Eklund, Thrun possess mental makeup to develop while Sharks lose originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
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.
Not every young player is cut out to suit up for these Sharks.
It’s a lot more losing than winning. A lot more feeling bad than good.
For a youngster, playing on a 12-31-4 Sharks team is not an easy path to improvement.
You’ve got to focus on more positive than negative. You’ve got to focus more on forward than backwards.
So it’s striking when a pair of Sharks prospects, both with options, meaning they can be sent down to the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda without the risk of losing them on waivers, stick with the big club, through poorer than richer.
“They don't let their failures at this level get in the way of their development,” Quinn said.
It’s a mental makeup thing. It’s a fortitude that some players have, some players develop over time and some simply never have.
Case in point: Eklund two weeks ago in Montreal.
The slick winger had an awful first period, personified by an egregious giveaway and an inability to advance the puck forward in multiple instances.
“He was terrible,” an NHL source told San Jose Hockey Now about the 21-year-old winger’s opening frame in the Sharks’ eventual 3-2 victory.
But after the intermission, Eklund looked like a brand-new player. He contributed to the Nikita Okhotiuk game-winner with not only an assist, but also a pick that freed playmaker Mikael Granlund up, and before that, the forecheck that earned the Sharks puck possession.
Nikita Okhotiuk's first goal with the Sharks doubles the lead! pic.twitter.com/hahfecIsEf
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) January 12, 2024
Eklund spoke with San Jose Hockey Now the next day after Sharks practice in Ottawa, and he explained what happened between the first and second periods.
“I was thinking too much about what I should do," Eklund said. "Just play hockey. I know how to play it. So [I was] more relaxed, to be honest. I'm gonna make mistakes. I'm gonna make more mistakes. If I think about that, keep thinking about it, it's not gonna be good. I just gotta [let it go] and go for the next shift.
“There's too many games, too many shifts to think about one bad shift.”
“I think during the game, we had to go down and kind of give him a hug, because you could see the frustration in his face,” Quinn said afterwards, before changing topics, unprompted. “The thing that I love about it is the other things he’s doing. The scoring will happen. It’s hard to score in this league, especially for a 21-year-old. But there are really things he’s doing that most 21-year-old’s don’t. I like his play away from the puck. His D-zone, his penalty kill has been good. As you get older, you find satisfaction in that. That’s what he’s got to do.”
So there’s still work to do there mentally, and Eklund still hasn’t found his footing after the Christmas break. Going into the holiday, Eklund has three goals and five assists in 10 games. Since then, he has just one goal and two assists in 13 contests.
But again, there’s a reason why Eklund isn’t in a lower-level league like the AHL, developing and gaining confidence. There’s a belief within the Sharks organization that Eklund is that unusual youngster who has the mental fortitude to develop in what’s not a development league, the NHL. And to do it on a cellar-dweller.
It helps that Eklund has lost and lost a lot before.
In 2022, the teenager wasn’t able to keep his hometown club Djurgardens from being relegated from first-division Swedish hockey to second division.
“I already went through the toughest part of my career already," Eklund said. "Getting relegated with my Swedish team. I think that helped me a lot, that year. Everything that happened hasn't been as bad as it was there. I don't think I walked outside my door for two weeks straight.”
It's also good to ignore people, even reporters.
“I, obviously, don't ever look at media,” Eklund said. “That's something I've learned throughout the years. It's not going to help me in any way. Even if it's good stuff. I know when I had a good game, I know when I had a bad game.”
Teammate Anthony Duclair, 28, who has seen the ups and downs of the NHL as much as anybody, going from prized prospect to getting waived to being a 30-goal scorer, said succinctly of Eklund: “Very mature for his age.”
Also mature for his age is Thrun, 22, who was going through a tough stretch before Christmas, highlighted by a dead giveaway for a Nathan Mackinnon goal in a 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 17. The blueliner said himself that a 7-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 23, was perhaps his worst game of the season, so much so that he talked to the coaches about it afterwards.
But since getting a much-needed Christmas refresh, Thrun has been the Sharks’ second most-used defenseman, averaging 21:00 minutes a night, trailing only Mario Ferraro. That’s about three minutes more than he was averaging before the holiday.
“He's making mistakes, but he's assertive," Quinn said. "He's been physical, he's skating. When you slow up, you just don't make good passes, right? His whole game is predicated on his skating, when he takes a puck and he's moving, he makes better decisions, his passes are better, his execution is better. So that's really all that happened. He started moving his feet more consistently.”
Thrun agreed, saying days before: “The nights I'm struggling, I stop moving my feet, and all of a sudden, the game starts moving a million miles an hour because guys are moving and you're not moving.”
This on-the-ice improvement is coupled with an uncommon maturity and composure that Thrun has shown since his Sharks debut last season, coming straight out of college. He has needed it, for a team that has had a lot more lows than highs.
“You really don't have a choice," Thrun said of his mental process. "You've got to find a way to reset and to find your game. At least for me, personally, I usually use the intermissions to do that. I find it hard in the period itself to kind of get out of it. I do think it's important because [as] a young player, obviously, we haven't had as many wins or as much success as we wanted. So you are going to fail.”
Thrun added: “It is a matter of learning how to kind of manage that. I do feel I'm good at it. I feel that it's something that you can continue to improve on and get better.”
That’s what Quinn has seen too. Belonging in the NHL is just as much a mental thing, as it is physical.
“Those two guys are like that, and [Ty] Emberson is like that,” Quinn said. “They can suffer here or fail, but they're strong enough and smart enough to shake it off and use it as a learning development moment to keep going.”
Quinn, known as a developmental coach because of his success behind the bench with the USNTDP and Boston University, noted that this type of mental fortitude is not easily acquired.
“It's harder to learn that, than to learn a skill," Quinn said. "That's a great skill to have, because it allows you to learn other facets of the game. That's hard to learn to manage your failures at this level.”
So for sure, Eklund and Thrun (and Emberson) are ahead of the curve in the mental game. Another future member of the Sharks who’s got it?
Top defensive prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin, from what Quinn has gathered.
Thrun, Mukhamadullin and Emberson are also all recent acquisitions, the first two at the last Trade Deadline, the latter in training camp. So depending on how you look at it? Sure, the Sharks have been, by and large, terrible this season. However, slowly but surely, they’re adding the pieces that can overcome failure, and bring the Sharks back to the playoffs one day soon.