Sharks' Fabian Zetterlund must tap into tools to reach potential

Sharks' Zetterlund must tap into tools to reach potential originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Winger Fabian Zetterlund is no Timo Meier, and that’s OK.

The Sharks acquired Zetterlund in February, part of a 13-piece trade that sent Meier, a 40-goal scorer, to the New Jersey Devils.

While Zetterlund wasn’t necessarily the centerpiece of the package San Jose acquired – top prospect Shakir Mukhamadullin and a 2023 first-round pick were – the 23-year-old was enjoying a solid rookie campaign with the Devils at the time of the trade, with six goals and 14 assists in 45 games.

“He’s shown that he can be a good NHL player. Is it just a good third-liner, who can play up?” an NHL scout from outside the Sharks organization told San Jose Hockey Now about Zetterlund then.

While a reliable third-liner is a far cry from a first-liner like Meier, that’s still a pretty valuable forward.

“He still has some upside and he’s just finding his game,” the scout added. “The opportunity will be good for him.”

Except it wasn’t good: Zetterlund had zero goals and three assists in 22 games for the Sharks. That’s well short of his 82-game pace with New Jersey, 11 goals and 26 assists, about right for a third-liner.

“He’s still finding his way,” Sharks head coach David Quinn acknowledged three weeks before the end of the regular season. “Timo texted me yesterday, we were going back and forth. He was talking about how difficult the transition was to get traded. So it happens to everyone.”

The Sharks can only hope the transition is complete for Zetterlund next season. He’s still young, and the quality of his play on the Devils was a real thing.

I looked back at the pending RFA’s New Jersey tape to get a sense of why San Jose acquired him. There are two consistent and critical positives that I saw.


It’s hard to believe, considering Zetterlund went scoreless as a Shark over two-and-a-half months, but he’s got a good shot.

Eight of his nine career NHL goals have been from distance, and five of his six this season were one-timers.

His shot is hard and quick, though not necessarily accurate. He’s no finisher ... yet.

“When you're just playing this, can I belong in the league in your head?" an ex-NHL head coach said about Zetterlund’s relative inexperience. "You're not sure. And you're trying to establish yourself. You're just more concerned with putting the puck and hitting the net. Eventually, those things come along, where you start picking corners, you have more practice now. You have confidence now.”

The 2017 third-round daft pick has just 81 NHL games, over two seasons, under his belt.

“He shoots hard,” the coach said. “He's got more there to give because I think he has some goal-scoring ability in him.”

Ten, 15, 20 goals tops, who knows?

Another NHL scout was not as enamored with Zetterlund’s scoring potential, saying in February, “My initial reaction is the Sharks just traded a 35-goal scoring power forward for a collection that doesn’t include anyone projected to score 10-plus goals in the NHL.”

But it’s plain for the eye to see: Zetterlund does have a cannon. We’ll see if he can harness the weapon.


This ex-NHL head coach also lauded Zetterlund’s conservative, defensively-conscientious game.

“He's a guy who doesn't play with flash,” he said. “What you see is a guy that's bought into playing some minutes, that offers some intangibles that show that he knows the game, he understands the game.”

An example of understanding?

Zetterlund (49) follows Eric Staal (12) net front, and locks up Staal’s stick at the right moment, when the slot pass is coming in.

“What's good here is his awareness. You don't want to get beat back to the net,” the bench boss noted. “Their system is both defensemen play the post. And if it comes to [Zetterlund], he needs to make sure he's got control of the stick.”

Zetterlund’s defense-first attitude is on full display here:

After a Jack Hughes (86) turnover, Zetterlund doesn’t over-pursue the puck.

“He pulls back,” the coach pointed out. “The good decision that he makes here, when you start off the clip, it's a 2-on-4. He's F2. He doesn't get caught [up the ice]. He counts numbers. The other guy is F1, you let F1 do his job [on the forecheck].”

Then, good defense leads to good offense.

“He covers back over, which is the right play, and ends up [intercepting] not a good pass,” the coach said of the ensuing Devils counterattack. “His good positioning is rewarded.”

This is boring, winning hockey.

“Again, see how he comes up above the puck? This is a simple play,” the bench boss acknowledged of both clips. “It's the same conservative play.”

Defense isn’t always working your ass off, winning one-on-one battles. A lot of times, it’s knowing when to back off, sound positioning, and letting your opponent make the mistakes.

“This is the patience you have to have,” the coach noted. “If you start cheating, you start attacking this guy with the puck? You don't need to. You pull back and you wait through the neutral zone and let it develop.”

Not to say that Zetterlund doesn’t defend hard.

All said, while Zetterlund’s defensive game appears to be somewhat mature, this coach still sees the young winger as a bundle of tools that still needs to coalesce.

“The true test for him is going to be this fall,” he mused. “The question is going to be, have you grown over the summer?”

RELATED: NHL analyst believes Sharks were right to trade Meier, keep Hertl

The good thing, despite Zetterlund’s poor initial impression in teal, the tools are there for a solid NHL forward.
“He should be excited about the opportunity. I think he's got upside,” the head coach offered. “The ball’s in his court.”