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Deep Dive into San Jose’s Prospects, Part 8: NHL Ready?



Credit: San Jose Barracuda

We’ve almost made it!

This is Part 8 of our nine-part deep dive into the San Jose Sharks’ system.

If you’re just joining us, get started with the explainer, so you get an idea for our grading rubric. From there, we cover 33 Sharks prospects from Jeremy Roy to Jayden Halbgewachs to Jake McGrew to Yegor Spiridonov to Dillon Hamaliuk to Ivan Chekhovich, and everyone else in between. If you’re curious about any particular prospect, look below to see where the prospect ended up in our rankings.

Here, we’ll take a look at a few prospects who just might be NHL-ready. These players, regardless of their upside, are close to NHL time for one reason or another. If they’re not close to NHL time, they’re closer than their peers as of this writing.

Don’t get too excited about any one of these four players. In fact, all four of them are on the fence for NHL time in large part because of unfilled spots on the San Jose roster. At this point in the off-season, there are about seven forward spots and two roles along the blueline up for grabs. And, at this point in the off-season, there is little clarity about who will emerge as owners of those roles. The four players below may very well be next in line.

Just a reminder: This series was conceived before the 2020 NHL Draft. As a result, these articles do not include mention of those players. San Jose Hockey Now will provide more detail about those picks at a later date.

Sasha Chmelevski – C/W

Chmelevski is arguably Sharks fans’ favorite prospect. After slipping to the sixth round of the 2017 Draft, he turned around and put up 1.1 and then 1.4 points per game in the OHL the next two seasons. 

At the time of the 2017 Draft, Canucks Army’s prospect model gave Chmelevski nearly a one-in-five shot of making the NHL. His closest historical comparables were depth players, logging third- and fourth-line ice time. Currently, however, Byron Bader’s Hockey Prospecting model gives Chmelevski a 44% chance of making the bigs. That’s due in part to the forward’s strong final season in the OHL and solid rookie campaign in the AHL. 

In the AHL this past season, Chmelevski struggled a bit out of the gates. He took just seven total shots on goal and registered zero points. He revealed later that he was playing through a foot injury in October. From there, he took off, improving as the season wore on. He averaged nearly one more minute of ice time under the second-half coaching staff than he did with Roy Sommer at the helm. Over the season’s final 15 games, Chmelevski scored 12 points after taking 32 shots on goal. 

Since 2008, 401 AHL forwards have played 20 or more games during their D+3 seasons, per Chmelevski’s rate of even-strength primary points per game is just barely in the top 10% of those skaters. His 0.64 points-per-game rate is in the top quarter of that group. 

Alex Sasha Chmelevski San Jose Sharks forward

Players who historically scored at a similar rate their D+3 seasons include: Andrew Mangiapane, Teuvo Teravainen, Alex Tuch, Max Jones, Nino Niederreiter, Scott Laughton, Casey Mittelstadt, and Kailer Yamamoto. 

There is a big difference between Chmelevski and this cohort, however. Unlike the San Jose version, most of these players also saw NHL time during said season. In effect, Chmelevski is a year behind these comparable players. 

No matter. Chmelevski is long on talent even if he’s slipped behind similar players who have skated through the AHL before him. A model that analyzed scouting reports thinks Chmelevski has what it takes to make the NHL. Other scouts also see positive signs in the forward’s game.

  • He has “good vision” and very good stickhandling skills. 
  • He is “a crafty player with a nifty, high-end offensive skillset.” 
  • Roy Sommer pointed out his intelligence (hockey IQ, if you will). 
  • Nick Fohr, who coached Chmelevski during a brief stint with the US Development Program and who knows him well, acknowledged some issues with Chmelevski’s skating but focused mostly on his playmaking ability. 

Chmelevski is a skill forward at a position of need. He hasn’t blown up exactly as the San Jose Sharks would have hoped, but he now has a full AHL season in his rear view and questionable competition around him. Is he NHL ready? Maybe, maybe not. But things are looking good. 

In a bit of a dissenting opinion, Mitch Brown from EP Rinkside believes Chmelevski’s offensive upside is more limited. Instead, Brown thinks that the young forward’s most translatable asset is his defensive play. If Brown’s evaluation of Chmelevski’s hockey repertoire is correct, then Chmelevski stands an even better chance of playing NHL games in 2020-21. With Joe Thornton and Barclay Goodrow’s departures, the two bottom-six center positions are up for grabs. At a glance, Chmelevski may offer the same defensive acumen as his competition with a slightly more exciting offensive profile. 

