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Top 25 Sharks Under 25: No. 17 Maxim Letunov faces make-or-break season

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Inconsistent collegiate play puts a lot of pressure on Letunov’s rookie season.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28: Maxim Letunov of the St. Louis Blues poses for a portrait during the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

After having his rights bounce around to three teams since he was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues, Maxim Letunov finally signed an entry-level contract with the San Jose Sharks back in March. It seems as the the 22-year-old Russian forward is giving more thought to his potential future in the NHL, additionally deciding to forego his final year at the University of Connecticut to pursue his professional ambitions.

If he’s hoping to ever turn pro, it’s a good decision to not waste his prime years — though he’d certainly seen some success at the collegiate level. In 105 games, Letunov registered 35 goals and 60 assists for 95 total points, putting him 10 points shy of averaging a point per game over his collegiate career. However, Letunov wasn’t that consistent across all three years at UConn.

Letunov’s rookie season saw the center put up an impressive 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 36 games, with an astounding 2 penalty minutes. In all three scoring categories, he set a rookie record for UConn, and his 40 points are still the fourth-highest in UConn history and were a much-needed boost for the Huskies, ranking as the highest point total in the last six seasons (since 2011-2012).

Letunov hit a sophomore slump, tallying just 7 goals in 33 games. Despite that drop, his 27 total points was still good for second on the Huskies that season, behind Buffalo Sabres prospect Tage Thompson with 32 points, and Letunov ranked fourth in goals.

He still needed to come back from that last season. While he couldn’t match his rookie production, Letunov took on more goal-scoring in his third year, with a respectable 12 goals and 28 points in 36 games, once again leading the Huskies in all three scoring categories.

So what lead to this inconsistency with the Huskies?

Most notably, Letunov’s shooting percentage took a nosedive. He shot an incredible 21.1 percent in his record-setting rookie season. Though he took more shots in his follow-up season, he only made good on 7 of those shots, dropping his shooting percentage to just 8.4 percent. Putting more shots on goal in his third year, Letunov’s 12 goals put him somewhere in the middle with a shooting percentage of 13.8 percent. He’s consistently putting shots on goal but struggling to find ways to make good on those chances.

That may be leading to other issues: Remember in his high-scoring rookie season, Letunov only had two penalty minutes? In his lowest-scoring season, that number jumped to 25 PIMs. And once again, his third year found some middle ground, with 12 PIMs. It’s not something that can be said for sure, but it’s entirely possible that as Letunov struggles to score, his frustration comes through in the form of undisciplined play.

Another cause for concern may be that Letunov has been great on the power play, but struggling to earn points at 5-on-5. Evan Oppenheimer’s betweenness metric ranks Letunov well with a .226 in all situations last season, but when broken down to 5-on-5 versus power play, there’s a significant difference, and it’s been a trend for him over the past two seasons.

Regardless, Wilson and company remain hopeful about the former USHL center:

“Max is a talented scorer and playmaker who has utilized his high-end speed and creativity to produce at every level that he has played. His tremendous hockey sense has allowed him to develop into a strong special teams asset at both ends of the ice. He has worked hard to improve his physical strength and has shown us that he is ready to translate his game to the professional ranks.”

Ultimately, Emmanuel Perry of Corsica gives Letunov a 39.43 percent chance of making the NHL, but the older Letunov gets, the closer that window is to closing, and there may be too many centers in San Jose for him to get a proper shot. He’ll have a lot to prove in his first professional season.

What we like

Letnuov is proven to be an effective special teams player, and may be a regret of both the Blues and the Coyotes if he manages to find consistency at the professional level. And ultimately, consistency is the biggest thing for him, because the skills are all there. His relatively high chance of making the NHL gives the Sharks a bit of flexibility in a pipeline where many players are a few years away and/or have a low probability of cracking the big leagues.

It’s a very small side note in the larger scheme of things, but it’s also encouraging that Letunov has put on a bit of weight this season, up 6 pounds from last year. At 6-foot-4, he might struggle to be anything other than skin and bones, if that’s how he’s built, but the effort seems to be there and the more he bulks up, the less we’ll have to worry about him getting broken.

Areas of improvement

How many more times can I say consistency?

Letunov has to be more than a special teams player. Already, he’s showing signs of how streaky special teams players can be — and while his highs are impressive, his lows have been shown to be undisciplined and detrimental.

Highlight

This quick little move by Letunov was described as a “Connor McDavid-esque” goal and it’s hard to disagree. In some Husky-on-Husky action, Letunov comes in alone from behind to pick the puck, skates behind and around two players and throws it short-side for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it goal.

At camp, Letunov called himself a play-maker, and in that goal, it’s clear he’s got the hockey sense to be one.