Skating isn’t the most important thing.
Sasha Chmelevski’s current stint with the San Jose Sharks is a study in that.
Chmelevski, along with John Leonard, started Saturday night on the fourth line flanking Scott Reedy. But after the Sharks got down 4-1 in the first period to the Dallas Stars, head coach Bob Boughner elevated Chmelevski next to Logan Couture.
“I thought Sasha’s game was strong. I knew that right off the bat,” Boughner said. “You try and make adjustments as a game goes on and give guys opportunities where they deserve, and I thought he deserved that opportunity to play on that big line.”
And indeed, the promotion paid immediate dividends, as both Chmelevski and Couture showed how smarts can trump skating.
Couture (39) hands it off to Brent Burns (88). Burns returns it to Couture, but as the return pass arrives, once-San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski (16) is on top of the current captain.
Here’s where Couture’s vaunted hockey IQ kicks in: Instead of trying to handle the puck through Pavelski (probable turnover) or pass it (it would be a one-touch pass under duress, which is risky), Couture lets it go to Jaycob Megna (24), running a pick on the forechecker Pavelski in the process.
Megna has a little more time and space – than Couture would’ve had – to make a play, hitting Chmelevski (55) up the ice. Couture helps again by driving the center lane, pushing Thomas Harley (55) and John Klingberg (3) back.
Chmelevski gains the zone and pulls up. He doesn’t necessarily have the feet or physicality a la Timo Meier to drive the net on Klingberg. But what he does have is patience with the puck and vision.
He sees Burns available at the far lane and zips a pass under Tyler Seguin’s (91) stick. Burns has a step on Seguin and his centering pass deflects off Harley past Scott Wedgewood.
Chmelevski made his NHL debut last season, notching two assists in five games. But understandably so for a rookie, the best league in the world seemed fast at times for him.
He’s clearly processing the game at a higher level now.
“I do see it slowing down a little bit for me, but it’s also I just got to take it upon myself to slow it down,” Chmelevski observed. “You have more time than you think, and you got to make a play if you want to play in this league, you can’t just get rid of pucks. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
And that’s what he’s doing.
First, credit to Noah Gregor (73). He feints shot, drawing in Ryan Suter (20). He then hits the open Chmelevski with the pass.
A lot of inexperienced players would fire it right there or look for the pass in this spot – basically, they wouldn’t know what to do with the puck in the spotlight.
And maybe that would’ve been Chmelevski last season.
But now, the third-year pro deked out Wedgewood and almost got himself his first NHL goal. It was Couture though who took advantage of the Chmelevski-created chaos to pull San Jose within one.
Both Couture and Chmelevski played for the Ottawa 67’s, so Couture has been keeping a close eye on Chmelevski since the San Jose Sharks drafted him in the sixth round of the 2017 Draft.
“Anytime he was playing, whether it was World Juniors or a junior game on television, I would watch him. And one thing that you pick up watching him is his brain,” Couture shared.
He then paid Chmelevski the ultimate compliment: “Skating may not be a strength, but he gets, and he puts himself in the correct positions all over the ice. Skates like Pav. I’m not saying he is Joe Pavelski, but he has that look to him when he skates. He thinks the game in a similar fashion.”
Chmelevski paid the compliment back to the captain (and the alternate captains), crediting the leadership of Couture, Burns, and Erik Karlsson for his elevated play.
“Our big guys stay on me that they want to see me carry the puck. That’s when I play my best, when I’m looking to make plays, use my teammates,” he said. “Especially Burnzie, he’s always on me about playing with confidence.”
Even Chmelevski’s younger peers have noticed. John Leonard, who scored a goal himself against Dallas, and was Chmelevski’s linemate in the AHL, added: “He’s really showing his patience lately on the ice. That paid off on Burnzie’s goal and then on Cooch’s as well. He held onto the puck, took that extra second to make a play.”
And perhaps most importantly, the San Jose Sharks coaching staff has noticed too. Boughner agreed that Chmelevski’s processing power has increased from last season.
“I think the AHL, I know from my experience as a player, watching the AHL over time, most guys will tell you sometimes it’s easier to play up here. The reason being is because everybody’s doing their own job, everybody’s organized. You worry about your own thing [here],” the bench boss said. “Sometimes, it’s a little more scrambly and you’re looking to do a little too much down there, cover up for other mistakes.”
Big picture for the San Jose Sharks? Chmelevski’s entry-level contract is expiring at the end of this season. But the RFA is making a good case that he belongs in the NHL right now.
“Sasha’s a pretty versatile player. He could play center, he could play wing,” Boughner pointed out. “We used him on the kill tonight.”
San Jose Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer told San Jose Hockey Now that Chmelevski is above 50 percent on the draw in the AHL this year.
So it looks like the Sharks’ patience with their 2017 draft pick might be paying off – they might have unearthed a legitimate and versatile NHL forward in the late rounds.
“It takes time to get used to the NHL and get up to speed,” Couture offered, “but I think he’s been great so far.”
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