Well, this is awkward.
If this article had gone up on Wednesday or earlier, I’d have told you that Rudolfs Balcers was going to be the face of the San Jose Barracuda in 2018-19. Since being drafted by the Sharks in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Balcers has grown to become one of the more exciting prospects in the San Jose system. As a 20-year-old playing his first AHL season, Balcers led the ‘Cuda in with 23 goals and 48 points in 2017-18.
That was, of course, until Thursday rolled around and Doug Wilson pulled the trigger on one of the biggest trades in San Jose Sharks history. Rudolfs Balcers is now a member of the Ottawa Senators as one of the centrepieces in the Erik Karlsson trade.
Considering it’s far too late to redo the entire Top 25 Under 25 list, we decided to do a Balcers article anyway, but now it’s essentially for a different audience; for all the Senators fans out there who’ve lost their captain and their hope. Rudolfs Balcers may not be the prospect you hoped for, but he’s the one you need right now.
The first thing to know about Balcers is his drive. At 5-foot-11 and 174 pounds, he’s never been the biggest, strongest or even most talented player on the ice. But through his commitment and hard working attitude, Balcers has pushed himself into the conversation as a key prospect for the Sharks and has improved his skills at every level he’s played.
Balcers started his career journeying through the Norwegian junior programs before finding a home in the Stavanger Oilers system. He got his first taste of professional hockey as a 16-year-old, playing in two games for the adult Oilers in 2013-14. Over three seasons the Liepaja, the Latvia native posted 56 points in 98 games for Stavanger, while also appearing in 21 games for the Under-20 Oilers during that time span.
In 2016, Balcers made the jump to North America and joined the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers. In his only season with the Blazers, he finished second in team scoring with 77 points and first in goals with 40. His progress adapting to North American ice impressed the Sharks and Balcers signed his entry level deal with San Jose during the 2017 off-season.
Balcers’ ability to push himself and improve his game year after year is what made him a staple of the Barracuda’s offense last season and a major part of the epic Karlsson trade. His speed and puck handling skills set him apart all season, and even landed him a spot on Roy Sommer’s top power play unit.
While Balcers does play with the confidence of a 6-foot-4 player, his actual size is a bit of a question mark. The NHL game is trending towards smaller, more skilled players, but Balcers’ small frame could be the thing that holds him back from cracking the NHL. If he bulks up a little bit over the course of the year, he may be able to push that narrative away, as he has with all the others over his career.
Balcers was probably going to start the season with the Barracuda, with the expectations of earning a few call ups from the Sharks over the course of the year. But thanks to Doug Wilson’s sheer excellence, Rudolfs will likely open the 2018-19 campaign on Ottawa’s AHL affiliates, the Belleville Senators.
Belleville had a tough inaugural season in their new home, but the addition of a goal scorer like Balcers will definitely help them improve on their 29 wins last year. But according to Emmanuel Perry’s NHLe metric, if Balcers retains his current scoring pace, he’d notch 25 NHL points this season, and could even hit 50+ points by the time he’s 25. With a team in rebuilding mode like the Sens are, it makes sense that he’d end up getting a few extended call ups, but he could even solidify himself in Ottawa’s bottom-six right off the bat.
What we like
His speed in all departments (shots, skating, etc.) makes him stand out among his AHL peers. If he’s able to translate it to the much quicker NHL game, he’ll earn some big minutes in Guy Boucher’s offensively challenged lineup.
Areas of Improvement
It’s no secret that Boucher takes a strong defense-first approach to his hockey teams, and that’s a place where Balcers has really struggled. According to Prospect Stats, Balcers finished last season with a goals for percentage of 47.06 at 5-on-5, ranking him 10th among Barracuda skaters who played 30 games or more. If Rudolfs wants to become a Senators mainstay, that number absolutely has to go up at the AHL level first.
Balcers will mostly be remembered in San Jose for his four-point performance in Game 2 of the Barracuda’s playoff series against the Tucson Roadrunners. But in April, Rudolfs joined the Latvian national team for the IIHF World Hockey Championships and turned heads by leading the team to the quarterfinals with 6 points in eight games. His biggest moment during the tournament? A two-goal performance in their opening game against Norway, including this slick overtime winner.
Enjoy him, Sens fans.