Welcome back to the next installment of our Deep Dive series on the San Jose Sharks’ prospect pool.
A note to readers: This project was conceived before the draft and I initially intended to publish each part before the October draft. Clearly that didn’t happen. As a result, this series doesn’t have the 2020 draft class. Not to worry! We will get to those players in time. In the meantime, check out the Locked On Sharks podcast episodes about some of these new additions.
For now, we’ll focus on a few players who are your most likely boom-or-bust candidates. These players are skilled, have made solid strides progressing from juniors to the AHL level, but lack a thing or two. For some, performance has dipped, for others, there are questions that scouting reports present. Still, each of these players has time left before we can consider them a bust. Because of their skillsets, these players will likely either slot in near the top of the lineup (in the case of the skaters) or the won’t make the NHL at all—this isn’t a knock on them; they just aren’t built like bottom-of-the-lineup energy guys and grinders. They put up points, and that will be their job wherever they go in their careers.
Each of these guys needs an explosive 2020-21 season to justify continued belief in their ceilings. Coincidentally, each of these prospects has been loaned out to a foreign club, so you can follow along on their progression via sites like EliteProspects. Before you pop on over to their stats pages, read up on what each player looks like via stats and scouting reports and just what we’ll need to see out of them for this season to be considered a true explosion.
If you’re new to this series, you can check out the introductory explainer article here — this will have all the definitions you need to know.
Part 2 looked at prospects — Jeremy Roy, Jeffrey Viel, and Jasper Weatherby — whose time is already up. And indeed, that’s the case for Roy, at least in the San Jose organization. Roy’s entry-level contract expired two weeks ago, and the the Sharks declined to offer him a new contract, making the 2015 second-round pick a UFA.
Part 3 examined players — Jonathan Dahlen, Thomas Gregoire, Jayden Halbgewachs, Nikolai Knyzhov, Maxim Letunov, Scott Reedy, and Danil Yurtaykin — who likely have just one more year left to prove themselves before falling completely off the NHL radar. Halbgewachs was recently signed to a two-year contract, while Letunov got one year.
Part 4 analyzed prospects — Zachary Gallant, Vladislav Kotkov, Jake McGrew, and Kyle Topping — who still have time left but are otherwise unlikely to become NHLers.
Part 5 focused on some of the more intriguing but harder-to-project youngsters in the San Jose Sharks system: Zachary Emond, Joseph Garreffa, Santeri Hatakka, Krystof Hrabik, Timur Ibragimov, Zach Sawchenko, and Yegor Spiridonov.
Part 6 looked at Lean Bergmann, Dillon Hamaliuk, and Alexei Melnichuk — players who should have NHL futures but don’t boast the highest ceilings.
So which San Jose Sharks’ prospects are boom or bust?
Joachim Blichfeld – W
Joachim Blichfeld played three NHL games last season. He projects as a complimentary scoring winger in the league, and to get there he’ll need a big 2020-21 season. The San Jose Sharks smartly drafted the Danish winger out of the Swedish U20 league in 2016. Blichfeld then joined a loaded Portland Winterhawks team in the WHL. There he hummed along at about a point-per-game pace for two seasons before exploding for 118 points in 73 games.
There isn’t much out there about a former seventh-round draft pick, so we’ll have to rely on some less objective sources. Fellow San Jose Barracuda, goaltender Josef Korenar, said Blichfeld has one of the best shots on the team. Coach Roy Sommer talked about Blichfeld’s “natural-born” scoring ability.
Steve Kournianos, creator of The Draft Analyst website, discussed Blichfeld’s performance as Denmark’s best player in the 2018 World Junior tournament. To Kournianos, Blichfeld is a “dangerous sniper” whose “deadly shot is his bread and butter” — he was a major driver of Team Denmark’s offense.
Scouting reports from the McKeen’s team reveal that Blichfeld’s only truly exceptional asset is his shot. His skating isn’t exceptional, and he’s “not really one to carry the puck, but does a superb job at finding open areas of the ice away from the puck to receive shooting chances.”
The sniper has “only average puck skills in his game” and is an effective but not “game breaking” passer.
Blichfeld took his shooting ability to the AHL, where he finished the year with 32 points in 44 games, the second-best per-game rate among Barracuda rookies. According to InStat, Blichfeld averaged just the 5th-most time on ice of Barracuda forwards, making his scoring rate even more impressive. The 22-year-old forward also paced the team with 2.3 shots on goal per game. In the 19 games InStat tracked in this category last season, Blichfeld was on the ice for an average of +0.16 expected goals; in 40 tracked games in this category, he averaged about -0.22 shot differential at even strength.
InStat also shows that the team averaged +0.42 expected goals per game and took 56% of all shots on goal. That Blichfeld’s performance mostly fell below those figures reinforces the idea of him as a shooter but not a play driver.
To place his performance in historical context, we turn to Pick224. In the site’s database, 510 forwards have played at least 20 AHL games during their D+4 season since 2008. Blichfeld’s rate of even-strength primary points per game ranks 42nd and his total points per game, 94th.
