Excitement for 2023-24 Sharks prospects warranted, must be tempered 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.
Is this the most exciting group of Sharks prospects in franchise history?
Headlined by 2023 No. 4 overall pick Will Smith and 2021 No. 7 overall pick William Eklund, the Sharks are expected to have two top-six forwards, both possibly first-liners, in hand. Defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin, center Filip Bystedt, and winger Quentin Musty are consensus choices to round out San Jose’s top-five prospects.
“Exciting” is the keyword here – obviously, we have no idea right now how Smith or any of these prospects’ careers will pan out.
But there’s buzz around the Sharks' system that we haven’t seen for a long time, which is the upside of San Jose missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for four straight seasons, after two decades of constant Cup contention. And the buzz should only get louder, even if Eklund and Henry Thrun graduate – the Sharks are expected to get a top-five pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-rounder (top-10 protected) from the Erik Karlsson trade, and the New Jersey Devils’ first-rounder (if the Devils make the Eastern Conference Finals) from the Timo Meier trade.
Anyway, to figure out if this is indeed the most exciting group of Sharks prospects yet, San Jose Hockey Now turned to two men who have covered the franchise from the beginning, Hall of Famer and voice of the Sharks Dan Rusanowsky and San Jose Mercury News writer Mark Purdy. I also reached out to an NHL scout who has seen a couple generations of Sharks prospects.
To streamline the decision-making, I asked Rusanowsky and Purdy to only judge preseason top-10 Sharks prospects lists from The Hockey News Yearbook (from 1991 to 2020) and San Jose Hockey Now (from 2021 to 2023). And once again, we’re not looking at career results, but the buzz around the prospects at the time.
Here are our choices for the top-three most exciting Sharks prospects classes ever, in order, along with some additional observations.
This was THN’s top-10 Sharks preseason prospects in 2005-06. THN didn’t add that year’s draft picks to their rankings, but they should have been included, so they’re included here.
Purdy and the scout were particularly enthusiastic about this class.
“I guess the closest thing to the current optimistic view of the Sharks' prospect list took place in the mid-aughts, from 2004-06,” Purdy recalled. “Even as the team was starting to make major noise at the NHL level, I remember hearing a lot of buzz about the young guys who were coming next – Milan Michalek, Christian Ehrhoff, Marcel Goc, and Steve Bernier. I also recall hearing about a big lug named Douglas Murray who was down there in the AHL, body checking innocent victims around in Cleveland.”
Michalek and Ehrhoff, in particular, became impact players. Setoguchi and Carle also were buzzworthy and had solid NHL careers, while 2005 second-round draft pick Vlasic still is playing, 1,239 regular-season games and counting.
This was THN’s top-10 Sharks pre-season prospects in 1997-98, not in order. THN didn’t add that year’s draft picks to their rankings, but they should have been included, so they’re included here.
“Patrick Marleau had a fan club before he played an NHL game,” Rusanowsky noted.
This group, however, might not have the depth of the 2005-06 class. It’s close.
But as Rusanowsky suggested, it has the most-hyped prospect in Sharks history, perhaps short of Pat Falloon, in 1997 second-overall pick Marleau.
“The future looked so bright for the Sharks then,” the NHL scout said.
It looked like the foundation of a Stanley Cup winner to the scout. Marleau, Hannan, Sturm, Nabokov, and Korolyuk would form the nucleus of future successful Sharks squads that couldn’t quite seal the deal.
“2001-02 hopes were so high going into 2002-03, then crash,” the scout recalled, referring to San Jose taking the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche to Game 7 in the second round of the 2002 playoffs, only to miss the postseason the next year.
This is SJHN’s top-10 Sharks preseason prospects in 2023-24.
“This one with Smith and Musty looks pretty solid and has had more attention, mostly on Smith, but I think it’s probably a tad short of the hype surrounding Marleau,” Rusanowsky said.
“The situation this time feels different, because those [2005-06] larvae were joining a team that was already very good,” Purdy pointed out. “The current batch of Los Tiburones pups will have to do much more heavy lifting.”
The Sharks believed in Joe Pavelski, but no one else did. Despite a 56-point season in just 43 games for Wisconsin in 2005-06, good for fourth in the NCAA, the 2003 seventh-round draft pick couldn’t crack THN’s top-10 before the 2006-07 campaign. By the next year, after making an immediate contribution in San Jose with 14 goals and 14 assists in 46 games, “Little Joe” wasn’t considered a prospect anymore.
Patience is a virtue: 1995 fifth-round draft pick Miikka Kiprusoff made six straight Sharks’ top-10 prospects lists, before establishing himself as an NHL player in 2001-02. In 2003-04, the 27-year-old broke out, albeit with the Calgary Flames, finishing second in the Vezina Trophy voting.
Vesa Toskala showed up on a whopping eight-straight THN top-10 Sharks prospects lists.
No. 1 Sharks prospects over the years, per THN and SJHN? Will Smith (2023), William Eklund (2022, 2021), Ryan Merkley (2020, 2019), Josh Norris (2018, 2017), Timo Meier (2016, 2015), Mirco Mueller (2014), Tomas Hertl (2013, 2012), Nick Petrecki (2011), Logan Couture (2010, 2009, 2008, 2007), Devin Setoguchi (2006), Milan Michalek (2004, 2005), Brad Boyes (2003), Jonathan Cheechoo (2002), Jeff Jillson (2001, 2000), Brad Stuart (1999), and Alexander Korolyuk (1998). THN didn’t rank prospects in their yearbooks before 1998-99. But had they, Marleau, Andrei Zyuzin, Viktor Kozlov, Mike Rathje, and Pat Falloon would almost certainly have been No. 1 Sharks prospects.
And here’s our last word, from the great Mark Purdy: “As someone who covered the Sharks from Day 1, I learned pretty quickly to take front office comments about draft choices and prospects with a large grain of salt.
“In their 1991 expansion negotiations with the NHL, the San Jose franchise demanded to keep half of the Minnesota North Stars prospects that owner George Gund and player personnel guru Chuck Grillo had drafted or signed. One prospect named Ed Courtenay was supposed to have ‘Gretzky hands’ according to Grillo. I fault myself for not asking him whether he meant Wayne Gretzky or his dad, Walter. Courtenay and his hands ended up playing just 44 games in San Jose, then spent the rest of his career in the minors or overseas in the UK and Ireland.”