While voting is open for Fear the Fin’s annual Top 25 San Jose Sharks Under 25 series, we’re going to familiarize you with the young players in the Sharks system. Working from the 2014 NHL Draft through the most recent draft, we’ll fill you in on each player’s history with the organization. They’ll be brief — the deep dive will happen with the top 25 players — but hopefully will assist with your voting process.
Today, we begin with the 2014 Draft Class and our oldest prospects of the series. If you remember this Sharks draft, it opened with the selection of Nikolay Goldobin at 27th overall and wrapped up with Kevin Labanc in the sixth round (141 overall). Of the eight selections made by the Sharks, just Labanc remains in the organization. Because Labanc has a December birthday, he’ll be going into the 2020-21 NHL season as a 25-year-old and thus isn’t eligible for our rankings.
So who of the 2014 draft class is? And where did they come from, if not the Sharks?
Jacob Middleton, D
2019-20 Team: San Jose Sharks (NHL)/San Jose Barracuda (AHL)
NHL Debut: 2018-19
Age: 24 | Ht: 6-3 | Wt: 209 | Shoots: L
Middleton was close to missing the cutoff here — his January 2 birthday means that this will be his year 25 season, but he missed the official cutoff for this series by two days. The elder Middleton was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, 210 overall.
With just 13 NHL games under his belt, Middleton hasn’t quite impressed at the NHL level yet, but still managed to fill in admirably during call ups. His impact on the scoresheet isn’t huge, but he’s generally helpful on offense despite not having a particularly great shot of his own.
Maxim Letunov, C
2019-20 Team: San Jose Barracuda (AHL)
NHL Debut: 2019-20
Age: 24 | Ht: 6-4 | Wt: 185 | Shoots: L
Maxim Letunov is an interesting prospect. Originally drafted in the second round (52 overall) by the St. Louis Blues in 2014, the Russian forward never signed with the team and his rights were traded to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Zbynek Michalek at half salary and a conditional third-round draft pick in 2015. His rights were traded again, this time in a swap of draft picks between the Sharks and Coyotes ahead of the 2016 Draft. After three years at the University of Connecticut, Letunov signed with the Sharks.
International prospects who chose the USHL and NCAA play are a little bit of a rarity in the league and it’s harder to evaluate their progress against prospects in the CHL path, though playing in the United States since 2012 has helped with the Russian center’s development. Letunov made a splash with his first NHL goal last season, and 40 points in 50 AHL games is certainly encouraging. This upcoming camp will be a big one for him, especially as the Sharks’ center depth will be tested.
Ryan Donato, C/LW
2019-20 Team: Minnesota Wild (NHL)
NHL Debut: 2017-18
Age: 24 | Ht: 6-0 | Wt: 181 | Shoots: L
At 24-years-old, Ryan Donato is a bit of journeyman already. He was drafted just a few selections after Letunov, going 56 overall in the 2014 Draft to the Boston Bruins. Donato battled his way through the ranks of high school hockey, named to the 2014-15 USHS All-USA Hockey First Team. He won a Bronze Medal with Team USA in the World Juniors Championship the following year, scoring three goals and one assist in seven games.
Taking the NCAA path allowed him a unique opportunity to become an Olympian in 2018, representing the United States as the NHL sat out the international tournament. There, Donato put up five goals and one assist in five games, tying with Kirill Kaprizov (OAR) and Ilya Kovalchuk (OAR) for the most goals scored by a single player that Olympics.
At the NHL level, he’s seen inconsistent ice time with the Bruins before getting traded to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Charlie Coyle at the 2019 trade deadline. When Minnesota failed to utilize him, the Sharks picked him up at a bargain price in a trade. Donato is a natural goal-scorer who could be on the cusp of a break-out season.