Trevor Letowski was in for a surprise when he became Rocky Thompson’s associate coach in Windsor in 2015.
Consider that Letowski scored 84 goals and recorded just 209 penalty minutes in 616 career NHL games, in contrast to Thompson, who ripped off 117 PIMs in just 25 appearances.
“He really was focused on offense. That surprised me a little bit just with his playing career,” Letowski admitted. “I feel like he had to work hard to kind of shed…what people expect [from him] as a hockey person. When you work with Rocky, he’s completely different than what he was as a player.”
Thompson helmed the Spitfires for two seasons, winning the 2017 Memorial Cup, before giving way to Letowski. Meanwhile, Thompson moved onto the AHL, leading the 2018-19 Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup Finals.
Last Thursday, Darren Dreger reported that Thompson was going up another rung:
He’s headed to San Jose to assist Bob Boughner, who is believed to have earned an extension. https://t.co/KIMWWmmJFS
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) July 16, 2020
While San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has yet to confirm this report, Dreger is as reliable a newsbreaker as there is in our industry.
With that in mind, San Jose Hockey Now reached out to Letowski, who filled us in on Rocky’s unexpected analytical bent and what he might offer the Sharks.
Sheng Peng: Rocky is thought of as a pretty innovative coach. Was there anything a little different that you can point to that he did in Windsor?
Trevor Letowski: He certainly values analytics. That was just kind of coming into play [in 2015]. Back then, I think he was a little bit ahead of the curve.
Now, everyone does their due diligence. But five years ago, it was a different, different story. He kind of set us up that way.
He had never been a head coach before. He just came in, he was very passionate and had a ton of energy.
He was extremely motivated to keep his career moving. He wanted to to win, and he wanted to keep moving, you know? And that’s what he ended up doing.
SP: You mentioned the analytics part, was there anything that he kind of honed in on in 2015? Scoring chances were getting tracked, especially high-danger ones, around then.
TL: I would say he really was focused on offense.
I think that surprised me a little bit just with his playing career. He would tell you the same thing. I feel like he had to work hard to kind of shed…what people expect [from him] as a hockey person. When you work with Rocky, he’s completely different than what he was as a player.
I know that summer, he had done a presentation at the NHL coaching clinic on creating offense off the rush. It was crossing the royal road and stuff like that.
He really wanted data on how to create offense, mostly different things in the offensive zone. He was a big believer in getting pucks up high in the offensive zone and then coming down the hill with it.
The analytics, like I said, were just in its infancy compared to what it is today. But he was certainly looking at stuff, and when he got numbers…he looked at those a lot. Even things as simple as Corsi. He cared about that stuff on a game-to-game basis, which was a little bit different than what most coaches were doing at that time.
SP: Can you elaborate on what Rocky tried to do in terms of getting the puck up high then coming down with it?
TL: Yeah, we were just kind of getting numbers up top. Having three high, causing confusion and then coming down with it. The other two players beating their men to the net.
SP: Rocky also has a rep for pulling his goalie really early. What do you remember about that?
TL: (laughs) Again, that was something, I mean he’s always kind of reading. If the analytics are saying it’s right, it doesn’t surprise me. We’d have different conversations about things like that, if that makes sense to do it and if the data is supporting that.
He didn’t do it a whole lot from what I remember in Windsor. But it doesn’t surprise me if he’s done that at the pro level.
He’s not afraid to go outside the box a little bit. If he feels it’s supported or something that he’s researched, he’ll do it.
SP: Is it fair to say that in your experience, your playing and coaching experience, that he might be the most analytically-inclined coach you’ve worked with?
TL: Yeah, he is. I’ve worked with Hockey Canada a couple of times at World Juniors, and they have a ton of resources, similar to the NHL.
But yeah, on a club team, there’s no question he is. The thing about Rocky, I think he’s always learning. He’s always trying to to stay modern. He wants to know what the latest stuff is.
