Where does Rudolfs Balcers fit in on next year’s San Jose Sharks…and beyond?
“As the team gets better, and as we move forward, I think Rudy settles into a third-line left wing role, that could play both sides. That can be a penalty killer,” head coach Bob Boughner said last week. “If he can be a full-time penalty killer, play on a good team on a third line, chip in offensively, he’ll have a heckuva career.”
Boughner stressed that he wasn’t capping the 25-year-old winger’s ceiling, this was just his projection. It’s actually a high compliment.
“Those are the guys you need, going deeper into the playoffs,” Boughner pointed out. “In a seven-game series, those are the kind of guys that help you win.”
The San Jose Sharks, of course, are far from the playoffs, dropping their fifth in a row on Thursday to the Calgary Flames 4-2. But Balcers flashed glimpses of what Boughner was forecasting.
“He thinks the game well. He has a good stick. He’s a great skater,” Boughner rattled off. “He’s not afraid to be physical, all those things, and he’s got a bit of a [scoring] touch.”
Mikael Backlund (11) wins the draw back to Michael Stone (26). As Stone looks up, set to rim it up the wall, you can see Balcers (92), in front of Dan Vladar, spying on him.
The next play is an example of Balcers thinking the game well. Tyler Toffoli (73), on the wall, wants to bump the rim to Backlund coming up the middle with speed. Balcers’s brain and quick feet sniff it out.
Nick Bonino (13) earns a scoring chance off it.
“He sees the game almost as a two-way kind of [way], spurts of offense, but responsible defensively,” Boughner observed of Balcers.
This is a big part of why Boughner thinks that Balcers can become a player that you win with. Most young forwards think offense first and need to be taught defense. Balcers is the reverse, a natural two-way winger.
“I think a lot about that,” Balcers acknowledged last week. “Coming up, my first years in Ottawa, you want to take care of the defense before you go off.”
Balcers, of course, was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He was traded to the Ottawa Senators, along with a bevy of other assets, for Erik Karlsson in Sept. 2018. San Jose grabbed Balcers off waivers at the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
Coming down hard on the forecheck, Balcers disrupts, putting his stick on Rasmus Andersson (4).
“Their line did a good job of getting pucks deep, working off of forechecks and spending some time in their end,” Boughner said of the performance of the Bonino, Balcers, and Matt Nieto line on Thursday. Especially in a sloppy first period, Boughner cited this trio as his most steady.
Another example of Balcers’s defensive stick?
At the All-Star break, per SPORTLOGiQ, he led all San Jose Sharks forwards in Blocked Passes Per 60 at 5-on-5.
But there appears to be another theme – it’s not his stick – in common when Balcers is on the ball.
Stone fumbles the puck at the point, and Balcers explodes past him. On entry, he drops it to Bonino, who hands it off to Nieto (83). Nieto gives it to Jaycob Megna (24) at the point.
“Rudy brings a lot of speed,” Bonino offered.
“Skating is his biggest attribute,” Logan Couture said. “He’s a smooth, fast skater. Tenacious on the puck when he’s at his best.”
“At his best” is the operative phrase, however. Balcers, off waivers, was a pleasant surprise for the San Jose Sharks last season. This year? There were greater expectations, but between a variety of injuries, he’s been shuttled up and down lines and has yet to show the consistency that the more indispensable players have. Frankly, he’s seen a little too much fourth-line time on a depleted Sharks’ side — of his own doing — recently.
“I talked to Rudy this morning. It’s been a work in progress, the last few weeks with his game. We’ve been doing a lot of shift tapes and meetings,” Boughner said after the Calgary loss. “I told him today, I thought his last game [in Edmonton], he got better. He was doing some better things and protecting pucks and winning 50-50’s.”
It’s a common problem for young players, of course, finding that consistent A-game. For Balcers, that’s regularly blending his speed, strength, stick, and smarts to win battles.
“That’s what we need from Rudy,” Couture said.
Looking ahead to next year, the San Jose Sharks have a ton of opportunity up front. They have three sure-fire top-six forwards in Couture, Timo Meier, and Tomas Hertl. Maybe Alexander Barabanov, if he returns, and Kevin Labanc, if he’s healthy, belong in there?
The questions mount when you dig deeper into the forward corps. Is there a reliable third line to be cobbled together from the Sharks’ parts?
On a good team, Bonino and Nieto are fourth-line forwards. Balcers, Jonathan Dahlen, and Noah Gregor have flashed middle-six talent but haven’t proven to be reliable yet, hence their regular line shuffling. Sasha Chmelevski, Scott Reedy, and John Leonard, among others, have proven even less. Ditto for prospects William Eklund and company.
Balcers is as good an internal candidate as any to make the leap. The talent is clearly there. It is a contract year next season, too: The Latvian winger is currently signed for a reasonable $1.55 million dollars AAV for one more campaign.
If Balcers does take another step – Boughner believes “he can make a long career out of it.”
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