Over the past few years, a handful of enterprising statistics mavens on Twitter have taken it upon themselves to deliver us a wins above replacement (WAR) metric. Like the metric’s namesake in baseball, WAR tries to do two things:
- Control for and remove teammate and contextual information (zone starts, common teammates, ice time, among others), to try to isolate a player’s individual impact on the game.
- Give us a one-number metric that encompasses everything that player brings to hockey.
What follows is a look at the Sharks organization players who have not yet turned 25 as of September 15, 2018. That’s the draft cutoff day, and since we’re dealing with mostly prospects, we’ll try to live vicariously through their bizarre age definitions. The ages in this chart are as of August 12, 2018.
Now, before you get out your pitchforks and scream in the comments about how hockey isn’t built for a WAR-like stat and how so-and-so’s WAR metric ranked a player funnily and therefore it’s a bad number, hear me out. I don’t think anyone believes existing WAR creations are the end-all and be-all of hockey analysis. They are a solid starting point for player evaluation and, for our time here together, a way to examine difficult-to-evaluate players with a uniform number.
We’ll try to remain as objective as possible and explain where and why we must bring subjectivity into the fold.
First, we have the team’s established NHL players.
The WAR here is a blended average of three different WAR metrics. You can go play with the visualization, here. In this chart you can debate the relative merits of Timo Meier vs Tomas Hertl as being the team’s best player to not yet hit his peak. Hertl’s been doing this for longer. Meier is younger and has more room to grow. Hertl can play two positions at the NHL level. Meier’s offensive impacts are quite remarkable. Et cetera, people. During the 2017-18 season, Meier produced just 0.10 wins above replacement more than Hertl did. We’re splitting hairs here, and the two are in the same tier, but we’re putting Meier ahead of Hertl because he’s younger.
Tierney has gone to a better place, but there’s reason to believe trading him may have been addition by subtraction here. Though only marginally below replacement, Tierney’s 40 points and penalty-killing probably bought him more ice time than they should have.
Note: Though Norris and Balcers are no longer with the organization, they remain in this article as reference points. We’ll make sure to name 27 people total, so we can see who fills the vacated spots.
Evaluating NHL prospects is a difficult proposition. We don’t have shot location information or even shot quantity information publicly available for every player in every league. Goodness knows how often Karlskrona takes more shots than their opponents with Linus Karlsson on the ice compared to with him off the ice. There just hasn’t been a baseline number for this sort of thing. Until now. Emmanuel Perry developed a prospect evaluation model that tells us how likely it is a player makes the NHL and what his projected WAR per 82 games played would be were he to jump to the NHL the following season.
Again, no one is saying this is perfect, but work with me. This is a way to put everyone on the same scale. In the image below, you’ll notice a few clusters along the chart in various locations. What we’ll do is rank players in tiers when they are lumped together closely.
The x-axis shows how likely the model thinks it is a given player will make the NHL. The y-axis shows us his projected WAR/82 games played if he jumped to the bigs next year.
Tier 1: Young guns with loads of promise
Ryan Merkley, Linus Karlsson
Even previous OHL defensemen who scored at the rate Merkley did during his draft year played another year or two in juniors before hitting the ice sheets of the world’s most competitive league. These two are good bets to make the NHL, and while the model doesn’t think Merkley will do much if he played NHL games tomorrow, his eventual peak should (operative word here) be top-4 defenseman. Karlsson, on the other hand, looks like he might be special. Some concerns about his skating exist, but if his projected upside and chances of making the NHL progress, we could be looking at a star in the making.
Tier 2: Likely NHL players
Ivan Chekhovich, Dylan Gambrell, Joshua Norris
This tier is led by Dylan Gambrell. Based on his final NCAA season, the model believes Gambrell has about a 48 percent chance of making the NHL, a decent ways behind the prospect pipeline’s new golden boy, Ryan Merkley, and potential hidden gem, Karlsson, L. Gambrell has already played NHL games, but he didn’t do too well in those three games. Still, prospect models can’t take into account context like fact the Sharks need two or more depth centers this season, so it’s hard to argue many more players on this list are closer to making the NHL.
Norris fit the Doug Wilson “safe pick” mold of recent early-round selections. His athleticism and intelligence will help him reach his ceiling, even if it was never too high to begin with. He’ll play this year in the NCAA again, and it will likely be a few more before we see him suit up in Ottawa.
As for Chekhovich, well, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer sums things up nicely:
#SJSharks DeBoer on Chekhovich: "He made a great showing, caught everybody's eye. He's got a future down the road as an NHL player. But he wasn't going to help us this September and the right thing to do was to go to junior, play in a world junior and try to win a Memorial Cup"— Curtis Pashelka (@CurtisPashelka) September 20, 2018
Tier 3: Pleasant Surprises
Joachim Blichfeld, Alexander Chmelevski, Thomas Gregoire, Rudolfs Balcers
For Balcers, the move to Ottawa was probably his best-case scenario. He’ll have an opportunity to play immediate, important NHL minutes this season. In the Sharks organization, the promising forward likely would have bounced between the mother club and the Barracuda all season.
