Top 25 Sharks Under 25: No. 24 Zach Sawchenko is playing for a new contract

Sawchenko will be a free agent this summer, and a new contract with the Sharks is on the line.

If there’s one area that the San Jose Sharks have improved upon compared to last season, it’s undoubtably goaltending. With the renewed pairing of James Reimer and Adin Hill, no longer is goaltending the Sharks’ weakest link. However, the strength of their backstop lays in their goaltending depth, and for Zach Sawchenko, he has a worthy spot on the Top 25 Under 25 ranking.

At just 24 years old, the Calgary native has a wealth of experience under his belt. After spending three seasons playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the WHL, Sawchenko transitioned to playing at the collegiate level for the University of Alberta in the USports system. He made his professional debut in the 2019-20 season for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda, playing 13 games (posting a .911 save percentage) before making his way first to the Orlando Solar Bears, then Allen Americans of the ECHL.

The 2020-21 season saw massive disruptions to players’ seasons, and Sawchenko played only 12 games that year between the Barracuda and Americans. COVID wreaked havoc on so many young players’ development, and Sawchenko was unfortunately among those affected. Ice time is critical for all up and coming players, but for goaltenders who must share the net, they’re already playing so few games compared to defenders and forwards. With the stark decrease in playing time, the 2020-21 season was a wash for Sawchenko.

The netminder attended the Sharks’ camp and played in the Rookie Tournament ahead of the 2021-22 season, but as with most AHL goaltenders invited to camp, it was obvious that it was to give the coaches an in-depth opportunity to work with him in practice and game time scenarios, rather than prepare him for an NHL gig.

Sawchenko entered the league undrafted, but was signed to a two-year, entry-level contract in early 2019, with a cap hit of $725,000. He will become a free agent this summer, and a new contract is on the line, pending his performance this season.

The renewed addition of the Taxi Squad and the physical proximity of the Barracuda have allowed San Jose to call up reserve players with ease, and Sawchenko is clearly the team’s third goaltender, passing Alexei Melnichuk in both our rankings and the official depth chart. He’s been a stalwart member of the Sharks’ reserve, and he sat as back-up for Hill earlier in the season while Reimer was on injured reserve. It shows that the staff have their eye on Sawchenko and they trust him to sit on the bench in case of emergency.

Of course, he played a little over two minutes in the first period against the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night while Reimer needed an equipment repair for his skate blade. He looked confident, despite facing two minutes of Connor McDavid hoping to crack the rookie.

With a struggling Barracuda team in front of him, Sawchenko’s numbers aren’t as pretty as they could be. In his last five AHL games, he’s allowed 17 goals, saved a total of 102 shots, and posted a .857 save percentage. But don’t let those number fool you; Sawchenko is more than what the stats sheet has to say.

What We Like

When Sawchenko goes low, he trends upwards soon after. In simple terms? The kid is good on the bounce back. It’s an essential mindset skill for goaltenders (something prime Martin Jones was often praised for), especially during a rough season like the last-place Barracuda have been having.

His size is another plus. The Sharks like their goaltenders to be aggressive in the crease and height helping to cover any open space is a plus — just look at Adin Hill, who clocks in at 6-foot-6 and consistently plays the puck. Sawchenko stands at around 6-foot-1, putting him right on par with James Reimer (6-foot-2). His size allows him to better integrate into the goaltending system, making for a smoother transition into an eventual back-up role.

Sawchenko’s NHL debut was anything less than ideal. Coming in to relieve Hill under pressure against the swarming Pittsburgh Penguins was not an easy task, but Sawchenko handled it admirably. His ability to perform in a high-stress environment is key, but the fact that he not only remained confident and collected against an NHL team, but he does it time after time behind a failing Barracuda roster. When it comes to having the maturity to stand behind a team at any level, Sawchenko has proven he has it, even in the face of a harsh loss.

Areas of Improvement

As with most goaltenders, it’s all a matter of experience when it comes to developing the skill necessary to play in the NHL. That means paying dues in the minor leagues, facing as many different types of shots and playing situations as possible. Goaltenders are often the slowest to develop, and it makes sense; not only does a player need the physical size, mobility and maturity on the ice, but they have to be mentally prepared for the stress too. Goaltending is most of all a mental battle.

Sawchenko doesn’t have the experience to be trusted with the responsibility of a back-up gig in the NHL yet, and that’s through no fault of his own. He was excellent when called upon in relief for his NHL debut (see the highlight below), but until he finds consistency at the AHL level and while Adin Hill remains the back-up to undisputed starter James Reimer, Sawchenko is unlikely to do much more than sit on an NHL bench for now.