Almost fifteen years of consecutive playoff appearances do not make for the strongest prospect pool. Coupled with Doug Wilson’s policy of only drafting the safest choices (which he seemingly abandoned for this year to take Ryan Merkley), it leaves you with fistfuls of prospects with a third line/second pair ceiling.
Late round success has kept the Sharks steady for now, but banking the future of your organisation on long shots who just happen to defy the odds is not a sustainable model. With development camp having come and gone last month, I figured there was no better time to take a look at San Jose’s prospects who are in the process of proving their worth.
My rankings are based on a mix of raw skill and NHL readiness, hence the placement of Merkley behind Suomela and Gambrell. See the end of the list for my honorable mentions.
With that in mind, lets take a look at San Jose’s top 10 strongest swimmers.
10. Ivan Chekhovich- LW
Third on his QMJHL team in scoring, Chekhovich put up 60 points in 65 games with Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the 17-18 season, and helped propel the Russian U18 team to a bronze medal at the U18 world junior championships, with 9 points in 7 games, the year before.
Scooped up in the 7th round of the 2017 NHL Draft, he was a steal along with Chmelevski, and in 6 AHL Barracuda games he scored 9 points (3 goals, 6 assists), and supported the Barracuda to their quest for a playoff run.
For all his touted hockey sense, it’s Chekhovich’s shot that makes him memorable, and he’s one of a number of interesting San Jose prospects to look out for, but are still a few years out.
9. Alexander Chmelevski- C
Alexander ‘Sasha’ Chmelevski has turned into a steal for the sharks, taken 185th overall in the 6th round of the 2017 NHL Draft. His first OHL season was nothing to turn your head, hence his fall from being projected third round to being taken in the sixth, but since then he has steadily improved, leading the Ottawa 67’s last season in scoring, with 76 points in 68 games.
With a minimum of another year playing in juniors, we won’t see him playing more than the odd late-season game with the Barracuda, though in the six games he played in the AHL last season the ‘Cuda went on a 6-0 run.
Currently playing in the World Junior Summer Showcase, if you want to catch some summer hockey and a glimpse of Chmelevski (+Norris), then you can find Team USA’s schedule here.
It’s too early to expect much from Chmelevski, but the Sharks organisation seems to hold him in high regards, so when he makes the jump to the AHL, he’ll be met with expectations that he may struggle to live up to.
Chmelevski from NHL.com
8. Mario Ferarro- D
He doesn’t score well in NHL projected Wins Above Replacement, but at 19, he still has some strides to make. In just two more NCAA games than fellow Sharks prospect Josh Norris, Ferraro put up the same number of points. As a defenseman.
Selected 49th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft (higher than most rankings had him placed, but that seems to be Doug Wilson’s draft strategy), Ferraro currently plays with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and will serve as a Captain for the team in the 18-19 season. He broke the freshman defenseman scoring record for UMass Amherst, taking the title from Brandon Montour, who set it in 2014-15.
Having expressed his desire to take a patient path to the NHL, making as many improvements to his game as possible before making the jump, Ferraro is another prospect that is a few years out yet, but he’ll certainly be one to watch.
7. Linus Karlsson- C
Linus Karlsson is a player I’m definitely interested in. Of all Sharks prospects, he has the highest projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of any San Jose prospect. Selected in the 3rd round of the 2018 NHL Draft, there’s time before we’ll see a real scope of what his NHL potential will be.
Karlsson will be in the second tier Allsvenskan next season, with Karlskrona HK, moving to the mens league from Karlskrona Junior where he put up 52 points in 42 games. I imagine his production and development in the 18-19 season will dictate when he comes to North America.
6. Ryan Merkley- D
It’s hard not to be fascinated by Ryan Merkley. Said to be the most offensively talented defenseman behind Dahlin in the 2018 NHL Draft, he dropped out of the top 10 because of ‘attitude issues’. Playing with Guelph in the OHL for the last two years, he once was sent back to the dressing room mid-game for kicking off with his coach.
Moreover, there are some questions to be raised with his defensive game, and though +/- is a bad statistic to evaluate defenseman, in his two seasons with Guelph , Merkley has an impressive -70, but it’s worth noting that the team wasn’t exactly stacked for talent.
Merkley will likely spend at least another year in Guelph, as a CHL player he isn’t eligible to play in the AHL for another two years at least. It’s very likely we see him jump straight from juniors to the NHL at some point in the near future, suggested by San Jose signing him to an ELC earlier in July.
5. Josh Norris- C
Norris is an interesting prospect. He was an incredibly safe pick in the 16-17 draft, but his production dropped off in the move from the US National U18 Team and USNTDP Juniors to NCAA with the University of Michigan. Norris was the 7th highest scorer on last season’s Michigan team, with 23 points in 37 games. Not exactly ideal for a 1st round pick in his draft+1 year.
