Welcome to the 2018 Top Shelf Prospects series. As we go through the Summer of 2018 LWOH will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. We will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, we will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2018 draft, as there have been no games since then, and our reports on them will not have changed.
What we will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2018-19 roster of the NHL team in question. We will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who we pick as our dark horse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the San Jose Sharks entered a season without Patrick Marleau. The long-time team leader left as a free agent in the 2017 off-season. The year was a challenge with Brent Burns struggling early in the year to find his scoring touch and Joe Thornton facing a long-term injury but the Sharks continued to be competitive. Logan Couture had a breakthrough year with 34 goals. Late-season addition, Evander Kane seemed to spark the team and the Sharks made the playoffs. They swept the Anaheim Ducks in the first round, before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in round two.
This off-season has seen the Sharks ink Kane, Couture and Tomas Hertl to new long-term contracts. They also re-upped Thornton for another year. The moves have been about keeping the team together rather than adding additional impact pieces. The Sharks will have to look to their prospects and hope someone emerges from the group.
The Sharks drafted Merkley with the 21st overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Merkley. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#2 Prospect: Rudolfs Balcers
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born April 8th, 1997 — Liepaja, Latvia
Height 5’11” — Weight 173 lbs [180 cm/78 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 5th round, #142 overall, at the 2015 NHL Draft
After completing his junior career with Kamloops, Balcers had a strong rookie season with the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL. He put up 23 goals and 48 points in 67 games. He also added four points in four playoff games. The Latvian forward went on to represent his country at the World Championships, putting up four goals and six points in eight games.
Balcers is a very good skater. His top-end speed is outstanding and he reaches it in just a few strides thanks to good acceleration powered by textbook skating technique. He has very good agility and edgework. Balcers is able to manoeuvre in and out of traffic and around defenders. He has improved his lower body strength in recent years which has helped his balance and his ability to win board battles. However, there is more work to do in this area.
When Balcers is on his game, he can be a dynamic offensive player. He can stickhandle in a phone booth and makes these plays while moving at close to his top speed. This makes him very dangerous off the rush. He can beat defenders wide and create chances this way, though he doesn’t seem to charge to the net with the ferocity needed. If a defender backs off, he can slow the play down and take advantage of the passing and shooting lanes that are created. Balcers has an excellent wrist shot and a very good release. He also sees the ice well and can make tape-to-tape passes through tight lanes.
The issues come from Balcers’ intensity level. He doesn’t always maintain his highest effort level and can be found floating at times. There is a lack of consistency game-to-game and sometimes even shift to shift. Balcers can dominate or he can disappear. Balcers also needs to work harder to get to the dirty areas of the ice and play less on the perimeter.
Balcers wavering intensity level also appears in the defensive end of the ice. There are times he backchecks well, providing support down low and there are times he seems to get caught puck watching and flat-footed. These issues will need to be ironed out or they will drive professional coaches crazy.
Balcers will likely start the season in the AHL. If he can work on maintaining consistent intensity, he could be a top-six scorer at the NHL level. There is a ton of potential here. However, he needs further development and maturity. It would not be a surprise if Balcers is given some NHL games if the Sharks need callups due to injuries this season.
#3 Prospect: Mario Ferraro
Defence — shoots Left
Born September 17th, 1998 — King City, Ontario
Height 5’10” — Weight 184 lbs [178 cm / 83 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2nd round, #49 overall at the 2017 NHL Draft
Ferraro had a solid freshman campaign for UMass (Amherst). The defenceman put up four goals and 19 assists for 23 points in 39 games. He was named to the NCAA (Hockey East) All-Rookie team.
Ferraro is a smooth skater who covers a ton of ice. He is very quick with good acceleration in both directions. Hist top-end speed is very good. This allows him to participate in the offence and still get back to take care of his defensive assignments. Very good edgework and pivots allow him to cover a ton of ice, as well as to transition quickly from offence to defence and vice-versa. His agility also contributes to his two-way game as it helps Ferraro to keep opponents in front of him when defending and allows him to walk the line to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. He is undersized in terms of height but is strong on the puck and has good balance. He could still get stronger before going to the pros though.
Ferraro pushes the pace in the transition game. He can skate the puck out of dangerous areas in his own end with his good speed and strong stickhandling ability. From there, Ferraro has the ability to continue with the puck through the neutral zone or make a good breakout pass to a forward. When he does move it up the ice he often joins the rush as a trailer. He sees the ice well and his passing ability also translates to quarterbacking the play at the opposing blue line.
Ferraro could stand to add some power to his slap shot and one-timer. His agility and ability to play with poise and walk the line allow Ferraro to open up shooting lanes and get his shot on the net. He also has a strong and accurate wrist shot and a quick release. Ferraro uses his wrist shot to get the puck through traffic in the zone, when joining the rush, as well as when he sneaks down to the face-off circle on the power play. Right now, it is a more effective weapon than his slap shot due to the fact that he can surprise goalies by getting it off so quickly.
A two-way player, Ferraro is tough to beat in one-on-one situations. He also uses strong positioning and a quick stick to steal pucks off of attackers. Once a turnover is created, he is able to get the puck out of the zone quickly and transition to offence. Ferraro is not the type to throw a lot of big hits but he is physical in battles along the boards and in front of the net. Despite his size, his low centre of gravity and good use of leverage help him to be effective here. However, he can still be overpowered by bigger opponents at times.