SP: You already alluded to it, but what do you think Rocky will bring as an assistant coach to an NHL team?
TL: He’s gonna bring energy to any team. It’s always a little bit of different dynamic, someone as an assistant coach, compared to being a head coach. But him and Boogie have a prior relationship from Windsor.
He’s gonna look for anything that he possibly can find to give his team an edge.
Rocky Thompson: “Leave analytics out of the locker room.”
George Kingston was the San Jose Sharks’ first head coach. Fast forward to 2015: He was the President of the NHL Coaches Association when he sent a fateful e-mail.
“George Kingston always sent out an e-mail asking for people who would want to present at the NHL’s coaches conference at the NHL entry draft,” San Jose Sharks associate coach Rocky Thompson told Oilersnation earlier this week. “I felt I needed to get my name out there, so I called him and said I’d like to present.”
Thompson’s career was at a crossroads when he took the stage at the 2015 NHL Coaches Association Global Coaches’ Clinic in Florida. He was a coach without a team — the Edmonton Oilers had just fired his head coach Dallas Eakins — and he didn’t know if incoming head coach Todd McLellan would keep him.
There were over 400 coaches in attendance: “He blew them away.”
Windsor Spitfires owner Bob Boughner was one of them: “What he said really hit home with me.”
The Spitfires hired Thompson as head coach and he led them to the 2017 Memorial Cup. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights followed up, selecting Thompson to be their first-ever AHL head coach, and he led the Chicago Wolves to the 2019 Calder Cup Finals.
And now, the circle from Kingston to Boughner to San Jose is complete: Last month, the San Jose Sharks tapped Thompson to be part of the head coach’s staff. Thompson will be running the defense and the power play.
San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Thompson in a wide-ranging interview earlier this month.
Curious how the San Jose Sharks might maximize Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns’s talents? How Phil Jackson and the triangle offense will apply to the Sharks? As a coach, how to use analytics the right way?
Thompson, to say the least, loves nerding out about hockey.
Deep Dive into San Jose’s Prospects, Part 6: NHL Regulars?
As we climb the ladder of San Jose Sharks prospects, we inch ever closer to those who stand a reasonable chance of playing for the big-league club. One of these next three prospects has already logged a few NHL games. All three of them offer promise for the same combination of things that help any prospect: Draft capital, scouting profile, production progression, and lack of competitive options in the Sharks pipeline.
It’s not reasonable to expect any of these players to become top-of-the-lineup material. Their trajectories arc toward complementary players at the professional level, but those are roster spots best filled with young players on cheap deals. This group of three players has a good chance to fill exactly that role even if it’s no certain thing. Welcome — to the borderline NHL regulars group!
Before you dig in, check out the rest of this deep dive into the San Jose Sharks prospects — this series began before the 2020 Draft, so it’s focused on non-2020 Draft prospects.
If you’re new to these, 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. Halbgewachs was recently signed to a two-year contract, which 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 youngsters in the San Jose Sharks system: Zachary Emond, Joseph Garreffa, Santeri Hatakka, Krystof Hrabik, Timur Ibragimov, Zach Sawchenko, and Yegor Spiridonov.
So who are the Sharks prospects that I project to be borderline NHL regulars?
Lean Bergmann – W
Lean Bergmann played 12 games with the Sharks during the 2019-20 season. He finished the season with the big club, playing four of the team’s last seven games. In those four games he averaged just 7:54 of ice time and took just two shots on goal.
Advanced metrics that adjust for a player’s context don’t show Bergmann in a very bright light, either. It’s too hard to take much away from a sample size of just 96 minutes of ice time, but his impact on even-strength expected goals for & against and shots for & against were all one standard deviation or more worse than average. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish given that the model in question pulls everything back toward average to begin with.
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Bergmann struggled in the NHL. He was forced into a situation few 21-year-olds would envy: A team that had lost its high-end forward depth and would struggle immensely to begin a season that ended with a new head coach behind the bench.