Ideally, we’ll see an uptick in production from Norris in the 18-19 season, with Michigan’s top 2 scorers not returning he should see, if not more minutes, then better minutes. Don’t expect him to be NHL ready any time in the next two seasons, though.
4. Joachim Blichfield- LW
This 20 year old winger was a point per game player in 56 WHL games last season, and also had 6 points in 6 games at world juniors, where he was notably stretchered off the ice after being boarded in a game against Belarus.
I have him ranked fourth because of his ability to score combined with his frame. At 6’2 and 181lbs, he’s a big body who can hold his own, though he could probably do with putting on a little extra muscle.
Blichfield has made incredible progress, having been selected in the 7th round of the NHL Draft in 2016, and will play for the San Jose Barracuda next season.
3. Dylan Gambrell- C
Before the Suomela signing, Gambrell is who I expected to see minutes in the 4C spot next season. According to Emmanuel Perry’s prospect model data, he has the highest percentage chance to make the NHL out of the Sharks’ current prospects. He’s another 21 year old third line ceiling player, like Balcers, who will be vying for NHL minutes in the upcoming seasons.
Despite an uneventful 3 games in the big show last season, where he failed to put up a point, a focus on cleaning up his defensive game in the offseason could give him the chance to edge out Suomela for the fourth line centre position.
2. Antti Suomela- C
Suomela seems to be the consensus pick for the 4C position come October. Considering the work must have taken San Jose to beat a supposed twelve other teams to sign him from Finland, it’s a fair bet he’ll see NHL time this season. Brought in on a one-year ‘show me’ deal, Suomela led Finland’s Liiga last season with 60 points in 59 games, 21 of those points were goals.
A single year contract at 24 years old, the beginning of the consensus ‘physical prime’, could work to Suomela’s favour, as he could wow in this season and secure himself a longer contract at the NHL level.
1. Rudolf Balcers- LW
At this point, it really feels like we’re just waiting for Balcers to be brought up. DraftLook on twitter put out a list of the top AHL players, ranked by birth year adjusted ‘NHLe’, essentially what their scoring rate would translate to in NHL points per 82 games. Balcers was ranked tenth, above Tage Thompson, Nikita Scherbak and Alex Nylander, and behind Dylan Strome, Nick Merkley and Lias Andersson. Projected as a 51 point NHL player, he could provide extra depth scoring for the Sharks’ left side.
At 21, Balcers is at an age where another AHL season wouldn’t hurt, but he definitely has his metaphorical shoe in the door to make his NHL debut in the 2018-19 season. Most of us who keep up with Sharks prospects, or who watched the World Championships this year, have seen Balcers’ OT goal against Norway.
It highlights well what Balcers can bring to the game— persistence in the zone and the nimbleness to get around defenders. Three years out from his prime, Balcers will be top of everyone’s call-up lists, but still has growing room. Don’t expect to see him in the NHL on opening night, but outside of Suomela, he’s the most NHL ready.
My first honorable mention is Jayden Halbgewachs (don’t try saying that one quickly). As the CHL’s top scorer last season, with 129 points in 72 games played with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, it’s easy to look at that and over-inflate his value as a prospect. Halbgewachs played 5 more games than the closest scorer, who was only 4 points behind, and 15 more games than the third leading scorer, who was 11 points behind.
WHL scoring also looks more impressive than that of other leagues, but in the end, each WHL point is worth less expected NHL points than, say, a point in the Liiga, or Allsvenskan. Moreover, Halbgewachs has spent 4 years in the WHL, so a better test of his ability will come when he starts next season with the Barracuda in the AHL.
At 5’8, it will be a test of another calibre, but the road is paved for this 70 goal scorer to impress in the 18-19 season.
My second honorable mention is Jacob Middleton. Based on Emmanuel Perry’s prospect data, he doesn’t appear to be anything special, but due to the dire state of San Jose’s prospect pool, he is regarded as next in the pecking order to crack the Shark’s defensive lineup after Tim Heed, the predicted 2018-19 7th d-man.
His value caved in his draft+1 year, but has since picked up in his time with the San Jose Barracuda, playing his first full season with them in 2016-17. Middleton is yet another example of the Sharks banking on late round picks to defy the odds, as a 7th round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings.
With 28 points in 67 games (6G, 22A) Middleton isn’t a high scoring rover, but could serve the Sharks well should there be a disastrous series of injuries to the blueline. Middleton fell out of my top 10 for being nothing more than a replacement level defender with little chance of long term NHL success.
There’s little to be truly excited about when it comes to San Jose prospects, outside of Merkley and Norris, and the tier below carries prospects like Linus Karlsson and Rudolfs Balcers.
It highlights a need for change within the Sharks organisation and their drafting tactic, as letting higher round picks be wasted and fade from relevancy while late round picks plug the holes cannot sustain a team in the long run, no matter how many of them defy the odds to pitch a chance at NHL minutes.
However, there are names to watch, so hope is not completely lost.
Feature image credit: NHL.com