Off the Charts: When can we expect Sharks prospects to play their first NHL game?

The 2017 draft class is champing at the bit.

The San Jose Sharks prospect pipeline isn’t exactly brimming with explosive talents. Drafting near the end of the first round and trading high-leverage picks for players to remain in contention will do that to a team. However, names like Ivan Chekhovich and Alexander (“Sasha”) Chmelevski have appeared repeatedly in discussions of who might jump to the National Hockey League (NHL) this year.

With the departure of three top-six forwards in Gustav Nyquist, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi in free agency and a cap crunch to boot, it seems that much more likely the Sharks fill their roster holes with emerging players. The circumstances surrounding Sharks’ prospects haven’t offered opportunity like this in a while. But what can we we really expect of the team’s prospect pipeline this coming season?

To help us figure that out, we’ll use draft and prospect research from three people:

The X-axis of this chart could also be referred to by seasons post-draft year (D+N). For example, if the draft year were 2017, the “0” mark would represent the beginning of the 2017-18 season. The “82” mark would represent the final game of the 2017-18 regular season. You can see that almost exclusively first-round picks play during the season immediately proceeding their draft. And, with the exception of first-round picks, the biggest jump in population of NHL-bound prospects occurs during the D+3 season, three years after the draft. The only year-over-year jump that bests the D+3 season is the D+2 season for first rounders.

The beginning of the 2019-20 NHL season represents the beginning of the D+2 year for the 2018 draft class and the beginning of the D+3 year for the 2017 draft class. With that in mind, we’ll focus first on those two draft classes.

2018 first rounders

The only person who fits this bill also carries the ignominy of being one of the most controversial draft selections in recent memory. Ryan Merkley, a defenseman whose offensive talents are unquestioned, fell to the Sharks at pick 21 because of perceived attitude issues. The severity of said issues has been difficult to truly discern, though it did not help perception when the Guelph Storm, in the middle of an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) championship run, traded Merkley away to the Peterborough Petes.

Following the trade, Merkley’s statistical progression stalled a bit. After scoring at an adjusted scoring rate (Perry) of 0.16 points per game his draft year, Merkley finished his 2018-19 campaign with a 0.15 point-per-game scoring rate. His projected wins above replacement (WAR) per 82 NHL games fell from 0.17 during his draft year to 0.12 the year after. It’s difficult to make too much of a fuss about that stagnation when Merkley scored the ninth-most assists in the entire OHL and when he was scoring at a 1.39 unadjusted point-per-game rate before being traded to an inferior team.

Interestingly, the draft model believed Merkley’s likelihood of making the NHL appreciated to 69.65 percent from 58.25 percent the year prior. If Merkley is going to spend time with the Sharks this season, the organization has sure been coy about it. The best glimpse into their thinking we have is a quip from Doug Wilson Jr. to the San Jose Mercury News: “[Merkley] had the most primary assists in the OHL. He had a great year,” the Sharks’ Director of Scouting said. He and Bryan Marchment claim they attended about 40 of Merkley’s games in major junior this past season.

Tim Burke, the Sharks Assistant General Manager (AGM) who previously served as the team’s Director of Scouting provided a bit more insight into Merkley’s trajectory. Burke told Elite Prospects Rinkside radio show he felt Merkley had been working on his defensive game. Those soundbites are certainly positive, but each man stops short of expressing outright excitement about how the defender is climbing his career arc.

If we keep in mind that actions speak much louder than words in these instances, we can assume the Sharks’ personnel moves best reflect their intentions this year. After re-signing right-handed defenseman Tim Heed to a one-year deal, the Sharks signed journeyman right-handed defenseman Dalton Prout. Prout is supposedly on the roster to compete for the seventh defense spot. But, if head coach Pete DeBoer’s past behavior is any predictor of his future actions, Prout might not be as far from the sixth spot in the defense corps as he seems today.

Regardless of who serves as the team’s seventh defender, the fact the Sharks felt compelled during a cash-strapped off-season to sign two depth players for a role Merkley might otherwise occupy tells us they don’t expect any defensive prospects to spend regular time in the big leagues this year. For Merkley, most signals are pointing toward another year in the OHL.

