Sharks’ young Russian defenseman earns kudos, but he’s not satisfied

SAN JOSE – Shakir Mukhamadullin took a moment to reflect Saturday after he played in his first NHL game, a significant and special moment in a journey that’s seen him move halfway across the world to San Jose from his hometown in central Russia.

Then he immediately thought about trying to improve for the next game.

“I’m so excited, it’s a big memory for me,” Mukhamadullin said after the Sharks’ 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at SAP Center. “It’s a big change, and for sure I need to play better.”

Mukhamadullin’s coach and Sharks teammates still liked what they saw for an NHL debut, as the 6-foot-4, 190-pound defenseman had 19:21 in ice time and led the team with 28 shifts as San Jose saw its modest three-game win come to an end.

Did it look like he belonged in the NHL?

“He did tonight,” Sharks coach David Quinn said. “That’s for sure.”

“I think so,” said Sharks forward William Eklund, who had two assists. “He was doing great things out there and moving the puck well, so I think he does.”

Mukhamadullin, 22, certainly wasn’t shy about firing the puck as he finished with a team-high nine shot attempts (three were on net). But what stood out to the Sharks about Mukhamadullin was his relatively calm demeanor on the ice.

Mukhamadullin, who spent the first half of the season with the Barracuda before his recall on Thursday, said that naturally, he felt nervous about taking part in his first NHL game. But it seemed he wasn’t afraid to make plays with the puck, although he quickly realized that he doesn’t have as much time at this level as he did in the AHL.

Still, if Mukhamadullin, taken 20th overall by New Jersey in 2020 and acquired by San Jose last February as part of the Timo Meier trade, develops the way the Sharks hope he will, they could have a long-term top-four defenseman on their hands, and another piece to the puzzle in their complex rebuild.

“He looked poised for his first NHL game,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said of Mukhamadullin. “You joke with certain players, guys like (Drew) Doughty and (Miro) Heiskanen — and I’m not comparing him to those guys — but those guys play without a heartbeat almost.

“You get the puck and it looks easy. They scan the ice without much panic and I think Shakir has some of that in his game.”

The Sharks’ next game is Tuesday at home against the Seattle Kraken, and their last game before the All-Star break is Wednesday in Anaheim against the Ducks.

Where does Mukhamadullin’s game go from here?

“I don’t know if it’s one particular thing, but just getting acclimated in every area really to play in the National Hockey League,” Quinn said. “Finding out how to use his body. He’s a tall kid, but still thin. Learning how to use leverage and his stick and body positioning and a little bit more anticipation with the puck.”

One example came early in the second period.

Mukhamadullin was on the ice for forward Alex Tuch’s even-strength goal to break a 2-2 tie and put the Sabres ahead to stay.

A Nico Sturm turnover created Buffalo’s scoring chance, and a few seconds later, Tuch’s shot from near the slot got past a screened Kaapo Kahkonen to give the Sabres a 3-2 lead at the 1:36 mark of the second period.

Ideally, Mukhamadullin would have used his body to move Jordan Greenway out of the crease to allow Kahkonen a chance to see the puck. Of course, it’s hard to move anyone who is 6-6 and 231-pounds like the veteran Greenway.

“But for the first time in an NHL game,” Quinn said, “he did very well.”

The Sharks on Saturday took a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jan Rutta, with Eklund assisting on both.

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But the Sabres responded with goals by JJ Peterka and Greenway before the end of the first, then sealed the win in the third on goals by Peterka, his 18th of the season, at the 4:33 mark, then an empty-netter by Dylan Cozens with 4:16 to play.

“It just looked like we thought it was going to be easy,” Quinn said. “I thought we came in a lot of energy and a lot of pace. Then all of a sudden we get up 2-0, and it was funny how it just changed. Just got away from skating and competing and playing responsibly and we just weren’t able to get it back.”

At least Mukhamadullin, a native of Ufa, Russia, has his first NHL game out of the way. Maybe, if things go well, it will be the start of a new era.

“What did I learn?,” Mukhamadullin asked rhetorically. “I want to watch my shifts (Sunday) and after I think about my game. I want to play better every game.”

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