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Where Has Eklund Improved This Year, Where Can He Get Better?



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Remember the Gecko?

That was William Eklund’s nickname last season during his nine-game NHL debut.

The San Jose Sharks’ 2021 first-round pick went back to the SHL after this cup of coffee, but he’s back now with AHL affiliate San Jose Barracuda.

After some distinct changes to his game, I’d argue Eklund is now the Chameleon.

To introduce myself, my name is Keegan McNally, the newest writer for San Jose Hockey Now. You may have seen my article about Ryan Merkley on SJHN:

Merkley’s Offense As Much of a Problem As His Defense

I’m also a lifelong Sharks fan, and I’ve been specifically following Sharks prospects and their development since 2015. I recently started to put out articles and videos (including a wrap-up of Eklund’s time in Sweden if you want a primer for this article) related to Sharks prospects at Half-wall Hockey and I’m very excited to join San Jose Hockey Now.

My focus will primarily be on the San Jose Barracuda, and how I’ve seen these players progress since coming from their respective junior, college, or pro leagues.

For forwards, I’ll be breaking down each prospect’s game into four distinct categories: Retrieve, Carry, Distribute, Finish. This system of evaluation is specifically for forwards, however, some elements do apply to defensemen as well. For more info on the way I evaluate forwards, I prepared this blog post a few months back.

So what about the San Jose Sharks’ blue-chip prospect Eklund? Why am I giving him a new nickname? Let’s start with how Eklund has changed how he carries and distributes this season.

Carry and Distribute

Don’t get me wrong, Eklund still has that characteristic shiftiness to his game that earned him his original “Gecko” nickname.

Eklund (72) maintains excellent balance on his skates, allowing him to utilize his four-way mobility to pull-off dekes and weave through defenders with or without the puck. His spin-o-rama dekes/goals have become the stuff of Twitter legend, and something that is uniquely Eklund.

So what’s changed with his carrying game?

Eklund had a bit of an issue last year with attacking the net — or not doing it enough. Although a skilled puck transporter, he’d often weave past the first line of defense, get into the zone, then attempt to take the puck to the corner or towards the wall away from the defenseman, turning his back to the center of the ice.

While not always the wrong play, Eklund would consistently see open ice in the corners or on the wall and took it to prolong the play. As evidenced by the second play, sometimes that worked to get a cycle going, but it also killed the rush to the net his teammates were attempting. This also led to a distinct lack of shooting opportunities for Eklund, reflected in his extremely low shot/goal totals in Swedish hockey last year that we’ll discuss during the Finish section. It’s hard to create offense when your back is to the net and so far away, even for a player as creative as Eklund.

So what has the “Chameleon” — I swear it’ll catch on by the end of the article — done to change his approach this season?

He’s kept an eye or the puck towards the center of the ice up the wing. His rushes would end before with Eklund protecting the puck into the corner, and either shuffling it back up the boards to the pointman or shuffling it around the net to another forward.

Although he turns his back for a second if he’s going to try a spinning deke, he is doing an excellent job of continuing to face the net when he’s in the offensive zone. So he’s now multiplied his options when he’s near the half-wall.

Now he’ll attempt a spinning deke (as Eklunds do):

He’ll harken back to draft year Eklund (2020-2021), and take the puck behind the net for some sneaky playmaking:

He’ll simply cut and protect the puck on his way to the net:

Finally, he (in black, at the top of the screen) will combine his elite vision and passing skills to create off the wing, as opposed to turning his back and stalling:

That last play was on the power play, near the goalline, a position that I think suits Eklund’s style of play well with the man advantage.

Earlier this season, the Barracuda attempted Eklund at the “bumper” position, near the high/middle slot area, and in some ways, this did increase Eklund’s shooting. But it also took away his ability to scan the ice, bait attackers, and carry on with his manipulative playmaking style.

Now at even strength, on the power play, during sustained play in the offensive zone, or on the rush, Eklund is directing the puck to the middle of the ice to create high-danger chances. Rather than specifically taking himself out of the play and heading to the corners, he’s found a way to create on the small ice.

In a recent interview with San Jose Hockey Now, Eklund talked about this change to his game as he transitioned from a larger ice surface in Sweden to a smaller North American ice this year:

“I think that this ice especially too, you don’t have as much room as international ice and if I want to score goals I have to go to the area [front of the net], and that was something I didn’t do last year. So I think I’ve improved. I’ve been working on that right now.”