These aren’t the numbers or skills profile of a hidden gem. Instead, Blichfeld has all the makings of a complementary player who will need play-driving teammates to succeed. That isn’t a bad thing, considering he was a seventh-round pick. Any NHL action is a success. It’s just that he’ll need an explosive season in his D+5 year if regular NHL action is in his future.
Ivan Chekhovich – W
Author’s note: I organized these prospect groups long before the Sharks announced Chekhovich will spend the entire season in Russia. This report tells us one thing: San Jose didn’t expect Chekhovich to play NHL hockey during the 2020-21 season, or they likely would have loaned him for a shorter duration.
In retrospect, even having Ivan Chekhovich up this high was wrong. That the winger earned less ice time than all other Barracuda forwards, even when the season was winding down and in its more experimental phase, should have tipped me off. I’ll chalk this one up to personal biases for the player, like the fact I think there’s still plenty of skill/talent there. Chekhovich’s mere presence in the AHL as a 20-year-old seventh-round pick is positive, but his performance last year should give us pause. It didn’t give me enough pause, so here we are.
When I do a final ranking, Chekhovich will slide down some. But the other installments of this series are already out in the wild, so he’ll stay where he is for now.
Ivan Chekhovich was the ideal late-round draft pick. Ranked by some (amateur) draftniks as a first-round talent, the winger had both the individual scoring and impact on his team’s scoring network to back up that high praise.
Pick224’s database of players since 2008 lists 2,840 draft-year forwards who played at least 20 games in one of the three CHL leagues. Chekhovich’s even-strength primary points ranks 280 of that group, just at the edge of the 90th percentile of that sample.
While a top-10 percent mark is exciting on the surface, Chekhovich isn’t exactly surrounded on that list by top-tier NHLers. His similarly scoring cohort does include some names that were recently selected with much higher draft picks, including Akil Thomas, Nick Robertson, Peyton Krebs, Ryan Suzuki, and Max Jones.
Unlike some of those players, Chekhovich didn’t improve his primary-point scoring rate the following season. Instead, his D+1 primary point-per-game scoring rate fell to the 80th percentile: Still impressive, but in the wrong direction.
Chekhovich rebounded the following season, rattling off the 30th-highest rate of primary even-strength points per game of 2,390 forwards in the D+2 sample.
During the 2019-20 season, Chekhovich took a puck to the face during the preseason and struggled thereafter. Of the 401 forwards to play 20 AHL games in their D+3 year since 2008, Chekhovich’s primary even-strength points-per-game rate was in the bottom 25 percent. To make matters worse, InStat recorded Chekhovich as averaging the least amount of ice time among all Barracuda forwards during the 2019-20 season.
That’s not good news, but it may not be a death knell. According to the rolling averages I took of Elite Prospects’ records, Chekhovich averaged about two shots on goal per game through the year’s first eight contests. But from November 13 to January 17, he failed to clear the two shot-per-game mark in any contest, and even suffered a stretch of games without averaging even one shot on goal.
He seemed to turn things around before the pandemic cut short the season. Over the final 16 games, he averaged 1.55 shots on goal per game and finished the season with a three-shot effort. During that same 16-game stretch, he also tallied eight points.
Despite signs of improvement, he generally struggled during his first professional season. Now, his organization admitted the winger isn’t in their plans for the 2020-21 season.
But an explosive D+4 season in the KHL can still brighten his outlook. He’s off to a great start, logging regular top-six ice time and racking up four points in his first six games this season. If this pace continues, good things in North America may be on the way.
Artemi Kniazev – LD
Kniazev is the defenseman archetype that San Jose Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. seems to be targeting with his draft picks. The 5-foot-11, 183-pound player has sacrificed size for skating ability, jarring hits for positional defense, and most importantly, can rack up points.
The 19-year-old defenseman scored 0.61 points per game his draft year in the QMJHL. As a 16/17-year-old in the MHL, Kniazev scored seven points in 39 regular season games. That scoring rate was in the top 20 percent of all U18 MHL defenseman to play at least 20 games during the past decade. All of that gave him a 49 percent chance of becoming an NHLer when he was drafted, according to Byron Bader’s prospect model.
He’s pacing right along with his historical second-round peers. About 46 percent of skaters selected in that round will play a 40-game NHL season at some point. Despite improving to a 0.84 point-per-game rate in the Q this year, Kniazev’s chances of making the NHL fell to about 44 percent. That dip isn’t necessarily a red flag, but it does tell us two things.
The model’s calculation shows us the importance of producing outlier seasons at an early age. It also reminds us that, although he’s still young, Kniazev needs a big 2020-21 season. Scoring rates are so important in prospect evaluation because they tend to indicate a mastery of the game at a given level.
What might that look like for Kniazev? According to Elite Prospects, since 2000-01, 634 defensemen logged at least 20 games during their D+2 season in the Q. The top 63 players listed scored at a 0.81 point-per-game rate or better. Kniazev has already accomplished that feat and now has the unenviable task of besting it.
Prospect watchers will want to see about a point-per-game rate out of the Russian defender next season. That would place him among names like Marco Scandella, Jason Demers, Philippe Myers, and MacKenzie Weegar—solid NHLers but no one to swoon over. Right around the 1.3 point-per-game mark are three well-known names in Kris Letang, Keith Yandle, and Thomas Chabot.
