Barracuda getting leadership boost from Criscuolo

Photo: Panayiota Good

📝 by Patrick Williams

The in-season makeover for the San Jose Barracuda started with a Calder Cup winner.

Kyle Criscuolo came to the Barracuda via a Jan. 18 trade between the parent San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings for forward Jasper Weatherby. The swap helped to loosen a veteran logjam for the Grand Rapids Griffins, while the Barracuda expected to receive a strong two-way forward capable of providing leadership for an AHL affiliate in a rebuilding organization.

Criscuolo has done all of that and more in San Jose, where the Barracuda continue to hunt down a Pacific Division playoff spot. The center, who won the Calder Cup with the Griffins in 2017, has delivered seven goals along with an assist through his first 13 games with San Jose.

With a core that includes top prospects Thomas Bordeleau and William Eklund stationed in the AHL, the Sharks want their youngsters to face Calder Cup Playoff competition. San Jose missed the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2022, and has not won a series since a run to the Western Conference Finals in 2017.

Now the Barracuda are poised to strike with 20 games to go on their schedule. An overtime loss at Coachella Valley on Monday, one in which Criscuolo opened the scoring with a power-play goal, pulled San Jose to within five points of a playoff position in the Pacific Division. The Barracuda are back at Tech CU Arena this weekend to face Ontario on Friday before a the Firebirds arrive for a Saturday rematch.

Criscuolo, has been able to slot between a variety of wings in San Jose.

The arrival of Criscuolo, who had 10 points in 28 games with Grand Rapids to start the season, kicked off a series of moves for the Barracuda. The parent club acquired forward Martin Kaut from the Colorado in a deal that moved defenseman Ryan Merkley to the Avalanche on Jan. 26. Then on Sunday, a mammoth trade with the New Jersey Devils brought forwards Andreas Johnsson and Fabian Zetterlund, defensemen Shakir Mukhamadullin and Nikita Okhotiuk, plus draft picks to the Sharks organization. Okhotiuk already has been assigned to the Barracuda.

Coming to San Jose suited Criscuolo’s speed-oriented game. His Barracuda debut Jan. 20 featured two goals in a 6-0 victory against San Diego.

“The style of play is very different,” Criscuolo said, comparing the Barracuda’s game to Grand Rapids’. “I don’t know if there’s any overlap in the systems, really.

“I think they want to play with the puck (in San Jose), and I think they want to play fast. For me I can use my speed a bit more on the rushes and hold on to pucks. They want to play fast, and they want to forecheck fast, especially in the neutral zone to cause turnovers. The way the power play runs here is a little different on entries, so just finding different spots that’ll work for me will definitely benefit my game.”

Nine Barracuda players are 22 years old or younger, including the 19-year-old Eklund and the 20-year-old Bordeleau. Adding a winner and leader like Criscuolo provided a boost for the stretch drive. Criscuolo, who captained Harvard in his junior and senior seasons there, has gone on to wear a letter with both Grand Rapids and Rochester during a 348-game AHL career that spans parts of eight seasons.

Still, coming to a new club midseason is a delicate balancing act. Veteran Andrew Agozzino captains the Barracuda, while Luke Johnson, Patrick Sieloff, Jeffrey Viel and Derrick Pouliot serve as alternates.

“It’s definitely tough,” Criscuolo acknowledged. “You don’t want to change what they already have going on. It’s definitely an adjustment coming in and just being a new player in the locker room. You just want to help out as much as you can.

“You don’t want to make anybody feel like you’re trying to take their job or trying to overstep any sort of relationship in the room that’s already been built there.”

But time to settle in San Jose has eased that transition. After being caught in a crunch of veterans in Grand Rapids, the move means that he is again a regular in an AHL lineup.

“When you’re moving across the country, it’s certainly always unexpected,” said Criscuolo, a New Jersey native.

“Moving 2,500 miles isn’t ideal for a family, but it was something that, once it was all said and done, was definitely important for my career.”