Sounds like a modern top-nine center, if you ask me.

John Leonard – W

I am irrationally excited about John Leonard. I’m setting aside his late-bloomer status and lack of exciting comparable players for a moment because, as his former coach Greg Carvel says, “He’s just an elite goal scorer.” In fact, Carvel continued, Leonard was “electrifying this year and I’d say at least half his goals were really highlight-level goals.”

But, I get it. Coaches are going to pump the tires of their players. Fear not. Neutral observers share Carvel’s evaluation of the 22-year-old forward. Joe Meloni of College Hockey News opined on Leonard’s game in a conversation with Dobber Prospects. According to Meloni, Leonard was dominant during the 2020-21 season and one of the best NCAA players. Corey Pronman of the Athletic says Leonard “has so much offense.” 

His tape speaks for itself:

In February, before the world went kerplunk, Doug Wilson Jr. said that we may see Leonard sooner rather than later. 

What’s not to love? 

For starters, the team at EP Rinkside believes that, despite Leonard’s skating ability and offensive skills, his ”lack of notable off-puck timing and movement skills will likely prevent him from translating his finishing prowess to the NHL.” Not great! 

The other red flag with Leonard is that he’s a late bloomer. As a first-year draft-eligible player, he scored just nine points in 52 USHL games. He improved but failed to crack the point-per-game threshold the following year in the same league. In fact, the Sharks didn’t draft Leonard until he was a double overager who was suddenly scoring at the NCAA level. 

His freshman season scoring was in the top 12 percent of forwards to play NCAA games at a similar age since 2000-2001, per Elite Prospects. But his career scoring rate isn’t so exciting. 

Players who stayed in the NCAA for three years between their age 19/20 and 21/22 seasons and scored at a similar rate became depth NHLers, if they made the league at all. Recognizable names who had college career arcs like Leonard include such distinguished bottom-sixers as Austin Czarnik, Kenny Agostino, J.T. Brown, Jimmy Vesey (remember that “sweepstakes”?), Daniel Winnik, and Evan Rodrigues. 

John Leonard San Jose Sharks Forward

Leonard’s most likely outcome, if he does make the NHL, seems to be third-line scoring winger. Think Marcus Sorensen before he fell off the map last season. Leonard has the defensive tenacity and just enough offensive potential to play a complementary role against middling opponents. 

Despite that outlook, Leonard is this close to the NHL by process of elimination. Only three wingers are locked into NHL spots for the San Jose Sharks: Evander Kane, Kevin Labanc, and Timo Meier. The rest of the current roster is a motley crew of forwards who will vie for the remaining five openings at wing. My money is on Leonard landing one of those spots out of training camp.

Brinson Pasichnuk – D

Like fellow ex-NCAAer Leonard, a major reason Pasichnuk finds himself this high up the rankings is process of elimination. Exciting, I know. 

Pasichnuk has been compared to Brad Hunt, though the parallels are probably about their style of play, rather than their path into the NHL. At least, the Sharks should hope so. Hunt didn’t become an NHL regular until age 29, and even then he failed to really stick as a third-pairing guy until he switched teams before last season. 

The physical-but-mobile Pasichnuk actually profiles favorably to others who have come out of the not-so-great AJHL league. He scored 1.25 points per game his draft-eligible season. Ahead of him on the list of draft-eligible defensemen in the AJHL since 2000-01 are Michael Benning (taken in the fourth round of the 2020 draft) and someone named Cale Makar, both at 1.39 points per game. 

Brinson Pasichnuk San Jose Sharks defenseman

The comparisons to the recent Calder Trophy winner stop there. Unlike Makar, Pasichnuk played four full seasons in the NCAA before signing a professional deal. And defensemen who don’t make it out of the college ranks until they’ve exhausted their eligibility don’t tend to turn into NHLers, period. I won’t bore you with a list of names here. They’re all but unrecognizable.

We can give Pasichnuk the benefit of the doubt here, though. He played for Arizona State, not a school exactly synonymous with hockey. If he played at a program more known for its icescapades, maybe he picks up a contract after his third season. Maybe he’s the next Joakim Ryan, Ben Hutton, Devon Toews, or Colton Parayko. 

Ryan and Toews, the more likely outcomes here, both sat in the AHL for at least two full seasons before seeing NHL ice time. Parayko and Hutton made the leap the following season. 

