Defenseman Gannon Laroque could be excused for having a little extra enthusiasm this week as he and other San Jose Sharks prospects got ready for the six-team Rookie Faceoff in Las Vegas.
After all, it had been about nine months since he last played a game.
“My smile is probably the biggest you’ve ever seen,” Laroque said Friday after he had a goal and an assist in the Sharks team’s 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings. “It was fun to be out there again.”
Laroque, a fourth-round draft pick by the Sharks in 2021, is coming off a challenging 2022-2023 season in which he had two surgeries – followed by two grueling rehabs — with just four games played for the WHL’s Victoria Royals.
After he was drafted, Laroque enjoyed a breakout season with the Royals with 52 points in 63 games. A right-shot defenseman, Laroque was suddenly considered one of the organization’s top prospects — certainly, he was the most improved — and the Sharks announced on June 1, 2022, that they had signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
Laroque was also a candidate to make a stacked Team Canada roster, one featuring Connor Bedard, for last season’s IIHF World Junior Championships in Nova Scotia.
But a hip injury and a subsequent surgery derailed those plans. Laroque had his first surgery, an Osteoplasty and labral repair, on his right hip in August 2022. He came back and played four games for the Royals in January, collecting five points, and then had the same procedure done on his left hip this past April.
“We didn’t really know what was going on and had to get it checked out,” Laroque said. “Obviously ended up getting (surgery) out of the way and fixing it so, all 100% and good now.”
Now 20 years old, Laroque’s career appears to be back on track.
“Going through those injuries that he had, it’s pretty scary at his age and I think he’s recovered well,” said Sharks forward prospect Tristen Robins, a fellow WHL alum. “Through it all, he’s had a smile on his face. That’s really, really good to see.”
Now it’s a matter of what’s next for Laroque.
He can return to junior hockey for one more season or he can turn professional and play with one of the Sharks’ minor league affiliates, either with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda or the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder.
There’s not much ambiguity as to what Laroque wants to do.
“My goal is to turn pro,” Laroque said. “I thought I had a really good summer and the rehab went really well and I actually beat my beat my other recovery (time) by a couple of weeks. I’m feeling really confident out there and (with) this first game, my confidence has started to build.
“I want to be pro this year.”
The question now is what the Sharks want for Laroque with only so many pro roster spots available, at least in San Jose.
The Sharks have seven defensemen on one-way contracts, plus Jacob MacDonald, who played in 25 NHL games last season.
The Barracuda also has about eight or nine defensemen likely pegged to be a part of that team, at least for the start of the season, with the 6-4, 220-pound Artem Guryev – another 20-year-old from the 2021 draft class – also ready to turn pro.
“It is important that they do have time to play,” Barracuda coach John McCarthy said. “But that being said, we put the prospects at a premium around here. That’s our job as an American League team is to make NHL players.
“So if somebody looks like they’re ready, and it’s in their best interest, we’re not going to box them out with other people. They kind of come first.”
So the question that will be decided in the coming days and weeks is what does the Sharks organization see as the best path forward for Laroque, and how is that decided? McCarthy said Sharks managers will get together after this camp to decide the next step for every player, including who will get invites to the main training camp that starts Thursday.
“Every case is kind of different. They kind of weigh out the pros and cons and forecast where we’re at as an organization, and where the Barracuda is at, the numbers, what junior team are they on,” McCarthy said. “There’s so much that goes into every decision. There’s no kind of a policy on it. It’s more of an individual basis.
“The message to the player is just show up, take it day by day, and make the decision hard on management.”
McCarthy said Laroque played well against Los Angeles, and Laroque felt more comfortable as the game went on.
“I think after the first couple of shifts, (I started) simplifying my game,” Laroque said, “then I started to gain some confidence with the puck.”