A change in position (from center last year in Sweden to wing this year), coaching, and more strength may also be other contributing factors.


After a well-publicized lack of scoring in the SHL last year, there’s been a distinct change in Eklund’s finishing game this year.

I’ve talked your ear off for the past few hundred words, so I’ll make this one simple: He’s shooting more. It sounds too straightforward to be true, but Eklund even admitted that he wasn’t shooting enough during an interview this summer with SJHN:

“There’s a lot of truth in that. I’ve been a more pass-first guy my whole life. I have to [transform] that into shooting [more], be a double threat there. And that’s what I want to do this year”

Telling a hockey player to shoot more is kind of like telling a chef to cook better or a musician to play better. It might fall on deaf ears. However, Eklund in true chameleon form, took it to heart this season.

2020-21: 40 games, 66 shots on goal, 1.65 shots/game
2021-22: 29 games, 40 shots on goal, 1.38 shots/game
2022-23: 43 games, 98 shots on goal, 2.28 shots/game

Now is some of this due to his role being changed from middle-six center in Sweden to first-line left wing? Absolutely. However, even during his Draft year, when he also playing top-six left wing, Eklund has upped his shots on goal. He appears to be less concerned with delaying the play and looking for a perfect pass, and more concerned with getting the puck on net.

For example, the 2021-22 Eklund might have caught this rebound, delayed, and tried to find a teammate at the side of the net.

The 2022-23 Eklund wrists it home from the slot, even if he’s got two defenders in front.

The 2021-22 Eklund might have stopped this rush to the net prematurely, turned his back to the net and stalled in the corners until he cycled the puck on:

The 2022-23 Eklund doesn’t stop moving and uses his agility to create a shot on goal off the wraparound.

This next GIF isn’t a groundbreaking play.

It’s a drive to the net off the wall, but it does represent a change to how Eklund approaches the game in the offensive zone. He’s not delaying as much and waiting for attackers to come to him. He recognizes the space ahead of him, and takes it:

When asked if coaches asked him to shoot more in a recent interview with SJHN, Eklund responded:

“[They want] even more, actually. Yeah. I’ve had a lot of chances this year and to score more this year, I like that. I’ve always been a pass-first guy. So to get that scoring ability for me too, it’s something I want to do.”

He’s also driving the net more for rebound opportunities or to present options to his teammates as a scoring threat:

Watch as Eklund dives into the play at the top of the screen, before even Gushchin (75) recognizes him as a passing option.

His goal totals have reflected a change in his game.

Eklund will likely never be a sniper at the next level, but taking the time to adapt his game to a more straight-forward approach before he gets to the NHL level can only serve him well when he gets there.


In some very tangible ways, Eklund has actually developed his game into one of an excellent “grinder” at the NHL level.

Did I expect that? Not entirely. Scouting profiles in his draft year mentioned the typical things one might read about a dynamic playmaking forward, not a defensively-responsible winger. They raved about his elite playmaking talent, his dual-threat offense and his skating and handling skills. Snuck in most of these reports however were mentions of a motor that didn’t quit, and some solid defensive instincts, like this one from Jimmy Hamrin of Elite Prospects:

“He almost never just watches the plays, he acts on it and is a good “glue”-player for his line in all three zones in the sense that he is always near the puck, he is playable and checks hard in all directions”

This is something I wanted to highlight in this article.

Eklund has spent going on three years playing professional hockey against men many years his senior. He’s often been the least physically developed player on the team he has been on, but yet he persists. It’s this “glue” aspect that has stuck him in pro lineups since he was 17.

Coaches know that Eklund can be used anywhere and succeed. You need a puck-carrier to get the puck into the zone and setup shop? Eklund. You need someone to break-up a cycle and start a breakout? Eklund. You need someone who can forecheck and pester until the defender makes a mistake? Eklund. His versatility is such a strength for the Barracuda, and has only improved since his time in Sweden.

Specifically, his physicality has taken some impressive strides from 2021-2022. Last year in the SHL and during his nine-game stint with the San Jose Sharks, Eklund appeared to be too light on his skates. This is to be expected of a teenage prospect. This was especially true when he attempted to leverage players off the puck.

