in the 2003 NHL Draft.
While an October birthday makes the Swedish winger older for the 2021 draft class, this does not greatly limit his potential to become an electric top-six offensive threat. Eklund’s positioning as a center until his draft year also excites the team as they potentially have a headlining center to a prospect pool that lacked that asset for years prior.
However, Eklund likely slowly transitions to center in the NHL, similar to Tomas Hertl’s track in the NHL. Eklund was centered by Bordeleau at Sharks’ development camp last week.
Eklund is a sensational talent and is emphatically the team’s biggest bright spot of the future. After outperforming the Swedish junior leagues in 2019-20, he played 20 games in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) as a 17-year-old. This set up the forward for a complete 2020-21 SHL season in his draft year as an 18-year-old.
That feat alone is incredible, but the adversity he faced on route to a stellar season makes him all the more promising. While overcoming a bout with COVID-19, which prevented him from attending the 2020 World Junior Championships, and an appendectomy, Eklund produced 11 goals and 23 points in 40 games for Djurgardens IF. He produced 14 points in his first 19 games before he and his team slowed in the second half of the season. His exceptional vision and offensive instincts allowed for such production.
And the Sharks have speculated that Eklund could potentially start next season in the NHL or SHL. Per Sheng Peng of San Jose Hockey Now, Eklund would even agree to play with the Barracuda to begin 2021-22 should he be on the brink of an NHL roster spot.
Given Evander Kane’s legal situation calling his spot in the NHL into question and John Leonard and Alexander Barabanov’s lacking sample size, Eklund could find himself in the top-six if he performs exceptionally in training camp.
The Sharks cannot afford to trade their best prospect. Eklund is the most certain NHL talent within the team’s pipeline by a significant margin, and he cannot be dealt in any situation.
Thomas Bordeleau, Center
Another prospect with the capability to play center but uncertainty to remain down the middle is Bordeleau. He finished up a stellar season with the Michigan Wolverines in the NCAA, which warranted the title of Rookie of the Year. However, the forward’s 2020-21 campaign was far from easy.
Bordeleau was to be on the eventual gold medal-winning USA World Junior Championship roster, but he and teammate John Beecher saw dismissal from the team due to a false positive COVID-19 test. His Michigan team face expulsion from the NCAA Ice Hockey Tournament due to COVID-19.
Despite not showing his talents on the international stage, Bordeleau’s stock has skyrocketed since his 38th overall selection in 2020. With eight goals and 30 points, the 5-foot-10 forward led his team in scoring, despite the team featuring the likes of notable first-round picks Brendan Brisson, Kent Johnson, and Matthew Beniers.
The Sharks likely want to also develop the youngster into a center. According to NCAA rules, Bordeleau will not attend Sharks training camp and will play his sophomore season in Ann Arbor. After the upcoming college season, Bordeleau could potentially join the Sharks or Barracuda after signing an entry-level contract; Cole Caufield recently took the same route.
Bordeleau, like Eklund, makes his impact with vision in the offensive zone to set teammates up for scoring chances. I would slot him as probably the second-best prospect in the San Jose system. Due to the lacking center depth under Eklund and Bordeleau, who may not even play in the NHL as a center.
Ryan Merkley, Right-Handed Defenseman
Of the three players, Merkley certainly finds himself as the most controversial to secure a spot on this list. In fact, the blueliner outdoes his peers as the only player to remain on this list from last season.
And, yes, the Sharks already have Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson locked down to long-term details. Merkley entering the league would entail three right-handed offensive defensemen on the Sharks, which feels… repetitive. And Merkley’s first AHL season saw underwhelming offensive production. So why is he untouchable in my view?
Merkley’s lack of points from last season should not erase the larger sample size that is his junior career. On various teams, the 5-foot-11 defenseman had three Ontario Hockey League seasons above a point-per-game pace. His final junior season saw him total 15 goals and 76 points in 60 games with the London Knights.
Following an assist-per-game OHL season, Merkley faced transitioning to professional hockey on a team that is beginning a new chapter under a new NHL coaching staff. Slotting into the AHL after training camp, the blueliner remained there for all of 2020-21, logging a goal and 11 points in 31 games. That’s second behind Robby Russo, who also played forward last season and benefitted from power-play time on the top unit.
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For most of last season, Merkley was three years younger than any other Barracuda blueliner. He had no preseason or development camp ahead of his first professional season. He was partnered with Jaycob Megna, who adds little offensive upside while being tied to the second power-play unit in favor of Russo or another defenseman taking the top unit. There were numerous reasons Merkley fell under lofty standards last season.
The Sharks currently have four right-handed defensemen under contract: Karlsson, Burns, Merkley, and Nicolas Meloche. Merkley is easily the best right-handed blueliner prospect the Sharks possess and warranted his first-round selection in the 2018 class. Moving Merkley would leave no replacements on rookie salary for aging and expensive Burns and Karlsson.
Who Is Movable?
While I think it’s clear the Sharks should not move any prospects in the near future, the organization luckily has depth at other positions. Though none have the offensive ability of Kniazev, the team’s left defense will include youngsters Mario Ferraro, Nikolai Knyzhov, and Santeri Hatakka for the future.
Wiesblatt is surely the team’s best prospect that undoubtedly projects as a winger. However, the Sharks have solid bets on young wingers already in Daniil Gushchin, Brandon Coe, Liam Gilmartin, and others that are NHL-bound in John Leonard and Jonathon Dahlen. None possess Wiesblatt’s ceiling, but they make him movable.
In net, the Sharks have a young goaltender that projects as a starter in Hill. Neither Benjamin Gaudreau nor Alexei Melnichuk are particularly magnificent prospects, so I feel are movable in the right situation.
To be abundantly clear, the Sharks should not be moving any of their prospects and should be looking toward developing their recent draft picks. The team’s reset has an especially optimistic outlook after their two most recent drafts, and they should be trying to maximize the upcoming window.
Do you agree with my three picks? Let me know in the comments!
Josh Frojelin is a young writer from the Bay Area. Josh grew up as a Sharks fan, being introduced to hockey by his father. He is now attached to his phone, waiting to hear the latest in hockey news. In addition to writing, Josh loves theatre, and his corgi Rocky.