The San Jose Barracuda are off to a good start to begin the 2021-22 season, in large part thanks to the contributions from the forwards with NHL experience on the roster.
After a tight-checking 1-0 loss against the Bakersfield Condors, Barracuda didn’t hang their heads.
Instead, in 5-4 and 3-2 victories over the Colorado Eagles, they turned to their veteran leaders up front to make an impact and showed their potential for when they can be called up.
“Those forwards have been great,” San Jose Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer said. “I’ve been really happy with the way they’ve come down and worked. Colorado is one of the more difficult places to get points out of. It’s a tough building to play in. Crazy environment. We did it because all of those guys have played pretty good hockey for us.”
Through four contests, it’s clear that the resiliency and continual work ethic of their forwards has been showcased through the experience of the forward lines. San Jose has found late goals by John Leonard and Noah Gregor – both of which have earned a taste with the San Jose Sharks last season.
For 23-year-old Gregor, the message relayed to him from the coaching staff has been simple: Work out the kinks.
“They just want me to play a ton of minutes, gain some confidence and work on a few things like they told me to,” Gregor said. “For my game, it’s just trying to find that consistency. That’s using my speed, not just to create offense, but to get back on the back check. Staying in battles. Winning those 50-50 battles.”
— Michael Gutnick (@michaelgutnick) October 24, 2021
Gregor is one of six forwards with experience in the National Hockey League. He’s working on consistency like many others competing for opportunities within the top-six. That window has opened slightly when forward Dylan Gambrell was traded to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
“It sucks because it’s part of the hockey business, but I’m happy for him,” Gregor said. “It leaves an empty spot in the top-six for guys to have more ice time and more opportunities. You just got do your best to earn the ice time.”
Guys like Gregor, Leonard, Sasha Chmelevski, and Joachim Blichfeld are candidates to take on bigger roles within that top-six of the Barracuda.
With William Eklund and Jonathan Dahlen grabbing the reins on the wings with the San Jose Sharks, the focus for the forwards with NHL experience is to gain as much ice time and confidence as possible with the AHL affiliate while keeping their heads up, which has been the case so far.
“Our attitudes have been positive,” Gregor said. “We’re each working on our own individual things so that we can earn those call-ups when the time is right.”
Gregor’s focus is to work on his speed and strength in the offensive zone, according to Sommer.
“The biggest thing with Noah Gregor is he has to utilize his speed,” Sommer said. “He needs to finish hits when he has an opportunity to do that and take pucks to the net.
Leonard played over 40 games with the San Jose Sharks last season due to his acceleration and quick wit in all three zones.
For now, he’s looking for consistency in scoring once again in a top-line spot.
“Leonard has got to be a numbers guy,” Sommer said. “He’s a shooter. He’s really fast. He needs to keep taking pucks to the net like he did for the game-winner in Colorado. He needs to be a guy that we can count on getting goals.”
John Leonard drives hard to the net, beats an Eagles defender and scores short-side to give San Jose the first lead of the night, 5-4 with 4:12 remaining in regulation. #SJBarracuda pic.twitter.com/LWBOIPqmue
— Michael Gutnick (@michaelgutnick) October 23, 2021
If Leonard makes plays like the one he did late against the Eagles, the UMass product’s scoring presence will be much appreciated all season long.
Chmelevski has been snake-bitten on the scoresheet and, like Leonard, the 22-year-old forward’s focus is consistency in scoring. He has been barely noticeable in the first three games, generating just six shots in four games.
“He’s got to be an option for the defense when when they’re breaking out,” Sommer said “He needs to us his hockey prowess to create offensive opportunities for his linemates.”
Blichfeld started the year with an undisclosed injury, missing the season opener against the Condors.
Blichfeld has since shown his strength in stickhandling, but has yet to showcase his natural shooting ability with just four shots on goal in total.
“He’s got to get himself into position to get pucks to the net,” Sommer said of Blichfeld. “He can’t rely on his linemates to do it for him. On the wall, he’s got to make positive plays.”
While the season is still young, it will be a good thing to keep an eye on these veteran forwards as they focus on finding more consistency in their scoring and gaining more confidence.
Barracuda Through Oct. 29
The Barracuda dropped the season opener 1-0 in a hard-fought clash with the Condors (4-2-0). Edmonton Oilers 2017 third-round draft pick Stuart Skinner recorded a 34-save shutout, stonewalling chances left and right. Forward Seth Griffith netted the lone tally with a second period power play marker.
San Jose responded with a high-flying sweep of the Colorado Eagles (1-4-1) at Budweiser Events Center, securing come-from-behind victories in 5-4 and 3-2 victories, showcasing early resiliency to begin the season. Defenseman Ryan Merkley made some nifty plays late in both contests, including a sweet pass to connect with forward Scott Reedy’s first goal of the season.
— Michael Gutnick (@michaelgutnick) October 23, 2021
Goaltender Zach Sawchenko was locked in with a 41-save performance in his first start of the season, ensuring the latter of the wins in Loveland. It is expected for Sawchenko and Melnichuk to continue splitting time in goal this season.
On Friday, the Barracuda fell in overtime to the Eagles 5-4 on Kiefer Sherwood’s snipe from the point to spoil San Jose’s home opener at SAP Center.
San Jose started strong out of the gate with the energy from the fans, scoring two quick tallies from Gregor and Nicolas Meloche.
Great 200-foot sequence here by Barracuda. Timor Ibragimov leads the breakout from the defensive zone and finds Nicolas Meloche at the point and then snipes his first of the season. #SJBarracuda
2-0 Barracuda pic.twitter.com/JrfMbSTuFl
— Michael Gutnick (@michaelgutnick) October 30, 2021
The Eagles answered back with short-side shots that goaltender Alexei Melnichuk should have had, but ultimately couldn’t spring far enough to make the key saves. Melnichuk stopped 31 of 36 opponents’ shots on goal.
To kickstart their momentum in the third period, San Jose received power play goals from John Leonard and Nick Merkley. However, quick responses by Colorado negated any breathing room opportunities for the Barracuda, and resulted in their first overtime of the season where Sherwood potted the game winner with 22 seconds left.
The Barracuda play the Stockton Heat next on the road Sunday at 5 PM before returning home to face the Heat again Wednesday at 7 PM.
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