Forward Focus: Sharks Rookie Faceoff Takeaways on Eklund, Bordeleau & More

The San Jose Sharks enjoyed a feeding frenzy to kick off the Rookie Faceoff, but things went south yesterday afternoon with the Los Angeles Kings.

On Friday, the Sharks topped the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 off a highlight-reel William Eklund OT goal. San Jose followed that the next night by pummeling the Colorado Avalanche 5-1.

Monday afternoon proved to be a siesta for the Sharks though, as the Kings shut them out 3-0 in the tournament finale.

No fear though – by and large, it was a successful Rookie Faceoff for the San Jose Sharks prospects. A number of scouts commented on the rising tide of Sharks’ young talent, compared to tourneys past.

Here are my takeaways from the tournament, along with San Jose Barracuda head coach John McCarthy, assistant coach Kyle Hagel, and NHL scouts’ thoughts about William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Tristen Robins, Ozzy Wiesblatt, Ethan Cardwell, Mitchell Russell, and more.

Let’s talk forwards first, then I’ll add some notes about the defensemen and the goaltenders later.

First things first. While the San Jose Sharks may have brought more talent than ever to the rookie tourney, I spoke with multiple NHL sources who watched the event that did not see anybody obviously NHL-ready among the bunch. Yes, that means William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Ryan Merkley, Santeri Hatakka, you name it. Anyway, it’s a bad sign if you’re counting on prospects from a rookie tournament to be on your NHL roster come the fall – but that’s sort of what the skill-deficient Sharks appear to be counting on.

That doesn’t mean that an Eklund didn’t improve over the summer – he did, he looked stronger after gaining a reported seven pounds of muscle, without losing any of his skating or offensive chops – but I’d caution against penciling him in the opening night line-up just yet. I know, I’ve done it myself.

Predicting Sharks’ Opening Night Roster

For what it’s worth though, it was Eklund himself who started slow at last year’s Rookie Faceoff in Arizona before gaining momentum in the preseason to earn himself a roster spot with the San Jose Sharks to start last season. So I’m not penciling in any prospect or writing anybody off from an NHL roster spot quite yet.

This is all Eklund here, a good example of his increased strength and still-present elusiveness and hockey IQ.

Eklund (72) shakes off 6-foot-3 Drew Helleson (43), lures in Olen Zellweger (51), and takes advantage of the 2-on-1 defense to find open man Scott Reedy (54). With more time and space, Reedy is able to easily find Santeri Hatakka (61) walking down the slot for a golden opportunity.

It was interesting to see the Sharks use Eklund in the high slot on the power play. That’s a more physical position on the PP, you take a lot more punishment, and it’s an area where you’re forced to shoot too, which speaks to areas that they want the smaller winger to improve.

“It was all good,” Eklund laughed about the increased traffic that he faced at Tech CU Arena on the weekend.

“I thought his shot looked better when he came back this year,” McCarthy said. “And I know we worked on it a lot over the summer. So he definitely got the message there and worked on it. I thought his release was quicker and it’s got a little more velocity on the puck too.”

Last year, Eklund was used exclusively along the wall on the power play, a tribute to his playmaking ability but also a mark that the Sharks were trying to protect the 19-year-old rookie.

Speaking of the power play, I thought it was interesting that the Sharks rarely used the drop pass on their PP breakouts during the Rookie Faceoff. I’m not sure if it’s being phased out of Brian Wiseman and Scott Gordon’s attack, or just a coincidence.

Hagel cautioned against reading too much into the Sharks’ Rookie Faceoff tactics: “We gave these guys a little, tiny sliver of structure just so that can help them, they got something to rely upon when they’re out there. But our overarching message this weekend was mentality over systems. And the mentality just needs to be competitiveness.”

An NHL scout called Bordeleau a top-five player in this tournament, but it was faint praise, to some degree.

Another topic of discussion this past weekend was that this Rookie Faceoff didn’t have as much high-end, NHL-ready talent as previous engagements. Last year, for example, NHL’ers Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale, Alex Newhook, Bowen Byram, Arthur Kaliyev, and Sean Durzi participated. Scouts aren’t as sure that this year’s Rookie Faceoff will graduate as many immediate NHL regulars.