Though Merkley is unlikely to spend much of the coming year in San Jose, there is still a chance he plays his first NHL games. At the beginning of D+2 seasons, the amount of first-round picks that play their first game shoots up drastically. This spike in NHL games played is likely due in part to teams giving their top prospects a nine-game tryout before returning them to their minor league teams. Prospects can play up to nine NHL games and still not burn a season of their entry-level contracts (ELCs).

2017 draft class

After 2018 first rounders, members of the 2017 draft class should see the biggest bump in NHL participation this season. The 2017 draftees we see will most likely be first-round picks, but selections from the beginning, middle and end of the draft might very well earn their first major league action. In San Jose, three members of the 2017 class are within striking distance.

Using Perry’s prospect model, we can pull data from a few draft years that have recently gone through their D+3 seasons. This is a very rough estimate, so bear with me. We’re going to look at the D+2 years for skaters from the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 drafts. That leaves us with 626 prospects. There aren’t closer to 800 players because this sample omits players who had already become full-time NHL players, as well as overaged draftees, as the model deems every player’s 17 to 18-year-old season to be their draft year.

We will then highlight each of the players who went on to play their first NHL game the following season (their D+3 season).

  • Of those 626 skaters, 51 percent of those that played in the NHL the following season were in the top 25th percentile in adjusted points per game.
  • Fifty-one percent of those who played in the NHL the following season were in the top 25th percentile in the percent chance of making the NHL category.
  • Forty-six percent of those who played in the NHL the next year were in the top 25th percentile in terms of projected WAR upside. /

If the sample of players who hit the NHL were akin to just a random sample, we’d probably expect closer to just 25 percent of them in any of these categories. Again, this is a very rough estimate, but it seems there might be some signal in the statistical profiles at top of each draft class. Here is how the Sharks 2017 draft class stacks up against the 164 prospects in their year:

  • Sasha Chmelevski — Adjusted points per game: 84th percentile // Percent likelihood of making the NHL: 84th percentile // WAR upside: 87th percentile
  • Ivan Chekhovich: 79th percentile //  72nd percentile // 88th percentile
  • Mario Ferraro: 17th percentile // 46th percentile // 9th percentile
  • Jake McGrew: 48th percentile // 24th percentile // 54th percentile/

Chmelevski is the clear frontrunner if this rudimentary prospect cohort model has any sort of predictive ability. He’s followed closely by Chekhovich, who just misses out on a perfect three-for-three showing. Ferraro, though he appears far behind his classmates, has a chance to buck some apparent trends with a good start to his American Hockey League (AHL) career.

Though the defender’s production fell sharply from his first to his second college season, the organization and others still seem excited. The folks over at EliteProspects Rinkside radio show discussed the University of Massachusetts team briefly this season. They seemed to agree that Ferraro took an understandable back seat to Cale Makar this past year. They also agreed he’d get an opportunity to be “the man” this upcoming college season, an opportunity they seemed to think he’d handle well.

For the Sharks’ part, the fact they signed Ferraro to an ELC after his college season speaks volumes. Because the NHL contract voids Ferraro’s college eligibility, the signing meant the team felt he was ready to take the next step in his development. There is no junior hockey to send Ferraro back to, there is only the AHL and, hopefully, upward from there.

To see if there is any more analytic signal pointing toward any of these players, we can take a look at the likelihood of making the NHL broken down by league.

We can see late-round OHL players like Chmelevski take the biggest strides during their D+3 season. Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) skaters like Chekhovich, also see a bump during their D+3 seasons, though it isn’t as big as that of their Canadian Hockey League (CHL) counterparts.

For United States Hockey League (USHL) draftees like Ferraro, the population of NHL-ready players actually grows larger during those players’ D+4 and D+5 seasons, presumably because many are still in the American college system util then. It should be noted that late-round Western Hockey League (WHL) skaters also see a decent-sized bump during their D+3 seasons, but Jake McGrew isn’t likely to make the NHL any time soon.

