IRVINE, Ca. — This fall, the Rookie Faceoff feels a little different for the San Jose Sharks.
Last September, a deep San Jose NHL squad didn’t offer the possibility of many openings for its prospects. A testament to their depth, the Sharks finished with nine 50-point-plus scorers last season, four more than any other team.
But the departures of Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, Joonas Donskoi and Justin Braun — and the team’s relative summer inactivity — have opened a door through the Sharks Head, especially up front.
“There’s definitely more opportunity,” said top prospect Sasha Chmelevski. “The staff has talked about it.”
San Jose currently has just 10 forwards signed to one-way contracts: Logan Couture, Barclay Goodrow, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, Melker Karlsson, Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, Lucas Radil, Marcus Sorensen and Joe Thornton. Nine of these forwards, save Radil, should be considered locks for an opening night NHL job.
Meanwhile, Jonny Brodzinski and Dylan Gambrell are on two-way contracts. The 26-year-old Brodzinski is subject to waivers, while Gambrell is waiver-exempt.
So assuming Peter DeBoer begins the season with 13 forwards, the Sharks have as many as three or four open forward spots.
So is the future now for Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich, Lean Bergmann, Danil Yurtaykin or another forward here in Irvine? Barracuda forwards Alexander True and Antti Suomela should also be in mix.
While Radil, Gambrell and Brodzinski undoubtedly have a leg up on their competition, the Sharks — through their summer transactions and public proclamations — have given their youth a vote of confidence.
So what should we expect from a promising prospect at this tournament?
“You’re looking for him to stand out, not to be in with the mix,” Sommer noted.
That said, it’s a long way from “standing out” in a rookie tournament to standing side by side with Brent Burns in October.
Since 2015, just three Sharks have made the leap from the rookie games to a regular NHL role in the same season:
Of this group, only the 23-year-old Donskoi, a Finnish professional league veteran, had a notable post-season impact.
Sommer recalled, of Donskoi, Labanc and Meier’s rookie tournament appearances, “The biggest thing was their competitiveness, hunting pucks. They were better than their peers.”
It’s worth adding that there are no defensemen in this group.
All this is to say that Sharks fans should temper their expectations — don’t pencil in a Ryan Merkley or a Chmelevski into the everyday line-up just yet.
San Jose is still a veteran-laden squad that expects to make a deep post-season run, which is not exactly an environment conducive to relying on rookies.
Regardless, the San Jose Sharks finished the rookie tournament undefeated, going 3-0. On the scoresheet, standouts included team scoring leader Jacob McGrew (2-4-6), Noah Gregor (1-3-4) and Artem Ivanyuzhenov (4-0-4).
Sommer was consistent in his praise of McGrew, Gregor and Danil Yurtaykin. He also mentioned Merkley, Mario Ferraro, Joachim Blichfeld, Jeffrey Viel and Jake Gricius as players who either had standout games or tournament.
Sommer added, of the 6-foot-4 Ivanyuzhenov, “Been in the right place at the right time. I’d like to see him use his size a bit more.”
Of Chmelevski, arguably San Jose’s top forward prospect, Sommer offered that Chmelevski was “trying to do too much” in the first game. Chmelevski did calm his game down as the tournament went on, and the 2017 sixth-round pick’s big test starts this Friday when training camp opens.
We haven't seen a lot of razzle-dazzle from Sasha Chmelevski in this tourney, but he's got it, beats 4 Kings on a coast-to-coast rush to set up a golden opportunity pic.twitter.com/3lgaIj8THb— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 10, 2019
Speaking with scouts, McGrew, Gregor, Yurtaykin and Ferraro seemed to open the most eyes.
A couple scouts didn’t realize that Ferraro was a 2017 second-round pick, but he showed that type of talent off on Saturday and Sunday (San Jose sat him on Tuesday). There is some thought that he could be a future top-four defender.
After Saturday’s 5-4 victory over the Arizona Coyotes, Sommer noted, “I thought Ferraro was our best D back there. As far as being involved, being noticed. He had energy, jumped in, kind of did everything.”