So, uh, my logic here doesn’t follow. It sure looks like the best-case scenario for Pasichnuk is that he deserved to be drafted at one point and then was passed over for a contract sooner because he didn’t play for a college hockey powerhouse. Even that trajectory puts him squarely in the AHL for a few seasons.

Except that the status of the Sharks defense corps is very much in question right now. Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Radim Simek, and Mario Ferraro occupy five of the team’s six available spots. Ryan Merkley (don’t worry, we’ll get to him) is the most logical choice to fill that sixth spot. But, for all his offense, his defense can still be, well, offensive. It’s unlikely Merkley latches onto and stays in that role—a role in which he’ll be expected to defend well–for the entire season. Plus, the team will almost certainly carry a seventh defenseman on road trips. That leaves two spots (one and a half, if you assume Merkley splits time between the minors and the bigs) up for grabs. 

Outside of Merkley, Pasichnuk’s minor-league competition is very minor league. Soon-to-be-25-year-old Jacob Middleton earned a few call-ups last year but played sparingly in those games. Nikolai Knyzhov won’t be 23 until March, so he’s got relative youth going for him. In his three NHL games last season, he averaged 10:49 in ice time. Neither of these Barracuda blueliners impressed enough to ward off Tim Heed (allowed to walk in free agency) or Brandon Davidson (allowed to walk in free agency) during the second half of the 2019-20 season. Trevor Carrick and Nick DeSimone are both 26, and Nicholas Meloche is just a guy. 

Once the 2020-21 season is confirmed, the San Jose Sharks will likely sign a veteran depth defenseman, putting a damper on Pasichnuk’s outlook. Even if I’m wrong, and Pasichnuk doesn’t sniff the NHL this season or next, he’s still got a year jump on guys like Artemi Kniazev and Santeri Hatakka. All of which means that, once you tick Merkley off the list, Pasichnuk is the next most likely defense prospect to lace up his skates alongside Brent Burns and company.

Alex True – C

The lumbering center played 12 NHL games last season. Like with the other prospects whose NHL experience is limited, it’s unwise to read too much into his on-ice results in those games. Even with this caveat in mind, it’s impressive that he was just on the right side of average statistically during those 12 games.

True took an unusual path to the big league. He played three fairly nondescript seasons in the WHL before he found a home with the Barracuda. In his first season there, he scored 29 points in 72 games. During the 2019-20 season and his D+5 year, True scored 25 points in 40 AHL games. His 0.63 points per game was the Barracuda’s ninth-best mark. 

Alexander True San Jose Sharks center

Up with the San Jose Sharks, True showed that he could handle a fourth-line role in a small sample size. He spent most of his time with Stefan Noesen, Marcus Sörensen, Dylan Gambrell, and Melker Karlsson—not exactly a murderer’s row of forwards—and statistically wasn’t much worse for the wear. 

The big red flag with True is that his ice time dried up as the season neared its early end. The other piece of bad news for him is that the Sharks have a veritable army of fourth-line centers at their disposal. And yet, behind the big center is an intriguing profile. 

McKeen’s Hockey has the most in-depth profile I can find. The author highlights their opinion that True is a “dangerous power forward with a plethora of offensive tools, the most notable of which is his freakish size and balance, which makes him capable of driving the net and playing the cycle against nearly anyone.” 

Contributors to Dobber Hockey share a similar perception. They all also agree that the Danish power forward’s skating leaves something to be desired. No doubt, he improved upon that flaw enough for 12 games in the NHL. But, I imagine it’s a skill he must continue honing if he is to ward off his tough competition. 

True may not be the most exciting prospect at a glance. Once we peel back the layers to his profile, we see someone who may exceed our expectations yet. His skating: Improved. His skills: Better than we thought. His scoring: Popped off once he figured things out in the AHL. His age curve: Room for improvement, still. True fits the description of a fourth-line NHLer, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be in the running for that position in 2020-21.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

We’re almost there. We’ve almost ingested all there is to know about each of the Sharks 33 non-2020-draft-pick prospects. The next and final installment of this series is the one you’ve all been waiting for, so we’ll make sure to spend an inordinate amount of time describing the trajectory of the organization’s number-one youngin’. Until then, catch up on this series here:

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 riffed on Lean Bergmann, Dillon Hamaliuk, and Alexei Melnichuk —  players who should have NHL futures but don’t boast the highest ceilings.

Part 7 discussed “boom or bust” San Jose Sharks prospects Joachim Blichfeld, Ivan Chekhovich, Artemi Kniazev, and Josef Korenar.

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