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Top 25 Under 25: Has No. 20 Maxim Letunov made his case for the big club?

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The 24-year-old has a chance to become a roster regular — what will he make of it?

Maxim Letunov #84 of the San Jose Sharks warms up in pregame warm ups prior to the start of an NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames at SAP Center on February 10, 2020 in San Jose, California. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In February 2021, Maxim Letunov will turn 25-years-old, making him the second-oldest prospect to be included in our 2020 rankings. Next season will be the seventh season since his draft year and he has three games of NHL experience so far. If the NHL adopts expanded roster sizes for the 2021 season, to insure coverage in a season where players are certainly expected to get sick, Letunov might be someone who goes from a fringe player to occasional lineup appearances.

But does that say more about the Sharks’ forward depth, or Letunov’s development?

It can be a bit hard to judge. The Russian center came to the United States in 2012 to begin his hockey career as the top-scorer for the Dallas Stars’ 16U AAA program. He then joined the Youngstown Phantoms in the USHL, ranking third on the team in points with 43 (19 goals, 24 assists) in his draft year. He was snagged by the St. Louis Blues in the second round at 52 overall.

It was a bit of a reach — Letunov was ranked around the late third round at the highest — but it turns out that notably good drafters, the Arizona Coyotes, were also eying Letunov from a few picks down the line. They would eventually get him anyway, in a trade that sent aging defender Zbynek Michalek (at half salary) to the Blues for 15 regular season games and 6 playoff games (before returning to Arizona for a third stint in free agency).

At that point, Letunov had returned for a 64-point sophomore year with the Phantoms, second on the team. Eventually, he committed to the University of Connecticut, where he played three seasons. His rookie year saw him scoring at a 1.11 points per game pace, totaling 40 points in 36 games, all while taking just one minor penalty the entire season. Letnuov set the school’s rookie scoring record for points, goals (16) and assists (24). Following that campaign, he still hadn’t signed with the Coyotes.

Ahead of the 2016 NHL Draft, Letunov’s rights were traded to San Jose, along with a 2017 sixth-round pick (used to select Jake McGrew), in exchange for San Jose’s 2016 fourth-round pick and Detroit’s 2017 third-round pick the Sharks had previously acquired. His offense regressed slightly over the next two years at UConn, but he made the jump to the pros in 2018, signing an entry-level contract with the Sharks that March.

Collegiate players often deal with fatigue in their first professional season, especially players who don’t sign until after their junior or senior year. There’s a stark contrast in the scheduling, the competition level and the volume of games.

All of that is to say: Letunov’s first year with the San Jose Barracuda was underwhelming. To speak to the state of the ‘Cuda, his 12 goals ranked seventh and the 16 assists ranked ninth, though it’s also worth noting he missed 11 games that season.

He got his feet wet and last year, he improved to 40 points in 50 games. At the AHL level, he was scoring at .80 points per game, with .62 primary points per game, according to Pick224. Letunov led the team in points and assists, while ranking fifth in goals and still taking just a few penalties.

For that, he was rewarded with a call-up in February, scoring his first NHL goal against the Edmonton Oilers two days later. Considering Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joel Kellman were all out of the line up due to injuries, the young forward impressed in those three games, putting up 32 unblocked shots and attempts, with 16 shots on net (per Natural Stat Trick).

Is it enough for a full time place in the line-up? The Sharks haven’t added much in the way of depth, and losing Joe Thornton (sorry to remind you) opens a spot at center that please for the love of god, I don’t want to see 41-year-old Patrick Marleau fill. It might be time to see what Letunov can do.

What We Like

We joke that you can’t teach size, but having a 6-foot-4 forward playing with a long stick means you’re changing the size of your shooting lanes in your favor. It doesn’t surprise me that Letunov is racking up primary assists and I think he’d fit well into the Sharks’ line-up as a pass-first center.

San Jose AHL points breakdown by player, 2019-20 season
Pick224

(Ignore that Stefan Noesen is included on here — his stats come from his time last year with Pittsburgh’s AHL team, and even though he didn’t play with San Jose’s AHL team, the filter sorts by current NHL team)

Lenutov is a driver on the ‘Cuda’s power play, as well, with four power goals and seven primary power play assists.

Areas of Improvement

Letunov’s two-way play can use some work, especially for how the Sharks tend to utilize their bottom-six. He’s also a fast player, with a large stride, but he’s not particularly aggressive, nor is there much of a physical aspect to his game. Not every player needs to be a power forward, but the downside to being 6-foot-4 is that there is simply more of you to hit as an opponent. His frame keep him from being especially agile, so adding more strength to his game wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Highlight

Letunov’s first NHL goal broke a 2-2 tie in the second period against the Oilers, in a game the Sharks would eventually win 6-3. Really good follow-through on a rebound, and the play shows how effective Letunov’s reach can be.