Each of these scoring classes contains its fair share of misses. The player groupings still provide a barometer for the type of season Kniazev must have if he’s to be considered sure-thing NHL material.
Along with a steep scoring hill to climb, Kniazev may also have some skill-set limitations to overcome. He fits the mold of a modern NHL defender. He’s a great skater, he can produce offense, and he is an intelligent passer. For all of that promise, it appears he may be a jack of all trades (save skating, where he excels).
A Redditor-created model that analyzed Kniazev’s Draftsite.com scouting report gave him a “FALSE” label. “FALSE,” as in, doesn’t have the scouting report of an NHLer. That’s just one report, however, and an aggregate view can give us a better perspective.
It’s important that “excellent” is here, large, prominent. The McKeen’s scouting report alone uses the adjective four times. The descriptor also fits my personal hypothesis that scouting reports laden with superlatives are indicative of exciting players. We want exciting players. Unfortunately, the only adjective that appears in Kniazev’s scouting reports more often than “excellent” is the dreaded “good.”
More than anything, “good” seems a sort of scouting report purgatory, robbing us of any certainty we could hope to acquire about a player. In a different text-mining scouting model, the appearance of the word “good” could help indicate anything from a good goal-scorer in the AHL to nothing but a minor-league roster filler. The Reddit model’s author found that the word “good” appeared more often on non-NHLers’ scouting reports.
Other words of caution include “needs” and “work,” as well as “strength,” as in, “could add strength.”
Kniazev is a prototypical modern defenseman, yes. He’s also not particularly adept at any one facet of the game. But he’s young, his production hasn’t stagnated, and there isn’t much wholly bad about his prospect profile.
The 2020-21 season will be telling, and the Sharks need it to be big. The surest sign that Kniazev is rising above his projections will be a blow-up season on the stat sheet. He’ll start the 2020-21 season on loan to the Ak Bars Kazan organization in Russia. He’s played just two games at the juniors level at the time of this writing, with one point to his name so far. A big season overseas (and in the Q, if Kniazev returns this season) will do magnitudes for his NHL likelihood.
Josef Korenar – G
Giants in the Crease has published research about goaltender timelines. Relative to skater research, this study has a small sample size of players. We’ll use it as a guideline with the caveat that the findings do not carry with them much certainty.
Before we look at the study, we’ll remind ourselves of Josef Korenar’s personal timeline. Undrafted, the San Jose Sharks signed Korenar to an entry-level deal after the 2017 draft. The 2016-17 season marked Korenar’s D+2 year, and the second year he went undrafted. Since then, he has played two full seasons—his D+3 and D+4 years—in the AHL with the Barracuda.
According to Giants in the Crease research, about 64 percent of goalies who make the NHL do so by their D+7 season. At a glance, this puts Korenar on track, especially for an undrafted player. He still has three seasons, including the current 2020-21 season, before we can consider him an unlikely NHL candidate.
The study also looks at NHL hit rate relative to AHL time accrued. A high frequency of goalies who made the NHL played their first AHL season during their D+3 year, like Korenar. Fifty-two percent of those goalies made the NHL after two or three AHL seasons. That would put Korenar on track to see NHL time … this season!
Except, Korenar really struggled this past season after an impressive first year with the Barracuda. He may have ended up shell-shocked after getting pummeled during a pre-season NHL game. Or, maybe, “goalies are voodoo,”as they say. In either case, Korenar’s 2019-20 rate of goals saved above average (GSAA) ranked 61 of the 71 AHL goalies to start at least 10 games during the season.
Put it all together: Korenar has begun his D+5 season on loan in the Czech Republic. He has played two full seasons in the AHL, one good and one bad (by GSAA standards).
Giants in the Crease has also researched NHL hit rates based on GSAA numbers. About half of the goalies who posted positive numbers in their D+5 seasons went on to make the NHL. For those who post negative GSAA numbers, only about 20 percent made the NHL. Unfortunately for Korenar, only about 30 percent of goalies that share his timeline make the NHL after posting a negative GSAA season.
There is still hope. Korenar can increase his NHL chances greatly with a standout AHL season during the 2020-21 campaign. But if he struggles again, it’s unlikely the Sharks extend his contract past this year.
The organization felt strongly enough about Korenar to hand him the organization’s AHL crease as a 19/20-year-old. That he has accumulated two AHL seasons suggests an accelerated timeline. However, with Melnichuk, Sawchenko, and Émond in the wings, Korenar needs a big pop this year if he is going to see NHL time.
We’re getting closer to the top here. Just five players remain out of the Sharks’ prospect pool (minus the 2020 class). The group we just discussed has NHL potential, but whether they reach their ceiling is a big question mark. The next group features players who are very likely close to NHL time or have already logged some NHL time in their short careers. They represent not necessarily the most exciting prospects in the system but those who have put everything together to the extent that the NHL staff sees a more apparent role for them in the bigs. Stay tuned for that installment and please let us know what you think in the comments.