Even without that context, it’s difficult to expect much from a prospect who never really got going until his age-20/21 season. As a 17- and 18-year-old in the USHL, Bergmann failed to crack the half-point-per-game mark before returning to Germany. There, he impressed, with a 0.58 point-per-game campaign.
According to Elite Prospects, Bergmann’s scoring rate ranks ninth among 222 DEL forwards to play at least 20 games during a U21 season since 2000-01. We should note, however, that of the eight forwards ranked above him, most either scored at a higher rate at the same age or even earlier. The closest trajectory to Bergmann’s own was that of Marcel Müller. Müller played one game for the Maple Leafs but otherwise spent the better part of two North American seasons with the AHL Marlies.
So why is Bergmann exciting? Not much exists in the way of scouting reports for the undrafted free agent. Those that are floating in the internet ether describe a combination of size, toughness, and shooting ability.
Chris Legg of Dobber Prospects writes of someone who, for his size, “can really dangle and shoots the puck with authority.”
In an interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz, Barracuda General Manager Joe Will spoke of a forward who “showed character, skating, and good physio” despite a lack of production.
A more in-depth scouting report at McKeen’s Hockey describes a player who, “has very quick hands for someone his size, and…can effectively utilize his size and strength to create offensive chances for himself.”
Usually, scouting reports that focus on size and strength aren’t incredibly encouraging. Bergmann, however, has already logged NHL time with the Sharks’ current head coach, however brief. He has skill to go along with his frame, and another year in North America should help him further acclimate to the smaller rink. According to Elite Prospects, Bergmann did score in the top one-third of 20- and 21-year-old forward seasons in the AHL since 2000-01.
Right now, there are probably two or more spots in the San Jose Sharks’ bottom-six up for grabs. Bergmann may not necessarily have an inside track to one of them, but he has the profile and existing NHL experience to earn himself another stint with the big club whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
Dillon Hamaliuk – W
The best thing going for Dillon Hamaliuk is his second-round draft capital. Nearly three-quarters of skaters drafted in the second round play at least one NHL game. A majority of them make it to 10 games. Part of that statistic has nothing to do with the player. NHL teams try their darndest to make expensive investments pan out: Just look at the opportunities the Sharks have given Dylan Gambrell relative to Noah Gregor.
That something out of a player’s hands is the core reason he might make the big leagues isn’t a glowing endorsement. There’s more to the big forward’s chances than draft position, though. Byron Bader’s prospect model compares players’ scoring rates to those of thousands of other drafted players. After his draft season, Hamaliuk had a 45 percent chance to become a regular NHLer.
Only about 40 percent of second-round skaters go on to play 80 NHL games, which we’ll consider makes them “regular.” If we knew nothing but the winger’s scoring rates at the time of the draft, we could safely assume he was following the trajectory of so many other second-round picks before him to the NHL.
Jeremy Davis, formerly of Canucks Army, also built a prospect evaluation model. Davis ranked Hamaliuk as the 2019 draft’s 30th-best prospect. He was involved in more than 21 percent of his team’s 5-on-5 goals but had just a 19 percent chance of making the NHL. This discrepancy hints at Hamaliuk’s play behind the raw scoring totals.
The season before his draft year, Hamaliuk’s impact on his team’s scoring network was poor. In other words, he was overly reliant on strong teammates for his scoring. We can excuse him for that as a young rookie playing in a tough WHL. The concern is that his inability to score without strong teammates has stayed with him.
Highlight reels, which are supposed to highlight a player’s ceiling, quickly become repetitive. Hamaliuk is scoring goals, often from up close and after rebounds and around the blue paint. He is rarely making a pass or creating a play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every team needs finishers. His brand of scoring probably just means he’ll need a sharp center to play with if we are to expect exciting goal totals moving forward.
He makes the most of his teammates’ playmaking, however. InStat has tracked shot and expected goal differential since September 2018. Hamaliuk has been on the wrong side of the shot share ledger more often than not. Where he thrives is being on the ice for a high volume of expected goals.
