There are two things that immediately stand out about 25-year-old Jayden Halbgewachs.
The first is his name, which might call to mind a particular SNL sketch (“It has like 30 letters in it, none of which are vowels”). The other thing is his size.
When the San Jose Sharks signed Halbgewachs in 2017 as an undrafted free agent after the forward led the entire CHL in scoring as an overage WHL player, there was still a chance that he would add at least of couple of inches to his 5-foot-8 frame — and if nothing else, develop some muscle that would sharpened his shot and speed to an NHL calibre to make up for what he lacks in size.
There’s a small but mighty club of undersized scoring forwards in the NHL — Brad Marchand, Mats Zuccarello, Cam Atkinson, Alex Debrincat and Brendan Gallagher all come to mind as forwards who stand under 5-foot-9 (where Halbgewachs is currently listed) — but it doesn’t come without its unique challenges. A couple extra inches of height means a longer wingspan, a longer stick and a larger body to separate other players further from the puck.
What successful under-sized NHL players have in common is how they overcome their size. They need a strong and speedy stride, to account for less distance per stride. They need a strong shot, to make up for the lack of flex from a shorter stick. They need to know how to utilize their smallness too, to find creative ways to out-maneuver larger players who will try to use their size to body them off the puck.
Speed, strength and skill are all vital for an under-sized forward to succeed.
As Halbgewachs made the transition to the professional leagues, the challenges of being a smaller player became more obvious. It was one thing to be small as an overage player in the WHL, but AHL players are older, more experienced and ultimately bigger and stronger. The competition grows at the next level. Halbgewachs hasn’t.
With four professional seasons under his belt, Halbgewachs has fallen off track, but all hope is not lost.
It may have been that the expectation was that his skill could carry him through if he could get physically larger and when he didn’t, he lacked those skills that other smaller players rely on to get to the next level. I understand that — I never had to study in high school, and the first time I was confronted with needing to study in college, I realized I didn’t know how to do that and frankly, I was not good at it. Halbgewachs took a step backward when he entered the AHL, but he’s been forced to learn how to accommodate his lack of size.
Taking into consideration that more than half of his professional career has been during the uncertainty of the COVID-era, which hasn’t been easy on minor-leaguers who lacked the support of the NHL, it’s understandable that he hasn’t quite found his footing, but nonetheless, he seems to finally be on an upward swing.
The 2021-22 season saw Halbgewachs reach his highest scoring rate (.69 points per game) since entering the AHL, tallying 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 59 games, ranking second on the team in scoring, though his plus/minus was a career low of -38. The San Jose Barracuda were not a great team defensively this year, getting outscored 291 goals against to 202 goals for. There’s certainly other issues at play, but don’t expect Halbgewachs to be a defensive star — which makes slotting him into the big club’s future even more difficult. Though his final WHL season showed a second-line upside in the young winger, his AHL play indicates more of a middle-six player at very best, and a bottom-six player as most likely. That’s not exactly the place a coach would want to stick the 5-foot-9 guy who struggles defensively.
Due to his age, Halbgewachs is a pending Group-6 Unrestricted Free Agent and despite being cheap depth, it feels probable that the Sharks will choose to let him walk this summer. The team has plenty of players who fill his same player archetype but better (hello Jonathan Dahlen) and the organization will need to make room for players who have since leap-frogged him in the depth chart.
What We Like
For all there is to knock on his game, Halbgewachs’ puck-handling and scoring skill is difficult to ignore. When he was called up for three games in relief this season (his NHL debut, notching one assist in that time), he was slotted in alongside Tomas Hertl and Alexander Barabanov, to match his skill with supportive goal-scorers. He put three shots on net in his first NHL game, a 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Areas of Improvement
If adding more muscle is a non-starter, then Halbgewachs needs to improve his skating. His lack of NHL experience going into his age-25 season will hurt him going into free agency, but if his skating and physicality could get up to snuff, there’s still a shot at him becoming a Barclay Goodrow-esque late-bloomer.
Jayden Halbgewachs gets his second of the weekend! pic.twitter.com/MscsJtsrW9— San Jose Barracuda (@sjbarracuda) October 24, 2021
This power play goal is started by Ryan Merkley at the blueline, but the use of Halbgewachs as the net-front guy on the skater-advantage is a decision I think puts him in the best position to succeed. Instead of making him part of the cycle on the outside, where there’s more opportunity for him to be separated from the puck, he’s the guy getting into the crease to be sure the puck goes in.