However, assistant general manager Tim Burke cautioned Kevin Kurz of The Athletic, speaking of the mobile Ferraro: “His eyes and hands, still have got to get a little bit better.”
Meanwhile, Orange County native McGrew put on a show in his hometown.
“He used his speed wide, hard to play against, for the most part won his 50-50 battles,” Sommer said after Sunday’s tilt. “Scored a big goal for us, but that wasn’t necessarily the best part of his game. He was real steady, shift in, shift out.”
Neck and neck with McGrew was Gregor.
“Noah is probably our fastest prospect. He’s also our most athletic. Every year, he blows out the physio and on-ice testing,” said San Jose Director of Scouting Doug Wilson Jr. of the 2016 fourth-round pick.
“Last year, going back as an overage, he took it upon himself to show more leadership qualities. He played the point on the power play. He scored a ton of clutch goals for Prince Albert to get them to the Mem Cup.
“It was a good year for his overall confidence, to be a leader on the team, a dominant guy. So you saw down in Anaheim, he was more physical, playing on the inside.”
The Yurtaykin-Gregor-McGrew line excelled against the Ducks.
Spectacular shift & finish by McGrew (64). Denies Sodergran (88) exit, linemates Gregor (73) & Yurtaykin (75) go to work, then Jacob McGrew from Orange finishes pic.twitter.com/DP59iotBT1— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 10, 2019
It was McGrew (64) with crafty behind-the-back pass to spring Gregor (73), who beat Durzi (50) up the ice, Yurtaykin (75) finish pic.twitter.com/5z1yIUhCU1— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 10, 2019
“Yurtaykin really caught my eye,” Sommer said.
Another scout chimed in, “Choppy skater, but smart. Good hands.”
As for Merkley, reviews were mostly positive for the embattled prospect, and there’s no doubt that he’s San Jose’s most-skilled prospect.
Merkley is fun to watch, look it how he creates space for McGrew on this 3-on-3 pic.twitter.com/fIufg02JB7— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 9, 2019
But Wilson Jr. emphasized the development in his defensive game:
“In the first game in particular, he did a good job of using his stick to angle guys toward the boards. It’s a constant thing that we’re talking to him about.
“Use your positioning, use your stick to angle guys off. He worked on it all summer.”
What was Merkley doing last year? Wilson Jr. explained:
“He just had his stick and positioning in a spot where he’s looking to make an offensive play. But we talked to him, the faster you close off a defensive play, the quicker you can create an offensive play. Now, he’s switched over to use angling to punch pucks, get it going the other way.
“It’s a similar thing to what we had with Mario Ferraro. Ferraro had his stick all over the place. Bryan Marchment worked with him a ton to use it more as a weapon, to punch pucks, get it going the other way.
“Merk’s stick was up a little bit, getting ready to be offensive, when he needed it to be defensive.”
A couple top Sharks prospects were felled by injuries: Chekhovich had his tournament cut short by a puck to the face in the first game, while 2019 second-round draft pick Artemi Kniasev suffered a minor injury in a recent QMJHL exhibition, keeping him from suiting up in Irvine.
This is from Ivan Chekhovich's IG last night, he got hit in the face with a puck pic.twitter.com/uOlFmbXzdI— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) September 8, 2019
Neither should be in danger of missing the beginning of training camp.
Full circle for McGrew
McGrew couldn’t tell us which of his family members were here to cheer him on.
“I didn’t really ask. I didn’t really want to know,” McGrew said. “But I knew people were going to be coming out. It was nice to play in front of them and give them a show.”
Indeed, if the 2017 sixth-round pick was nervous, he didn’t show it, leading the Sharks with six points in the tournament.
For McGrew, Tuesday’s 7-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings represented something of a full circle.
McGrew, of course, was born in the nearby city of Orange.
But the winger also played for the LA Jr. Kings from 2010-16.
“I had a lot of great coaches in the Jr. Kings system. One in particular, Jack Bowkus, really helped me a lot,” McGrew noted. “The way that they coach, the people that they are, gets you ready for junior and pro-level hockey.”
