Arrival Of The Mack

Hockey—the actual sport, played with sticks and a puck, on ice—is going away for a while. That is, unfortunately, one of the trade-offs of “summer.” But before the NHL enters full-on hibernation, there are moves to make and shakes to … shake. Free agency begins on July 1, and before then, we have a draft starting Friday night, which is the first draft I’ve seen in any sport where the venue is getting more hype than any of the eligible players. (The league’s uncanny headline from Wednesday: “Sphere generating excitement ahead of 2024 NHL Draft.”) The most coveted kid has long been obvious: Macklin Celebrini, a beautiful name wrapped around some incredible talent. It will undoubtedly be the Sharks who celebrate Celebrini, calling him up to the stage first. But what’s his deal? I will tell you.

Here’s one fun fact: Macklin Celebrini was born a full decade after the release of “Return of the Mack.” Whoa!

But how is he as a player? Well, he is the definition of the word “prodigy.” If you looked up that word in the dictionary, you probably wouldn’t see a photo of him, because most dictionaries are old and don’t have pictures, but all the same. The center from North Vancouver just turned 18 two weeks ago, and yet he’s already played a full season of college hockey at Boston University. Not only that, but he was better than everyone he played with and against. Despite his minor status and the fact that he entered the year coming off shoulder surgery, Celebrini scored 32 goals and notched 32 assists in 38 games to become the youngest ever to earn the Hobey Baker Award—essentially the hockey Heisman, if John Heisman had been way cooler.

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He’s not quite heralded as a complete gamebreaker in the vein of former obvious No. 1 picks like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, but for a teenager Celebrini seems to carry almost no risks, because he has the work ethic, intelligence, and confidence to complement his unquestionable physical abilities. He’s always visible when he’s on the ice, whether he’s shooting, maneuvering into the zone, or breaking up an attack on the other end. At the college level, he was a playmaker, dancing through defenders that seemed to react to him at half speed. His highlights are Messi-esque in their creativity, and even though pro defenses will be much, much better at containing his flourishes, you have to envy the Sharks for the opportunity they have to help him reach his ceiling.

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Of course, the arrival of Celebrini is the only reason anyone would envy the Sharks. Once the NHL’s paragon of consistency, San Jose’s overlapping generations of stars stalled out in 2019 as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau hit 40 and Joe Pavelski signed with Dallas. The Sharks have felt incomplete ever since, and even though they’ve missed the playoffs for five straight years, last draft’s selection of Will Smith at fourth overall was their first top-five pick since 1998. Fair or not, Celebrini is supposed to be their savior.

But rescuing a franchise, particularly in hockey, is not a one-person job. Even the best-case scenarios—worst-to-first turnarounds heralded by No. 1 picks like Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon—were not won with 1-on-20 heroics. Connor Bedard, who came into the league even more hyped than Celebrini a season ago, enjoyed a pretty unimpeachable rookie year, yet Chicago is right back at the bottom of this draft, picking directly after the Sharks.

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Celebrini’s team-to-be has already jumped on some depth pieces that seem intended to ease the shock of his NHL leap, and they also made a move on Thursday to jump from 14th to 11th in the first round, presumably for a specific reason. But the Sharks have so much to improve. This team was dead last in goals against and second-last in scoring this past season, and that included two of their top four scorers, both of whom played half a season and moved at the deadline. They tried five different goalies and the most impressive one played just 59 minutes at the very end of the year. Almost all of their skaters, with the exceptions of workhorse D-man Mario Ferraro and the overmatched 21-year-old William Eklund (last in the league in plus/minus), were mediocre cast-offs from more successful teams.

With the shiniest reward for five seasons of failure right around the corner, perhaps the most painful stretch of Sharks history is coming to a close, as fans will at least be able to pay to watch a player with undeniable star potential develop in front of their eyes. But contending for a Cup demands a consistent draft hit rate as well as some bigger swings. GM Mike Grier, on the job now for two years, has kept the team in neutral up to this point, but soon his goals will require more aggression. Celebrini might not be able to turn around a franchise by himself, but he’s a great start.

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