Dylan Gambrell’s successes and failures this year appear to come down to one major difference: coaching.
In 51 games with the San Jose Barracuda and under Head Coach Roy Sommer, Gambrell tallied 20 goals and 25 assists. Of his 45 points, 37 of them were primary points. In total points, Gambrell finished fourth on the Barracuda, despite playing in 6-17 fewer games than the top thirteen scorers on the ‘Cuda roster.
During the ‘Cuda’s brief playoff run, Gambrell added four points (one goal, three assists) in four games, making him the second leading scorer for the team during that time.
In eight games with the San Jose Sharks, it was zeroes across the board. That’s the story of his 11 regular season games over the last two seasons.
Now, there’s the obvious disclaimer: both eight and 11 games are an incredibly small sample size. But not even a secondary assist in that time from someone who was nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL in the same season leads to questions of usage.
In those eight games, Gambrell filled in only as a fourth line player, limiting both his minutes and linemates. He spent the majority of his time stapled to Barclay Goodrow, with either Melker Karlsson or Micheal Haley filling out the fourth line, limiting him to an average of 8:38 in ice time.
It’s clear the organization wants him to be at the NHL level, given the few forwards who split time between the two clubs included Antti Suomela, Rourke Chartier and Lukas Radil — but those three players seemed to be given more freedom up and down the line up than Gambrell when playing with the big club.
It wasn’t until Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, when the St. Louis Blues had depleted the Sharks’ forward depth down to nothing that Gambrell was given a chance to explore different line combinations.
And in those career-high 13 minutes and 20 seconds in Game 6, Dylan Gambrell scored his first NHL goal.
Now, if eight games is a small sample size, surely 13 minutes is nothing. But he’s not the only player who has been subject to this experience.
Danny O’Regan is pretty similar to Gambrell in their limited NHL experience, with Gambrell slightly better on zone entries and O’Regan better at zone exits. Still, their shot contributions are low and both former NCAA forwards spent time on the Sharks’ fourth line, despite being a top scorer for the AHL club. There has to be some question as to whether these prospects are being utilized correctly at the NHL level and if eight unsuccessful minutes on the fourth line will hurt their development in the long run.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
As Gambrell earns more ice time, hopefully we’ll see some of these turn positive. Per Corsica, Gambrell’s relative Corsi for was -2.61, with a Corsi for percentage of 46.15. He didn’t fare much better in expected goals, with 1.67 expected goals for and 2.69 expected goals against, as well as a relative expected goals for of -10.83.
These numbers should level out with another 20 games or so under his belt.
The one high point of an awful game was this incredible shot from Gambrell. Dallas Stars Head Coach Jim Montgomery coached Gambrell at the University of Denver and worked specifically on his release.
Denver coach Jim Montgomery tells me Dylan Gambrell (SJ) really worked on his release this summer. "He's got an NHL caliber shot now."— Ryan Kennedy (@THNRyanKennedy) October 6, 2016
Though it’s the only time we really got to see it this season, and it was in a real bummer of a game, that shot was certainly NHL caliber.
What comes next?
Gambrell is a restricted free agent this summer, at the end of his two-year entry-level contract. It doesn’t seem like he’ll have a lot of bargaining power, but the Sharks will certainly want to keep him around, especially in their tight cap situation should they extend Erik Karlsson.
The bigger challenge for Gambrell in the future will be standing out above players like Suomela, Radil and Chartier, as well as newcomers like Sasha Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich and Jonathan Dahlen when it comes to making the Sharks’ roster full-time.