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Leon Gawanke Ready for NHL Shot



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Leon Gawanke wants to start a new chapter with the San Jose Sharks.

Despite 20 goals and 45 points in 68 games with the Manitoba Moose last season, the 24-year-old defenseman was never given an opportunity in the NHL by the Winnipeg Jets. Adding to his frustration, the 2017 fifth-rounder, despite three productive seasons, out of four, in the AHL, has never got one look from the big club.

“It was obviously frustrating,” the Berlin native said today, on the first day of training camp. “I’ve thought about that a lot, and I really want to leave it in the past.”

All this led Gawanke, a restricted free agent at the time, to sign with Adler Mannheim in DEL. However, he had an out in that agreement if he received an NHL contract before Jul. 15.

San Jose Sharks GM Mike Grier, seeing opportunity, flipped 2019 second-round selection Artemi Kniazev for Gawanke on Jul. 2. A few days later, Gawanke inked a one-year deal with the Sharks.

“Very grateful for the opportunity,” Gawanke said. “As soon as I heard it was the Sharks, there was nothing to think about twice. I knew I was going to come here right away.”

Gawanke, Acquired in Kniazev Trade, Will Sign With Sharks

“I finally got nice weather,” he smiled. “You can tell they’re in rebuild a little bit, and there’s opportunities on this roster, for sure.”

When Erik Karlsson was traded a few weeks later, even more opportunity presented itself.

“I don’t think anyone expects me to take the role of Erik Karlsson,” Gawanke said. “That’s a pretty big role. But, that’s definitely another spot that’s open.

“It was cool to see him here for a couple days too, when I arrived. He’s been my childhood idol. It was cool to finally meet him. I skated two or three times with him.”

No one is expecting Gawanke to replace Karlsson, he of 101 points last year, but the San Jose Sharks blueline now doesn’t have a clear offensive kingpin. Can the German help?

“I’ve gotta make an NHL roster first,” he said. “I haven’t yet in my career. That’s what I’m looking at, to make this roster. Not a huge role or anything.”

“I liked him at the World Championships,” San Jose Sharks (and Team USA) head coach David Quinn said. “I was excited when we got him because he does give us a right-shot defenseman. He’s got some offensive abilities. So he’s gonna have a legit opportunity here.”

Gawanke is offense-first, but he’s also worked a lot on his defense, realizing that’s a big reason why he hasn’t got his NHL shot.

“It’s grown over the years,” the 6-foot-1 defender noted. “There’s still a lot of room to improve. It’s the weak side of my game and what I really need to work on to make it to the NHL. It’s what I’ve been focusing on in the off-season, been focusing on this ever since I turned pro. It’s been growing in the past and I hope it continues.”

Gawanke feels the key to his defensive improvement will be “getting more fit. Conditioning-wise and strength-wise. I think I’ve done a good job to put some muscle and strength on in the past, and now I think it’s just getting all these muscles moving and get the cardio you need to be able to perform at such a high level.”

Nico Sturm, who won a silver medal with Gawanke at the World Championships this summer, agreed, telling the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast over the summer, “I think players like him are tough to find: Big, right-handed shot defenseman. I’m rooting for him. I think it will be up to him whether he makes the roster or not. I think he sees a legitimate chance to do just that. That should give him the motivation that he needs.”

SJHN Podcast: Sturm on Moving Forward Without Karlsson, Source Says 3rd Team Needed To Make Trade Happen

While it’s only the first day of training camp, it is a good sign for Gawanke that he was partnered with Mario Ferraro in the first scrimmage of training camp. After Karlsson, Ferraro was the San Jose Sharks’ most-used blueliner, and in a perfect world, the more defensive lefty Ferraro could be an ideal match for more offensive righty Gawanke.

“It was really nice,” Gawanke said of his partner. “He has a lot of experience and he’s a really great player. It was definitely fun to be to be with him. He talks a lot, he gets the guys going…definitely helped me out there for the first couple of shifts.”

So could Ferraro-Gawanke be an opening night pairing?

“That’d be amazing,” Gawanke said. “I’ve [taken] some strides in my career that showed I deserve a shot up top. Hopefully, I can bring the play I did in Winnipeg, and hopefully, I’ll get a chance here.”

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