Because the Sharks’ current defensive depth chart features a pretty etched-in-stone left side, it’s difficult to see Ferraro hitting NHL ice unless there is an injury ahead of him. Even if someone like Brenden Dillon goes down, Jacob Middleton currently appears to have the inside track to the left-handed next man up role. It’s not inconceivable that Ferraro takes a spin with the big club, especially if he performs well during training camp and the preseason, but it’s unlikely given how the Sharks look today.

If we had to pick one person from this draft class, there sure are a lot of arrows pointing in Chmelevski’s direction. He’s shown production progress in each of his last three seasons in the OHL. He’s in the top 25 percent — and nearly in the top 15 percent — of his remaining draft class in terms of the likelihood he’ll make the NHL and his adjusted scoring rates. He’s from a major junior league that has historically seen a lot of skaters play in NHL games in their D+3 season. There’s just one problem: Chmelevski is a center vying for a spot on a team with four NHL pivots in place and three wing spots open.

We can take Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson’s quote one of two ways. Either every forward who gets a look this season is going to play wing; or, guys whose natural position is wing are more likely to see NHL time because of team vacancies. If the former is the case, then Chmelevski is more or less a lock to see an NHL game this year. If the latter is true, Chekhovich may just be the player from the Sharks’ recent draft classes who sticks.

Finally, Jayden Halbgewachs is a name we’ll put here. Technically, he was first eligible for the entry draft in 2015. That would make this upcoming season his D+5 or do-or-die year. However, the Sharks signed him in 2017, which would make this just his third season with the organization. The forward’s ELC will also expire after this season, so the Sharks will have to see what they have out of him this year or lose him to free agency in the summer. The reasons Halbgewachs might play an NHL game aren’t exactly positive, but they point to someone who may get a shot, anyway.

2016 second-, third- and fourth-rounders

Noah Gregor’s production dipped last season after two years of forward momentum. We can blame at least part of that on the facts he missed time with a broken wrist and was traded from a Moose Jaw Warriors team that dominated the WHL to a fairly middling Victoria Royals squad halfway through the season. After finding his footing in his new home, Gregor recovered to hit a respectable 1.3 point-per-game scoring rate in 2018-19. During both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, Gregor’s impact on his team’s scoring network remained impressive, suggesting a play-driving ability raw scoring rates don’t always show.

Gregor’s statistical profile remains solid, if unimposing, and he’s not a typical late-round grinder who never stood a chance. In fact, we profiled Gregor’s skill during last season’s 25 Under 25 series. All of this points to the ability necessary to capitalize on opportunity despite being a mid-round pick.

The raw number of skaters who make the NHL doesn’t change a whole lot between fourth-rounders’ D+3 and D+4 seasons, which means he didn’t necessarily miss last year’s typical D+3 opportunity, either. It certainly would have been nice to see him make the Barracuda last year, but the development team’s stacked center depth meant more playing time in the WHL was a better path forward.

Still, the center depth chart is jammed all the way up, provided Joe Thornton signs what seems like an impending contract.

To see NHL time this season, Gregor would have to fight his way past Chmelevski, fellow 2016 draftee Dylan Gambrell, Maxim Letunov, Antti Suomela (if they re-sign in San Jose) and a host of other centers vying for positions.

Chekhovich and Chmelevski highlight this year’s NHL hopefuls

The list of players highlighted here isn’t exhaustive. There are others in the system ranks who might surprise, including recently signed free agents Danil Yurtaikin, Joel Kellman and Lean Bergmann; as well as Jonathan Dahlén, acquired in a trade with Vancouver at the deadline last season. If we keep our attention trained to Sharks draft picks, then the most obvious answers are the most likely answers, as well. Ivan Chekhovich and Sasha Chmelevski have impressed since their draft years, and the two represent the type of skilled young player Doug Wilson mentions when he talks about giving new guys a chance this season.

There is still plenty of time for training camp and the preseason to surprise us all. For now, the late-round picks from the 2017 draft class are your frontrunners to land an NHL game, and probably more.