Macklin Celebrini's first competitive action with Sharks energizes fans, fuels optimism

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The clock was ticking down, and while it may have been an intrasquad scrimmage played in four-on-four and three-on-three formats, Macklin Celebrini’s competitive appetite only got stronger as his team mounted a big comeback.

Until the final minute, Celebrini’s efforts hadn’t done much to change the scoreboard in four 12-minute periods to cap off a development camp like no other. The San Jose Sharks had long anticipated great interest in the 18-year-old No. 1 overall pick. Tickets were sold for a summer scrimmage that needed to be played at Tech CU Arena, the 4,200-seat main rink and home of the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda. And the anticipation was real, with Sharks fans popping up at the facility more than two hours before the first puck drop.

Thousands did beat the heat on a 95-degree day to cheer on the Sharks’ prospects, and Celebrini drew the loudest cheers during introductions. The love flowed his way anytime his name rang out over the loudspeakers. And he did things that earned appreciation. Kept possessions alive. Won puck battles. Hit teammates with passes on time for them to do damage. Dutiful backchecks.

But his own shots were just a bit off, either clanking off a post or zooming just wide of the net. Seconds continued to scamper away, and with his team down two goals, Celebrini was bound to make things happen with his goalie pulled for an extra attacker. He’d shoot a puck wide but continually looked for open space, eventually getting a recovered puck and finding Kasper Halttunen coming off the bench. Halttunen’s bullet cut a two-goal deficit in half.

And then Celebrini would hustle back to deny a shot at an empty net. His work didn’t cease. He’d jump back into the play and start a rush sequence that ended in Eric Pohlkamp’s tying score just before time expired.

That’s what the Sharks have long seen and coveted. That’s what college hockey experienced as the Boston University freshman dominated in becoming the youngest player to win the Hobey Baker Award.

“I saw it at the world juniors this year,” said Todd Marchant, the Sharks’ director of player development and a 17-year NHL center. “I think it was the quarterfinal game. (Canada) ended up losing the game. But it was like, ‘Let’s go.’ Like, follow me. You saw it again today.

“He didn’t want to come off the ice. Well, why would you want to take him off the ice, first off? But he didn’t want to come off. He wanted to be a part of that process. And this is a development-camp scrimmage in July. You love players that want to play in the big situations. You want players that want the responsibility and the pressure because they thrive off of it. And he is one of those guys.”

Celebrini’s decision to either sign with the Sharks and make his bid for their lineup in the Oct. 10 opener against St. Louis or return to BU for his sophomore season is expected to come soon. He didn’t address that Thursday, but he said he’d go through the camp first.

The last three days have been eventful. Introductions with Sharks personnel that he had yet to meet. Workouts, skating drills and shooting sessions, of course. Countless autographs signed. The constant attention from the Sharks’ draft lottery victory to his big moment last week at Sphere in Las Vegas to now hasn’t been overwhelming.

“It’s been amazing,” Celebrini said. “Meeting all the staff. The draft was very busy, and I met a lot of people. A lot of it I forget. Actually getting here and putting names to faces and really creating that relationship is really cool. Creating that relationship with the fans as well. Yeah, I’m just excited. It’s going to be pretty cool.

“You got to put it all in perspective. This is why we play. We love the game, and we try to be the best we can be. This is what I’ve been dreaming of ever since we were little kids, to get to this level and play in the NHL one day.”

Celebrini’s voice still sounds like that of a teenager. He’s experienced much more than most. Not only has the native of North Vancouver and the one-time Jr. Shark on track to be San Jose’s beloved adopted son has so far met expectations as a game-changing talent, but he’s handling it with the maturity of someone beyond his years.

“I haven’t seen anything that he looks like a kid that he’s 18,” said John McCarthy, coach of the AHL’s Barracuda. “Just with everything that’s been thrown at him from the draft. Being at the draft and just seeing the wave of cameras following him all the time. He’s mic’d up. That’s a lot for a kid that age.

“He’s handled it all very well. … He’s composed. He’s mature for that age. He’s shown to be older than that age.”

The preternaturally well-rounded game reflects that. Celebrini is more calculated than electrifying. He’s continually searching for the best option as plays change and evolve on the ice. On one long shift that drew applause, Celebrini made a spinning backhand pass to an open Halttunen and kept the possession going behind the net when he won a puck battle and got it to fellow 2024 draft pick Nate Misskey. He’d circle back to the top of the offensive zone and present himself as a passing option.

Tired at the end of it, Celebrini fumbled the puck. But the crowd picked up on his insatiable work ethic.

“The first thing that I notice is he wants to be first in everything,” Marchant said. “The first day after breakfast, they go outside for a little activation warm-up. He’s leading his group. Right away, he’s first in line. Then you see him on the ice. He’s first in the drills.

“Those things you don’t teach. I can’t go to a player and say, ‘Hey, you should be first in line.’ They just instinctively have that. And then you watch how he plays on the ice or you watch him in the gym. The first day after on the ice, he was in the gym riding the bike and then he had a little workout. He said, ‘I just want to get a little extra.’

“You can’t teach that. He just has it in him. That’s his personality.”

In the shadows of Macklin Mania is Will Smith, the No. 4 pick of the 2023 draft who led the NCAA in scoring for Boston College. It didn’t take long for Smith to put his vision and silky hands into action. Just seconds after taking the opening draw against Celebrini at center ice, Smith jumped on a turnover and found Quentin Musty — another recent first-rounder and strong forward prospect — in the slot for an easy conversion.

The scrimmage only provided more fodder for the Sharks to believe Celebrini and Smith are their next dominant one-two punch at center. Smith’s offensive gifts will make a lot of wingers happy.

“I’ve played against him and had to chase him around,” Celebrini said, referencing their many clashes as rivals in international or college play. “Every time he played against us, he always lit us up. I’ve known that for a while playing against him in whatever leagues. Watching him. You see him out there just doing the same things. He’s a special player and a special person as well.”

There was an unmistakable air of optimism floating around Thursday. When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly turned over the Sharks logo on May 7 and BU’s No. 71 became No. 1, that put San Jose back on the radar. Interest has been rekindled.

Randy Hahn has been the television play-by-play voice of the Sharks for more than three decades. Hahn said fan support has remained strong but knows it has waned over five straight seasons without any playoffs. He’s had to call many games with more empty seats SAP Center around him. This difficult teardown and rebuild has been a sobering reality for all that saw the playoffs as spring ritual.

But the arrival of Celebrini, in Hahn’s view, has brought back an energy missing since their Game 7 miracle comeback against Vegas in 2019. This could be a signature moment that can alter a franchise’s path.

“The only other moment in the history of the franchise that comes to me as being as significant, potentially as significant, was the day we traded for Joe Thornton,” Hahn said. “Joe’s the best player we’ve ever had. The franchise kind of took off in a whole different direction from the day he got here and maybe not coincidentally after he left. If he can impact the Sharks the way Joe did, then that would be amazing.

“That’s a huge ask of a kid who just turned 18. But I think that’s the way the fan base feels. This is kind of like that moment.”

(Photo of Macklin Celebrini at the San Jose Sharks prospect scrimmage: Kavin Mistry / NHLI via Getty Images)

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