McCarthy noted on Bordeleau: “Especially [with] the way the Sharks want to play is playing on the inside, get into the net, get into those high traffic areas. I think he’s very, very good at setting people up and working on the perimeter, and I think if we can get him inside the dots and making plays in there, I think that’s going to lead to more success for him. And we’ve talked to him about that as well.”

Staying with the 2020 second-rounder, the same issue with puck management that I saw in his NHL cup of coffee was apparent during this rookie tourney too.

A scout reminded me though: “They will be in the AHL, get stripped, coach chirps him, then he doesn’t do it again. Have to learn that from experience, don’t want to coach the creativity out of a player, give them some time to learn what works and what doesn’t.”

I think this scout is right on both counts: On one hand, you want Bordeleau to be Bordeleau, but learning on the fly in the best league in the world may not be advisable.

Speaking of another smallish centerman, Tristen Robins flashed in this tourney, showing some motor, speed, and skill. I question how the 5-foot-10 center will cope defensively at the higher levels, but I was reminded by a scout that Robins is both fast and strong enough to get under bigger players. That’s hard to gauge against relatively low-level Rookie Faceoff competition, but we’ll see how that works out for the 2020 second-round pick in the AHL this year.

Also of note is how the Sharks used Robins heavily at the faceoff circle and on the PK in this tourney. Those are obviously important skills for Robins to add to his portfolio. I find it interesting to note that Robins won just 49 percent of his draws last year with the Saskatoon Blades, indicating that this area is a real work in progress.

Speaking of another 2020 pick, I wonder if first-rounder Ozzy Wiesblatt has sort of plateaued? It fits with what I’ve heard from the Prince Albert organization, where there was some disappointment that Wiesblatt didn’t step up his game last year with the Raiders. Wiesblatt showed the same speed and edge here that made him an enticing pick for the Sharks two years ago, but we’ll see how much he’s gotten better with the Cuda.

Finally, 2020 fourth-rounder Brandon Coe started off slow for me, issues with pace and not playing fast enough in the opening game, but I liked his effort against the Avalanche. A scout agreed, noting that Coe appears to be more a complementary player instead of a play driver. He’s a big man with some speed and skill, but it could take a while for him to put it together at the pro level.

“I think he’s got a little work to do in establishing that base to his game. We’ve talked to him about putting on the brakes in good ice as opposed to swinging through. He’s so fast, he wants to maintain his speed. But I think if he can put the brakes on sometimes in some of those areas, I think he’ll be in better spots to make plays. But he’s taking strides,” McCarthy said of Coe. “He’s on track to have a long career.”

Besides Eklund, a 2021 San Jose Sharks’ draft pick who flashed here was fourth-rounder Ethan Cardwell. Cardwell showed breakaway speed on multiple occasions, though he failed to finish. Of greater concern, and why I think it might be advisable for the 20-year-old to return for his overage season with the Barrie Colts, was he looked a little light out there, a little too easy to body off. Not from a lack of effort, mind you, but he could use another year of getting his body ready for pro hockey?

Here’s Cardwell (56) battling for position against 6-foot-6 22-year-old Andre Lee.

I liked this PK effort from Mitchell Russell (64) in the loss to the Kings, the wherewithal to lure in Francesco Pinelli (38) then sidestep him, then to rag the puck back to kill more time.

Russell seems to be an intriguing prospect, not a high ceiling but should play in the NHL.

McCarthy had a good word about tryout Josh Lawrence’s showing against the Avs, and the head coach made good of it by elevating Lawrence to the second line in the finale.

“I was using him on faceoffs. He’s not a big player but plays on the inside, plays the right way, working above pucks. I was impressed with what he did,” McCarthy said.

But honestly, in a game where it was tough for the Sharks to generate offense, I didn’t see much from the QMJHL star against the Kings.

However, Hagel said of Lawrence after the loss: “He skates pretty well. I like his demeanor around the room, just kind of goes about his business. As a centerman, I think he’s pretty responsible, not cheating to go on offense. He’s definitely an interesting prospect.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Sharks or Barracuda extend Lawrence a contract.

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