Speaking of the NHL Kings, they wanted McGrew in the 2017 Draft. They hoped McGrew, whose draft stock took a hit because of a serious knee injury that season, would fall to them at the 165th pick. Instead, San Jose swooped in to steal McGrew with the 159th selection. Los Angeles would trade the pick earmarked for McGrew to the New York Islanders for a 2018 sixth-round pick.
Despite his success in Irvine, the 20-year-old knows it’s a long way from here to the NHL.
“Playing without the puck, working away from the puck,” McGrew pointed out, when asked what he’s focused on improving in his first professional season, likely with the Barracuda. “Getting open in the offensive zone or in the defensive zone to help break the puck out.”
That said, it’s easy to picture McGrew’s speed and tenacity translating to the NHL.
An Orange County native and former Jr. King starring for the San Jose Sharks? Now that would be full circle.
“I like starting my game off with a hit.”
Shades of McGrew, 2019 second-round draft pick Dillon Hamaliuk also suffered a significant lower-body injury in his draft year.
“This was my first game in eight months,” Hamaliuk beamed after Sunday’s 5-4 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.
Hamaliuk (58) was a presence from his very first shift, delivering a bone-crunching hit on 2019 first-round pick Brayden Tracy (56):
“It’s kind of my game. It’s another Western League guy. I know him,” laughed the 6-foot-3 winger. “I like starting my game off with a hit.”
It’s been a long time since Hamaliuk has been able to truck an opponent.
“I was non-weight bearing for two months. Just to get my quad back fully to where it was, I’m still working on it,” Hamaliuk revealed of his his December 2018 injury. “I definitely don’t have full strength yet.”
This season-ending injury, however, didn’t deter the Sharks from using a premium pick on Hamaliuk.
“It’s tough to say with an injury like this. Some teams are worried and others aren’t,” Hamaliuk said. “They didn’t seem too worried.”
As for his performance in his Sharks debut, Hamaliuk was mostly happy to just be back.
“It was amazing. I was definitely a little rusty out there. I think I’m just getting started here.”
A new leader
Speaking of just getting started in San Jose, Viel made a huge impression on the organization last season.
The undrafted free agent from the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan carved out a nightly role for the Barracuda, one of just three players (True, Kyle Wood) to play all 72 regular season and playoff games.
“It’s interesting, that was actually his fourth Pacific Division rookie tournament,” Wilson Jr. noted. “He went to camp with Colorado. Went with Anaheim. Then we signed him to an AHL contract [last year]. Then we signed him to an NHL contract.”
The unheralded winger was rewarded with a two-year contract during the summer.
“Viel won a Memorial Cup. He was the captain of the team who won it,” Sommer said. “He came to the rescue of a lot of our guys last year. He was one guy who stepped up, you knew what you were going to get from him physically every game.”
Viel sounds a little like John McCarthy, who’s been with the San Jose organization since 2009 and captained the Barracuda since 2016. Both are physical, team-first wingers with a winning pedigree. McCarthy was the co-captain of the 2009 NCAA champion Boston University Terriers.
“J-Mac, I totally get it from a leadership side. That’s a perfect comp from a leadership side,” Wilson Jr. said. “But a better comparison for his story might be Barclay Goodrow.
“Jeff’s got an element to his game that plays in the NHL right now. He’s got that combination of power forward with speed. He’s definitely a name to watch in camp.
“If you look at how the playoffs have been going the last few years, if you’re going to play a power game, you have to have the speed and skill to go with it. You can’t have just one element anymore.
“St. Louis was a good example. They had interchangeable players. One night it was Sammy Blais, one night Ivan Barbashev, one night Zach Sanford, etc. Jeff would fit right in that kind of a group. Just powerful forwards who can skate.”
Anyway, in Irvine, Viel wore a “C” on Saturday and an “A” on Sunday. He didn’t play on Tuesday.
On Saturday, Chmelevski and Blichfeld were chosen to be alternate captains. On Sunday, Keaton Middleton took the “C” and Gregor was given an “A.” On Tuesday, Middleton repeated as the captain, while Thomas Gregoire and Zach Gallant earned alterate captaincies.
“I take pride in it,” Chmelevski said of earning a leadership role. “Whether I get a letter or not, I just always want to represent myself and the Sharks as proudly as can be.”