That isn’t a surprise. To quickly peruse a handful of scouting reports, I fed them to a word cloud generator.
(Word cloud algorithm and image from Jason Davies)
You can see that some of the most prominent words in his reports have to do with strength, power, and the net front. There are also adjectives, including “decent,” “effective,” “solid,” and “good.” Those aren’t necessarily bad things, but they aren’t effusive reviews, either.
The 2019-20 season was a challenge for Hamaliuk. Per Sheng Peng, he came down with mono in November and his scoring rates understandably fell. Per Elite Prospects, the power forward scored 0.7 points per game in September and October. In November and December, he scored just five points in 14 games.
In Peng’s interview, Doug Wilson Jr. mentions that Hamaliuk was finally back and healthy three weeks before the interview, which would have been about the beginning of February. During the 15 games between February 2 and the end of the season, Hamaliuk scored 11 points, back at his 0.7 point-per-game rate from earlier. It’s good to see him rebound. It’s hard to get excited about a 19-year-old not cracking the point-per-game threshold in junior hockey.
Hamaliuk’s statistical and scouting profiles point to someone who is good once the puck is in the offensive zone but who may not be helpful getting it there. His calling cards are his size and strength, which aren’t scouting terms that typically portend high-level success. His second-round draft position and the Sharks’ love of power forwards should provide Hamaliuk ample opportunity. Realistically, his NHL career arc is one of an effective bottom-six player.
Alexei Melnichuk – G
San Jose signed Alexei Melnichuk to a two-year entry-level deal in May this year. The Russian goaltender turned 22 one month later and is poised to play spoiler to the other goaltending prospects in the pipeline.
It’s difficult to get a good read on goalies because there is so little information available about those who do not play in the NHL already. The best approach for Melnichuk might be to compare him to another goaltender whom he followed up the ladder in the St. Petersburg program: Igor Shestyorkin (Shesterkin).
Shestyorkin made his triumphant arrival at the NHL level this season for the New York Rangers as a 24-year-old. Melnichuk served as Shestyorkin’s understudy in the MHL, VHL, and KHL, tracking about two seasons behind Shestyorkin.
For example, Shestyorkin played his first KHL games during his age-17/18 season. Melnichuk didn’t see KHL time until he was 19. Here’s a comparison of the two goalies save percentages in the leagues in which they played the most games in a given season.
Shestyorkin’s save percentages are much stronger than the Sharks’ free agent signing up until this past season.
This year, Melnichuk’s 0.930 in the KHL was very similar to Shestyorkin’s 0.933 during his age-20/21 season. The major difference? Shestyorkin accomplished this while playing nearly twice as many games.
If the Rangers’ new No. 1 didn’t make the leap to the NHL until his age-23/24 season, it’s hard to believe Melnichuk will arrive much sooner. This is a very rough estimate, of course, but if Melnichuk is tracking about two seasons behind his older compatriot, then the earliest we should expect him in a San Jose Sharks uniform is the 2023-24 season.
It’s exciting to have a young goalie with a track record of professional success. If Shestyorkin can be a star in the NHL, maybe Melnichuk can be an average goalie? That’s an ideal situation for an undrafted addition at a position of need.
This series covers 33 San Jose Sharks prospects in total, and doesn’t include 2020 Draft picks.
After this installment, eight skaters — about 25 percent of the total prospect pool — remain. Byron Bader’s database of historical draft picks says about 25 percent of all skaters (no goaltenders included) chosen in the Draft become NHL regulars. That places Bergmann and Hamaliuk right on the cusp of future NHL regular material. Melnichuk is in a different category, but his relatively promising track record and immediate access to the San Jose Barracuda’s crease give him a strong chance, as of this writing, of becoming an NHL regular.
There’s nothing certain about this group of players, but it feels safe to call them future borderline NHL regulars.