Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
The boys (literally) are back in town.
The Sharks unofficially will start their season Friday in Las Vegas as part of a six-team Rookie Faceoff tournament.
The Sharks will send a squad loaded with top prospects to Vegas to battle youngsters from the Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, and Colorado Avalanche.
Here are the Sharks prospects to watch most closely during this four-day tournament, along with three non-Sharks prospects.
All Sharks games will be streaming at sanjosesharks.com.
San Jose Sharks
William Eklund’s campaign last year was cut short by shoulder surgery.
Apparently, at the time of his season-ending injury, Eklund had been nursing another shoulder injury for what he called “a long time." So surgery, in some ways, was a blessing in disguise.
“Two shoulders again, it's a different world,” Eklund jokingly said Wednesday.
What is serious is that the No. 7 overall pick of the 2021 NHL Draft is 100 percent and will be participating in full in this tournament, with an eye toward building his case to break camp with the Sharks.
While the 5-foot-11 Eklund says he hasn’t necessarily added more muscle to his frame compared to when he added seven pounds last year -- he feels quicker and more accustomed to his increased weight.
“I think I'm faster,” Eklund said. “I'm like 186, 187 [pounds], there somewhere. I feel faster for that weight.”
Also, look for the traditionally pass-first Eklund to shoot as much as possible in Vegas: “That's the thing I'm doing here now, try to shoot as much as I can.”
Being a dual threat will help Eklund maximize his offensive potential.
I’m expecting the playmaker to dominate and be the Sharks’ best forward.
Russian defensive prospect Mukhamadullin, along with the New Jersey Devils’ 2023 first-round pick that became Quentin Musty, were the centerpieces of the Timo Meier trade.
After a strong season with the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev Ufa, the 21-year-old opened eyes with 10 points in 12 games to close the San Jose Barracuda campaign.
A testament to his commitment to the Sharks organization, Mukhamadullin spent his summer training in San Jose, only taking a week off to go back to Russia to attend the funeral of friend and fellow 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov.
Off the bus, the 6-foot-4 rearguard looks like a defensive stopper, with his wingspan and nimble feet. But he actually looked more comfortable with the puck than without and was deployed on the power play significantly more than he was on the penalty kill with the Cuda.
Per SPORTLOGiQ, Mukhamadullin averaged almost three minutes a game on the power play, as opposed to roughly 30 seconds a night on the kill.
Good thing, it’s harder to teach offense than it is defense. So to a large degree, Mukhamadullin has the hard part down.
San Jose Barracuda and Rookie Faceoff head coach John McCarthy elaborated on what he’s looking for from Mukhamadullin defensively.
“Hard around our net. Don't let the opponent get to the net. End plays in our own zone,” he said. “If there's a puck carrier, we want you to stall that play, so we can get in there and get out of our zone. We don't want to spend a lot of time in our zone.”
Two years ago, defenseman Gannon Laroque was on the rise, posting 52 points in 63 games in his second season with the Victoria Royals. He was also invited to Team Canada's World Junior summer selection camp, and according to sources, was a strong candidate to make the 2023 squad. He had the look of a future solid all-around defender.
Last season, however, couldn’t have gone any worse for the newly-appointed Royals captain. Not one, but two hip surgeries limited him to just four games.
This weekend’s tournament will be Laroque’s first game action since January. Laroque says he’s fully healthy.
Laroque was arguably San Jose’s top defensive prospect as recently as last summer, so I’m excited to see him get back on track.
Other Sharks prospects
McCarthy said that Eklund will stay on wing throughout this tourney, but 2020 second-rounder Thomas Bordeleau might alternate between center and wing. Bordeleau is a natural center, but he’ll need to improve his defensive awareness to remain up the middle.
McCarthy also noted, on first glance, that 2020 first-rounder Ozzy Wiesblatt “looked a little bigger.”
“He looked thicker,” the bench boss said of the 5-foot-10 pitbull-like disturber. “He put in some time in the weight room.”
McCarthy also spoke highly about 2020 fourth-rounder Brandon Coe, who spent most of the summer in San Jose training.
“Thought Brandon Coe, his shot looked better,” he shared. “He's been working on it over the summer.”
Has 2020 third-round sniper Danil Gushchin added strength and quickness? How has 2021 fourth-rounder Ethan Cardwell grown from his impressive speed-based showing during last year’s training camp? The Sharks goaltending pipeline is wide-open, can 2022 fourth-rounder Mason Beaupit begin to erase memories of a tough 2022-23 campaign?
Those are some other things that I’m looking for.
Defenseman Valtteri Pulli, and goaltenders Magnus Chrona and Georgi Romanov will be making their North American Sharks debuts too, so we’ll see what they’ve got.
Obviously, 2023 first-rounder Quentin Musty, second-rounder Kasper Halttunen, and fourth-rounder Luca Cagnoni will be of interest. They’re the only three 2023 picks participating in this tourney. No. 4 overall selection Will Smith won’t be here because of NCAA rules.
Henry Thrun, Tristen Robins, Jake Furlong, Artem Guryev, and Mitchell Russell are other Sharks prospects of note going to Vegas.
Sharks Rookie Faceoff invitees
The Sharks have three invites, all from the QMJHL, forwards Ben Allison, Felix Gagnon, and Joseph Henneberry.
An NHL scout provided perspective on Gagnon and Henneberry.
“Henneberry is very raw. Has size and some skill. Can be physical,” he said of the 6-foot-2 center, who scored 18 goals and 18 assists for Acadie-Bathurst last season. “Not really the quickest skater or thinker. Impacts in moments. Not consistent. Leaves you wanting more.”
“Gagnon is a small, competitive type. Kind of a buzzsaw energy guy,” he said of the 6-foot center, who posted 21 goals and 21 assists for Baie-Comeau. Gagnon was also one of the Q’s best faceoff men last season.
This scout believes that only Henneberry has NHL potential.
Other Rookie Faceoff prospects
Two Coyotes prospects and one Ducks prospect will be fun to watch this week.
For Arizona, 2022 third-overall pick Logan Cooley is a pre-season Calder Trophy favorite. He could be the star of the tournament.
2022 No. 11 pick Conor Geekie will also be of interest. Of course, the Sharks had that pick last year and traded it back to the Coyotes for three selections. From Arizona, San Jose selected Filip Bystedt at No. 27, Cam Lund at No. 34, and Mattias Havelid at No. 45.
San Jose will take on Arizona on Sept. 18 at 1 p.m.
For Anaheim, all eyes will be on 2023 second-overall pick Leo Carlsson. The Sharks No. 4 pick, from what I understand, was thought to be likely between Carlsson and Smith – the presumption was that Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli would be gone – but the Ducks narrowed it down for their rivals up north.
The Sharks, however, will not play the Ducks in this tourney. Their other games are Sept. 15 against the Kings at 1 p.m. and Sept. 16 against the Golden Knights at 7 p.m.