Chmelevski potted points at will during his 10 AHL games last season and impressed during both the Sharks prospect scrimmage and rookie tournament in Vegas earlier this summer. The center has been absent from the team’s preseason games so far, so we are left wondering about his trajectory at the moment.
Blichfeld’s presence here is surprising, as he feels overlooked. Yet his chances of making the NHL have only risen since the Sharks drafted him in 2016. He’ll return to Portland for another WHL season where we will hope for a 1.3-points-per-game scoring rate or better.
Thomas Gregoire is a curious name here. He signed only an AHL contract this summer but shows promising growth trajectory. The team was fairly quick to send him back to the Barracuda during the preseason, so there’s a chance his eye test isn’t matching the numbers he’s been churning out.
Tier 4: More than a lottery ticket, +WAR division
Alexander True, Noah Gregor, Jasper Weatherby
Weatherby was a bit of an eyebrow-raising pick this past June. The Sharks’ front office hailed him as a high-upside pick, which felt like a bizarre description of a 20-year-old who had only a modest BCHL scoring rate under his belt. Yet, Perry’s model seems to feel the same way as the Sharks’ scouting staff: Weatherby’s chances of making the NHL are just above that of the average pick (~20%), and only eight of the Sharks prospects have higher projected WAR upsides.
True went un-drafted only to be arguably the Barracuda’s second-best player last season. However, it seemed he was fairly reliant on the power play for his point production. This season, the big center will need to up his 5-o-5 game to take the next step.
Noah Gregor has slipped into the ether after being taken in the fourth round of the team’s 2016 draft. His scoring rate slipped a bit after a wrist injury and trade midway through his WHL season, but his production nonetheless lands him in a respectable place here. He has the skill to live up to his potential upside, but his injury-ridden past and the Sharks logjam of young centers currently stand in his way.
Tier 5: More than a lottery ticket, -WAR division
Kyle Wood, Mario Ferraro, Zach Frye, Jacob Middleton
This quartet of skaters also have a slightly better chance of making the NHL than the average draft pick does. Unlike their counterparts above, however, these four don’t project to make much of an impact were they to walk into the NHL this coming season.
That’s not totally surprising. Kyle Wood has spent two full seasons in the AHL already and is approaching the fifth year after his draft year without spending any time in the NHL. Middleton is on a similar trajectory. Frye is already 24 and entering just his first entire professional year. Ferraro is maybe the most interesting name here because he is the youngest of the group by almost two years. In the case of these four and probably all defense prospects, we’ll have to take counting stats-based models with a grain of salt, as metrics — think shot differential and expected goal differential — that are unavailable to us for lower levels are missing from analysis at this point.
Tier 6: The true boom-or-bust guys
Jake McGrew, Vladislav Kotkov, Antti Suomela, John Leonard, Jayden Halbgewachs, Rourke Chartier, Maxim Letunov
This group is quite the smorgasbord of possibilities. They all share two things in common: based on their 2017-18 seasons, they aren’t too likely to make the NHL; but, if they do make the NHL they should be able to contribute at a bottom-six level. There are a few things the model doesn’t know, like that Antti Suomela and Maxim Letunov are fighting for NHL roster spots at the moment, and that Jake McGrew just signed an entry level contract. But we can treat their low chances of making the NHL as words of caution when getting excited about these players. They likely have a more difficult road to making the NHL than we might think.
Tier 7: Goalies
Josef Korenar, Antoine Bibeau
Korenar deserves a spot on this list because of his youth and position along his progression. The goaltender turned 20 earlier this calendar year and will suit up for his first AHL season this fall. Bibeau just turned 24, put together his second solid AHL season, finishing 10th in goals saved above average and is the heir apparent to Aaron Dell’s spot in a couple years or if either Sharks goalie experiences a lengthy injury. Goalies are notoriously hard to project, and Bibeau has been up and he’s been down, but if this season was a permanent step in the right direction, we have some enticing goalie positioning going on in the ranks.
The final list
Tiers are probably a better way to rank prospects than by trying to split hairs between which players with similar upsides and likelihoods of making the league. For the sake of having a final WAR-based ranking, we’ll add a bit of subjectivity to the tiers to develop a rough list.
- Timo Meier
- Tomas Hertl
- Kevin Labanc
- Chris Tierney
- Ryan Merkley
- Linus Karlsson
- Dylan Gambrell
- Ivan Chekhovich
- Josh Norris
- Rudolfs Balcers
- Sasha Chmelevski
- Joachim Blichfeld
- Thomas Gregoire
- Jasper Weatherby
- Noah Gregor
- Alexander True
- Mario Ferraro
- Kyle Wood
- Zach Frye
- Jacob Middleton
- Antti Suomela
- Rourke Chartier
- Maxim Letunov
- Jake McGrew
- Jayden Halbgewachs
- Vladislav Kotkov
- John Leonard
Removing the NHL players, it seems the Sharks traded away their fifth- and sixth-ranked prospects for Erik Karlsson, which seems like a pretty solid bet. Those two have solid chances of making the NHL, and Balcers has decent upside, but neither of them is an all-world defenseman. We’ll try to check on some of these guys throughout the season to see how they’re progressing. If anything, watch for the two at the top of the prospect list — the team’s 2018 draft may have been a bit more exciting than we initially thought.