Eklund in all the plays above had a difficult time separating player from puck. His lack of upper-body strength was evident in these plays, and something Eklund addressed to SJHN:

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it, a lot more muscle, stuff like that, I feel like I’m more comfortable going there now [to the net]. I feel like I’m better. I’m strong on the puck, stuff like that. So that helps me, of course”

So what did the “Chameleon” do in the off-season to get ready for a smaller ice surface and more intense play? For starters, he skipped the make-up U20 World Juniors this past summer to get ready for NHL play.

BREAKING: Eklund Skipping World Juniors

During that interview, Eklund also said he had already gained seven pounds of muscle. While most of the time, I take these types of claims with a grain of salt, I actually believe him based on his on-ice physicality this season.

Eklund (in black, at the top of the screen) absolutely demolishes a player along the boards. That’s a sentence I don’t think I said once while watching him in the SHL or the NHL. Now I’m not saying Eklund is always this strong of a checker, but his strength has definitely improved since we last saw him in San Jose. He’s no longer the player who falls to the ice after getting checked. He’s strong on his skates, able to fend off attackers and maintain possession, as well as retrieve with smart physicality.

Even his propensity for extracurriculars has increased, as seen in a recent fight with Glenn Gawdin of the San Diego Gulls:

While it isn’t ideal to have your smaller, skilled first-round winger fighting in the AHL, it is just more evidence to a change in mentality for Eklund. He’s more aggressive, with or without the puck.

‘Good Fight But Never Do That Again’: Eklund Talks 1st Pro Fight

Our final GIF highlights some of the “hidden value” that Eklund has as a puck retriever:

This is a really nifty play from Eklund (top right, along wall) that a lot of NHL defenders do to fool attackers in retrievals.

While gathering the puck, he angles his body and skates up ice, but turns at the last moment to cut backwards into his own zone to maintain possession. Watch as both defenders in white just kind of drift on by and Eklund starts the breakout safely.

These are the “glue” plays that keep Eklund in a line-up and provide value defensively (above his obvious and unquestionable fighting prowess).

The Chameleon

You’ve probably heard some of the calls from fans for the San Jose Sharks and new GM Mike Grier to call up Eklund to the NHL.

Is he able to play in the NHL right now? In my eyes, that answer is yes. There hasn’t been a doubt in my mind or the mind of many scouts that Eklund would be an NHL’er someday since the moment he was drafted. Personally, I think Eklund could step into the top-nine of the Sharks right now as a third-line winger and do fine.

However, Eklund is changing, and changing for the better. Like a… chameleon?

He’s improving how he attacks the net to try to drive offense through his mobility and playmaking, rather than stalling in the corners and shuffling pucks up and down boards.

He’s drastically changed how often he shoots the puck, a clear example of a player recognizing his weakness and attacking it head on, rather than avoiding it.

He’s developed a “grinder’s” game over three years of pro hockey that has given him more versatility in a lineup.

His increased physicality, strength on his skates, and retrieval skills allows coaches to put him out there in any situation. It cannot be overstated how important it is for a coach to trust a player before he succeeds in the NHL.

So what’s the next step for Eklund?

He needs to continue to get better at the Carry, Distribute, and Retrieve areas, but I think the biggest area of need is to improve his Finish.

Eklund has very little deception to his finishing game.

Players (and goaltenders) know the shot is coming almost always before Eklund shoots it. Whereas prospects like Gushchin or Robins or Bordeleau (who will be getting breakdowns here at SJHN this season) can change the angle of their shots or can find ways to shoot through traffic or release quickly, Eklund doesn’t really have the above to the same extent.

Yes, he is shooting more and I would say his shot has improved this year. However, his shot still lags behind some of the other Barracuda prospects.

Because of how big of a role that Eklund plays on the Barracuda, I don’t think a call-up to the big club would be as helpful for his development as continuing in the AHL. He still has some weaknesses to his game that may need to be corrected before he can take that leap from functional third-line NHL forward to top-six material.

Eklund has shown he can take criticism seriously, and work on the areas of his game that need improvement. I can’t see why this iterative development process should be stopped now prematurely before we get the final Eklund product and nickname him some other new reptile.

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