Why aren’t William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau up with the San Jose Sharks?
That’s been a constant question all season, especially with the Sharks limping to a 11-18-6 start. That question came to the forefront once again earlier this week, when San Jose’s top center, Tomas Hertl, was suspended for two games for high-sticking Elias Lindholm.
After all, what better way to put an Eklund or Bordeleau in a position to succeed than by sliding either top prospect into a top-six role in place of Hertl?
But GM Mike Grier and head coach David Quinn appear to have different ideas, staying consistent with a new organizational philosophy to “marinate” their top prospects in the minors for longer.
“I think they have to be dominant at our level,” San Jose Barracuda head coach John McCarthy told the Mercury News at the beginning of the season, on when Eklund and Bordeleau would get the call this year.
Both Eklund, 21 points in 29 games, and Bordeleau, 20 points in 29 games, have excelled this season – they’re third and fourth in the AHL in rookie points. Bordeleau also leads all AHL rookies with 13 goals.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to say that they’re dominating the AHL. I haven’t talked to a scout yet either who sees Eklund or Bordeleau as an NHL difference-maker right now. So is that why they’re not with the San Jose Sharks right now?
Quinn wouldn’t go that far when I asked on Monday. He gave another reason for keeping Eklund and Bordeleau in the minors this time around.
“Having Nick [Bonino] here, Nick’s a skilled center who can play with good players,” Quinn said about replacing Hertl temporarily. “Maybe if we were challenged in that area, that might have been more of a discussion, but it wasn’t.”
Yes, we’re talking about the same Bonino who started the season with one assist in 20 games. But also, the same Bonino with four goals and three assists in his last 12, and who has been a middle-six forward for most of his decorated career.
Bonino isn’t as bad as his worst critics will say – I think he’s still a useful forward on a winning team and has been better than that over the last month – but the 34-year-old is also not the Bonino of say 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup vintage.
For what it’s worth, talking about the two games that Hertl has missed, Bonino struggled like the rest of the Sharks in a 7-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday, and was excellent in a 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.
In fact, Bonino clocked 22:37, second only to Logan Couture’s 23:08 among Sharks forwards, and didn’t look out of place even on the top power play unit, handling Wild PK pressure adeptly on his assist and then coming back with another chance on the same major power play.
TIMO TIME ⏰ pic.twitter.com/zZH3VNpVoN
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) December 23, 2022
Couple this with Bonino’s as-usual exemplary work on the penalty kill – he was out there for the entirety of Minnesota’s minute-long 5-on-3 power play in the first period, when the game was still in the balance – and it’s no exaggeration to say that neither Bordeleau nor Eklund would’ve had a better game than Bonino on Wednesday.
Bonino, by the way, just clocked 1:27 on that PK, the entire Wild 2-man advantage and more, had a big block and a clutch clear. Outstanding work
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 23, 2022
Essentially, it’s not outlandish to play Bonino ahead of Bordeleau or Eklund – but by the same token, the Sharks are also in no hurry to see how either of their top prospects will adjust to this level after both made their NHL debuts last year.
This isn’t Doug Wilson’s San Jose Sharks.
I suspect both Eklund and Bordeleau would’ve started this season in the NHL if Wilson was still in charge. From 2019-22, 29 San Jose Sharks made their NHL debuts. This wasn’t because of the quality of the farm system – of the 29, only Mario Ferraro has established himself as a bona fide NHL’er.
I’m not saying that either Grier or Wilson’s approach is best. It’s a cop-out answer, but it really depends on the prospect. I think that some prospects can accelerate their learning being at a higher level of play, while some prospects will benefit from gaining confidence at a lower level before making the jump.
Sink-or-swim or training wheels?
“Everybody has a different path. Everybody has different route. It’s not always about the pace at which you get here,” Ferraro, the lone survivor of Wilson’s “Hunger Games”, noted to San Jose Hockey Now.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Wilson’s approach really burned any Sharks prospects over the last three years, i.e. they were rushed and irreparably damaged because of it. Only Ferraro has emerged because he was the only one good enough to. Or healthy enough, if you want to lump Nikolai Knyzhov in with Ferraro.
But Grier clearly wants to go about prospect development in a different way. So far this season, defenseman Nick Cicek and goaltender Eetu Makiniemi are the only bona fide Sharks prospects to play NHL games so far, with Jeffrey Viel bordering on journeyman territory.
So the wait will continue on when Eklund and Bordeleau will hit the NHL this season.
“Those guys are great players. They’re going to be in the NHL at some point,” Ferraro, who’s watched his share of Barracuda games this year, said. “It’s important that they continue to develop and push each other down there. I think that’s huge, and they’re gonna make big impacts in the NHL one day.”
To tie up a couple more reasons that I see out there for keeping the kids in the minors…
It’s not about trying to prevent exposing Eklund and Bordeleau to a losing environment. For one thing, the Barracuda’s .466 Points % isn’t that far ahead of the Sharks’ .400. At this point, and this is being around the Sharks locker room on a fairly regular basis, on the outside looking in, it’s still mostly a positive place with a lot of good examples for the youngsters to learn from.
To start the season, I think the San Jose Sharks’ supposed-improved forward depth was a reason to keep Eklund and Bordeleau down. But less so now with Luke Kunin’s season-ending injury and Hertl’s two-game absence. I’m not sure Eklund or Bordeleau would outplay a surprising Matt Nieto or Nico Sturm or even recent Bonino, but there’s an argument that they’d be better than a struggling Noah Gregor or Evgeny Svechnikov on the third line.
Speaking of the third line, I see a lot of talk that Eklund and Bordeleau should only be called up if they’re in a top-six role. I don’t get that. A third-line job is still very meaty, it can be a good 15 minutes a night if you get some power play time too. In terms of their development at the NHL level, just avoid the fourth line and give them some power play time, and you’re not doing them a disservice.
I think Grier, Wilson, and Quinn would all agree on that general point.
“You want them to be in a good position when they come in here, really hit the ground running,” Quinn said.
When that is, that’s the question, and Grier certainly has a different answer for that than Wilson. What difference it makes in the long run, we’ll find out in the coming years.
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