As the San Jose Sharks gear up for the regular season, there are still several questions hanging over the team. But for fans, who have sat through back-to-back lackluster campaigns from the San Jose hockey team, there’s one particular question that is actually a cause for excitement: will rookie winger William Eklund make the team, and if so, do the Sharks have a Calder contender on their hands?
This season’s draft class is unique, after the last two years have seen seasons cancelled or ice time limited, and scouting moved to remote viewing only, due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic. In a typical year, the top three selections would stand a decent chance of making an NHL roster right out of the gate, and maybe a few other first-round surprises. This year, however, we’re seeing more players returning to their juniors or collegiate clubs, making up for the lost development time between 2020 and 2021.
Which leaves the Sharks with perhaps the biggest get of the draft: a player who was able to have a successful season in Europe last year and is just about ready to take that next step this October.
William Eklund was a hot commodity before the draft and is even more so now. That he fell to seventh overall is huge for the Sharks, who need star power sooner than later. It’s nothing short of pure luck — and bad decision making by a number of general managers.
But in an alternate timeline, William Eklund was headed to Buffalo, and could’ve even debuted with the Sabres before first-overall selection Owen Power, who has returned to the University of Michigan for the 2021-22 season.
Putting together a few rumors and reports, I’ve pieced together that alternate timeline.
On the Oct. 7 episode of The Jeff Marek Show on Sportsnet 590, Marek revealed that the Sharks were deep into talks to acquire forward Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres, before he was ultimately dealt to the Florida Panthers during the first day of the 2021 Draft.
Prefacing a conversation with Elliotte Friedman about the Sharks and Eklund, Marek said this: “I’m always intrigued and in a lot of ways impressed with Doug Wilson, in that he puts together an environment where the team is always going for it. It doesn’t always work out but generally it’s usually a competitive team. Even this past off-season, I’m of the belief that they were in on Sam Reinhart, before he ended up eventually going to Florida.”
Reinhart, a 25-year-old center, was another top-three selection by the Sabres, taken second overall in the 2014 Entry Draft. Since breaking into the league the following season, the former WHL Kootenay Ice captain has established himself as a top-six NHL player. His 40 points (25 goals, 15 assists) last season led the Sabres, out-pacing the rest of the team by a pretty significant margin.
Landing Reinhart would’ve been no small feat. He easily would have shaken up the Sharks’ top-six, perhaps sliding Logan Couture or Tomas Hertl to wing, or even making room to trade one of those veterans for younger talent. The addition would’ve certainly provided confidence to the fanbase that the team would be improving this season, and no later. According to Marek, the Sharks were willing to pay to land a game-breaking talent.
Marek emphasized, “They were at it.”
On the Sabres’ side, they were approaching the 2021 draft with the intentions of getting another top-10 pick. The obvious choice for first overall was defender Owen Power, but looking at the team’s needs, general manager Kevyn Adams knew he needed to get a forward out of this first round too. There were rumors that the Sabres were hoping to walk away with both Power and Eklund, that only grew after the team acquired the 13th overall selection from the Philadelphia Flyers as part of the Rasmus Ristolainen trade.
I wonder if the Buffalo Sabres don't try to leverage that 13th overall pick to move up in the draft. Lot of talk industry chatter about how sincere their interest for William Eklund is. Obviously, not enough to pass on Owen Power at No. 1 overall, I don't think, but they like Ek.— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) July 23, 2021
Between the 13th overall pick (discussed later as the 14th overall pick, due to the Arizona Coyotes forfeiting the 11th overall selection for violating the league’s combine testing policy), and possibly dangling Sam Reinhart as trade bait, the Buffalo front office was fully prepared to make a splash in the first round.
Thanks to the Sabres’ video team, we can actually see this play out in real time:
The saga begins around 11:23, with a clip of Adams on the phone saying, “We’d be willing to go 14th [overall pick] and Reinhart if our guy was there. Does that change it for ya?” to an unknown general manager, followed by him walking back into the room to say “They’re out.”
As a team is on the clock, Adams says, “Depends on what happens here.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind, he wants Sam Reinhart,” says a scout.
“At that point you’re talking pick 32,” someone off-screen says to Adams. The Sabres held the first pick of the second round (pick 32), which essentially functioned as a first-round pick, due to the aforementioned forfeited pick by Arizona.
He responds, “No, I’m talking about Reinhart and 14, and we get anyone in our top seven. That’s what I needed to know, because that call might come.”
Though the video jumps around during the first round, we see a shot of Adams on the phone while the Detroit Red Wings were on the board. The Red Wings selected at sixth overall, just ahead of the Sharks, taking Swedish defender Simon Edvinsson.
No one expected that Eklund would fall to seventh. If he hadn’t, if Detroit selected Eklund in this moment, or perhaps the Blue Jackets took him instead of Kent Johnson at fifth overall, then maybe the Sharks would have made that call for Reinhart and the 14th overall pick.
The problem was that Doug Wilson wanted Eklund too, and now, unexpectedly, he was available. While the prospect of Reinhart and the 14th overall pick was alluring, Adams would have to have to do better than that to get Wilson to give up Eklund.
When the Sharks made their selection, Buffalo’s focus shifted to their second choice, prospect Isak Rosen, whom they selected at 14th overall. Reinhart ultimately went to the Florida Panthers, in exchange for a first round selection in 2022 and goaltending prospect Devon Levi.
Reinhart was emotional after the trade, calling Adams the next day. While you can only hear Adams’ side of the conversation in the video above, his reactions and responses are enough context. One thing Adams says to reassure his former alternate captain is this: “There were a lot of teams that talked about [how] you’re well thought of in the league, and you should be. You’ve earned that.”
I have no doubt that Doug Wilson had great things to say about him.
There’s one more piece to this would-have-been trade: that 14th overall pick, that could’ve been the Sharks’ first selection of the 2021 Draft. Who would they have taken if William Eklund was long gone?
It’s no secret the Sharks were seeking a potential future franchise goaltender at this draft, and one of their sneaky good moves was actually trading down to snag the 2021 U18 World Juniors’ Best Goaltender, Benjamin Gaudreau, in the third round (81st overall). It turns out that their first choice for a new netminder was consensus top goaltending prospect Jesper Wallstedt, who fell to 20th overall and was drafted by the Minnesota Wild.
I’m not sure what I make of this alternate timeline. Ultimately, I think the Sharks getting their guy in William Eklund is enough to say they did the right thing, and adding Gaudreau to the mix just seals the deal. But I also can’t help but think that if the team was heading into the season with Sam Reinhart, and Jesper Wallstedt in the pipeline, maybe another big name from a veteran trade ... I might feel more confident about the Sharks this season in that scenario. A known quantity is always going to bring more comfort.
The way things played out is what matters in the end, and I can’t be more excited that William Eklund is a Shark.
I did give myself a little soft spot for Samson Reinhart, though.