According to the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), players on entry-level contracts can appear in a maximum of nine NHL games before their contract kicks in. For this reason, it certainly isn’t uncommon for NHL teams to return a player on the first year of his entry-level contract to his junior league team after playing nine games, because the contract would “slide” to next year — that is to say, his contract would begin the next season.
On Friday, the San Jose Sharks did just that with their seventh-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, William Eklund. The move baffled some, myself included, but the motives behind it were understandable. By re-assigning him, the Sharks won’t be burning the first year of his entry-level deal this season, which is still up in the air in terms of the Sharks’ chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
On the stat sheet, Eklund looked fine, registering 4 assists in the nine games he played, but just couldn’t seem to buy a goal. Despite his lack of goal-scoring, his high hockey IQ that draft experts raved about was prevalent in the nine games he played. Tomas Hertl and captain Logan Couture both talked to Eklund in hopes of uplifting his spirits, telling him that the move would be best for him in the long run.
I'm not given to exaggeration, but this is hockey genius from Eklund: He turns back, draws 3 #Preds to him, then gets it behind the defense to create a 2-on-1 out of literal thin air pic.twitter.com/uW5L9bg3fA— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) October 27, 2021
Despite looking visibly upset speaking to the press, William Eklund is going to be just fine. He should have no problem further developing his game with Djurgardens IF, the team the Sharks drafted him from, and a team in dire need of a boost in talent, currently second-to-last in the SHL. Is the move best for the Sharks, though? Therein is the question.
Eklund was mainly penciled in on the second line with Hertl and Rudolfs Balcers, but in the wake of seven Sharks players being placed on COVID-19 Protocol, Eklund’s ice time shot up, most recently playing on the first line with Logan Couture and Jonathan Dahlen. When everyone on the COVID Protocol is re-activated, there’s still going to be a weakness at left wing on the second line with Eklund’s reassignment. Without Eklund, who is going to fill it?
Nick Merkley and Alexander Barabanov have looked fine in their roles as replacements on the second and third line, but it’s hard to imagine either of them sticking on the second line. A veteran like Matt Nieto or Andrew Cogliano could also slide into that second left-wing vacancy, but I think they’re both better suited for bottom-six minutes. Perhaps Kevin Labanc will slide into the top-six, even though he’s spent the majority of the season on the third line with Nick Bonino and Nieto, where he’s been successful.
On Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils, Nick Bonino filled Eklund’s spot on the first line with Couture and Dahlen, but wasn’t particularly noticeable. I have to imagine, though, that it’s only a temporary role for Bonino, who hasn’t registered a point in 10 games played so far this season.
However, I think Eklund’s re-assignment possibly is a sign of something else, something that may send a shudder down Sharks fans’ spines, and that’s that the door has possibly been opened for Evander Kane to draw back into the Sharks’ line up after his suspension for violating the league’s COVID-19 Protocol has ended. Now, that’s only a feeling I have. I can’t imagine that Sharks general manager Doug Wilson would want to ruin the hard work that was put into building the Sharks’ chemistry this year. However, if the goal this season for the Sharks indeed is to make the playoffs, they may feel that the trade-off of Kane’s talent is worth the disruption it will most likely cause in the locker room in order to make the playoffs. And if a string of players unsuccessfully fill in Eklund’s spot, that provides (however flimsy) justification for doing so.
The Sharks will not have to make that decision until Nov. 30, though, when Kane’s 21-game suspension ends.
As it stands, Eklund’s entry-level contract will kick in next season, and expire in the 2024-25 season; incidentally, the same off-season where Kane and Brent Burns’ contracts will expire. Re-assigning Eklund to Djurgardens shouldn’t have a negative effect on Eklund’s growth as a player. In fact, the exact opposite should happen. At just 19 years old, Eklund will spend this year building muscle to improve the strength of his shot, and that takes time, no matter how you slice it.
But the Sharks will have to fill a pretty big vacancy on the second line. Time will tell if the next man up can seize that spot, or if they will have to torpedo their team chemistry to fill that hole.