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Sharks youth movement starts on the blueline
Santeri Hataaka one of four rookies poised to debut for SJ
10/15/21 - By Mike Lee
28 of the NHL’s 32 teams have opened their 2021-22 campaigns with games which started on Tuesday evening. The San Jose Sharks are one of four teams that have to wait until Saturday to officially start their season. For the four rookies who have been named to the Sharks opening night roster, it’s been more than a waiting game. They’re officially roster players, but until their names get inked onto a game lineup, they're simply names on a list. They may or may not be included on San Jose’s list of players who officially participate in Saturday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets at SAP Center. One of those rookies is defenseman Santeri Hatakka, a 20-year-old from Riihimaki, Finland, who is hoping his name is on the lineup sheet.

I spoke with Hatakka on the eve of what could be one of the biggest nights of his life. He’s about to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. Hatakka has been playing hockey longer than he can remember, but things have moved quickly for the young defensemen this past month. After a stellar training camp, the Sharks named him to the active roster last week. Now just hours away from potentially his first game in the NHL, he makes little attempt at masking his joy.

“I’m excited of course. This is so fun and a dream come true making the team. Hopefully I can play soon with the big boys. It’s unbelievable, I’m so happy to be here.”

While he was named to the Sharks official roster, the team can only dress 20 players for a game, so there is no telling when he will make his NHL debut. Hatakka is one of 40 Finnish players who have been named to an NHL roster to start the season, which is not lost on the rookie.

“It’s a big thing, because Finland is a small country and hockey is the number one sport there. It’s an unbelievable feeling because I didn’t think I would play in the NHL this season.”

Making the transition to the NHL is still something very much in progress. Hatakka had been to North America previously for a couple of tournaments in his junior days, but other than that, he’s really only been here since the beginning of September, and since his arrival, it’s been all hockey, all the time.

He’s looking forward to acclimating himself to the Bay Area. He’s hoping there will be plenty of time for that. He and fellow rookie William Eklund are in similar situations, in that they are both under 21, they hail from Scandinavian countries, and were both good enough to make the NHL club when few thought they would when training camp opened.

Naturally, Hatakka and Eklund have gravitated towards one another for support. They’ve not had much time away from the rink, but when they have, dining and shopping are the two things that seem to help them pass the time.

It’s easy to forget that Hatakka is still a very young player. He’s not short with his words. The answers flow easily from the blueliner which isn’t something you typically get from young professional athletes. Young players can be reserved, because they have been counseled to be that way. They are tentative because they don't want to make mistakes.

There’s no denying the youthful enthusiasm in Hatakka’s demeanor, but there’s also a level of maturity that will serve him well in the NHL. The Sharks have struggled the past two seasons and you have to look no further than their issues with defending their own net to understand why that's been the case. Developing home grown blueline talent is something the Sharks desperately need to succeed at if they are going to return to the competitive end of the NHL standings. That will require more maturity than a prospect who is being groomed by a team that has the luxury to take its time. The Sharks are not that team yet.

He’s trying to figure it all out. He’s in a foreign land. His life a year ago was much different. He was rooted in Tampere, Finland where he played for Ilves in the Finnish Elite League. He has an apartment there, a girlfriend, and the familiarity of his native land. That’s all been turned upside down, and he couldn’t be happier.

He says all the right things, but it’s still easy to see that his promotion is the biggest thing to ever happen to the kid form Riihimaki. His focus this season is simple.

“I need to be ready for every battle. I have to win 50-50 pucks. Get the puck out of our own zone.”

A simple plan, not easily mastered at the NHL level. He considers himself a stay-at-home defenseman, but his goal is to evolve his offensive game.

“When I get more experience in the NHL and the North American game, I can be that two-way defenseman,” he retorted with the conviction of a seasoned veteran. “I’m a good skater, and I can win pucks over forwards, so I can be a two-way player.”

He has some very good mentors to help him evolve the development of an offensive skill set in guys like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but he also understands that he has an obligation to keep the puck away from his own net. San Jose needs to make big strides this season, but it sounds like they understand that they will need to be patient with their brood of youngsters.

“They told me to play how you can play. They’re not expecting magic from me. Be yourself and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone will make mistakes, so if that happens all you can do is focus on your next shift.”

The Sharks know the learning curve will be steep for their younger players, but especially so for a defenseman, because blunders on the backend are magnified. He’s soaking it all in right now. Having teammates like Karlsson and Burns are guys that he wants to learn from.

When I asked him to compare himself to other Finnish defensemen, Philadelphia's Rasmus Ristolainen immediately came to mind.

“He’s a tough guy but he can play with the puck too, so I watch him a lot.”

“I like to play tough. I like to hit, so let’s see what happens.”

If that’s true, he will quickly win the favor of Sharks fans. Not since Kyle McLaren have the Sharks had a true heavy hitting defenseman. And fans love the hitters.

When I asked him about what success means for the upcoming season, his answers were not surprising.

“My biggest goal was to play in the NHL. Now I want to play here the whole season with NHL players. I want to get better every day.”

Playing an entire season at the NHL level will allow him to square off against the league’s top talent. He doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to try and stop some of the league’s marquee players. He relishes the opportunity to play against Connor McDavid and Austin Mathews. When I pointed out that those two guys get paid a lot of money to make defensemen look bad, he understood the challenge, but the Sharks need more confidence when it comes to playing against guys like McDavid and Mathews.

“I want to see how good those guys are, and how I can play against guys like that.”

Hopefully he will have the opportunity to face lots of the league’s top talent. He’s looking forward to visiting other NHL cities, which is where the team veterans will need to keep tabs on the young new talent. His description of a preseason trip to Vegas was a reminder that he’s very much still a kid.

“Vegas was sick!” he said with the wide-eyed exuberance that one would expect from a 20-year-old who was visiting Las Vegas for the first time. “It was a pre-season game and there was 16,000 people watching. That was sick!”

It will be nice if Hatakka will have 16,000 fans cheering him on in his first NHL game. That could come as soon as Saturday night in San Jose, or when the Sharks hit the road for a five-game road trip through Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Boston and Nashville.

Whenever that is, it’s sure to be sick!


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