Expect Ferraro to spend another season with UMass Amherst. If he continues to improve on his freshman campaign, the Sharks could sign him as early as this spring, getting him to the AHL and accelerating his transition to the pros. Ferraro has the potential to be a top-four defender in the NHL, but more development is still necessary.
#4 Prospect: Josh Norris
Centre — shoots Left
Born May 5th, 1999 — Oxford, Michigan
Height 6’1″ — Weight 192 lbs [185 cm / 87 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 1st round, #19 overall, at the 2017 NHL Draft
Drafted in last year’s first round, Norris had a decent, but not great, freshman year at Michigan. He put up eight goals and 23 points in 37 games helping the Wolverines reach the Frozen Four before they lost in the National Semi-Final to Notre Dame. He also played for Team USA at the World Juniors, picking up three assists in seven games and winning a bronze medal.
Norris is a very good skater. He is exceptionally quick, with a tremendous first step and outstanding acceleration. He can win short races to pucks and uses his changes in speeds to overwhelm defenders when taking them on, one-on-one. Norris’ overall top-end speed is very good, but he is still more “quick” than “fast” when it comes right down to it. His edgework and agility are also good, allowing Norris to make quick cuts, and giving him good lateral movement. He has a strong and sturdy frame, allowing Norris to show good balance and battle for loose pucks in the corners and in front of the net. He could add more muscle to that frame in preparation for a move to professional hockey.
Josh Norris is a very good playmaker. His speed, changes of direction, and lateral agility allow him to open up passing lanes and get the puck through to his linemates. He has very good vision and hockey IQ, seeing plays develop and making smart plays. Norris has the strength and balance to work the cycle game. He uses his body to protect the puck, extending plays for his teammates to get open. Norris is physical in the corners, able to win battles for loose pucks, as well as pressuring defencemen on the forecheck.
Norris could stand to work on his upper body strength, which would give him a more powerful wrist shot and slap shot. He could also stand to use his shot more often, as he seems to defer to passing the puck. His shot is accurate, and his release is quick, which allows him to score at this level. Norris is also able to score goals in tight to the net, making use of his hand-eye coordination to get rebounds and tip-ins.
Norris is also very good in his own end of the ice. With good positioning and an active stick, he is trusted to play on the penalty kill. He is also good in the face-off circle. Norris is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots. He continues to show his gritty side and the ability to fight along the boards in all three zones.
Norris heads back to Michigan for his sophomore season in the fall. He has the tools but the Sharks would like to see a step forward in his offensive production in his second season at the NCAA level. Norris likely needs a year or two to round out his frame and continue to add muscle mass and strength before he is ready for NHL hockey. Norris is also likely to get another opportunity to play for Team USA at this year’s World Junior Championships in Victoria and Vancouver.
Centre — shoots Right
Born August 26th, 1996 — Bonney Lake, Washington
Height 6’0″ — Weight 195 lbs [183 cm/88 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2nd round, #60 overall, at the 2016 NHL Draft
Gambrell had another solid season with the University of Denver, putting up 13 goals and 30 assists for 43 points in 41 games. Following the completion of his junior season, he signed his entry-level contract with the Sharks. Gambrell played his first three NHL games but is still looking for his first NHL point.
Gambrell has decent top-end speed and good acceleration. While he will not be deemed a speedster or elite skater, his skating is above average and adequate to play in the NHL. His edgework and agility are also good. Gambrell has good lower body strength, which helps him to maintain good balance. He is strong on the puck, especially in battles along the boards.
Gambrell is more of a playmaker than a goal scorer. He sees the ice well and can set up teammates with good goal scoring opportunities. Gambrell is effective at maintaining possession down low in the offensive zone, extending the cycle game, and making efficient passes to keep the puck moving. He makes the smart, simple play but isn’t one to bet too creative with a pass. He also has the stickhandling ability to protect the puck but is not the type to deke out a defenceman in one-on-one situations.
Gambrell’s shot is accurate. However, he needs to improve the power and be quicker in his release in order to be a goal scorer at the NHL level. As it is, most of his goals come in tight to the net, where he can tip-in shots, pounce on rebounds, or direct a quick one-timer into the net. Gambrell is gritty and willing to get to those dirty areas, as well as to battle defencemen for loose pucks in the corners.
Gambrell uses his size effectively in the defensive zone. He is aggressive in providing backpressure against the rush. He also supports the defence down low, helping to contain opponents against the cycle. While not a big hitter, Gambrell is willing to battle in the corners and in front of the net. He keeps himself on the right side of the puck. He cuts down passing lanes and creates turnovers. Gambrell is a solid penalty killer.
The Sharks have a spot open for a fourth line centre heading into training camp. Gambrell will be in the mix to win that job, though there will be plenty of competition as seen in the next few Sharks prospects. If Gambrell loses the training camp battle, expect him to be a call-up option. Gambrell should eventually be an NHL player, the questions here are about how well his offence will translate, and if his upside is any better than a future third liner.
#6 Prospect: Rourke Chartier
Centre — shoots Left
Born April 3rd, 1996 — Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Height 5’11” — Weight 195 lbs [180 cm/88 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 5th round, #149 overall, at the 2014 NHL Draft
Chartier looked strong in his second season with the Barracuda but was limited to just 28 games due to concussion issues. Chartier looked poised for a call-up to San Jose when he suffered the latest concussion and with his history, it has set him back again. Thankfully he was able to come back late in the season and even put up three points in three playoff games.
Chartier is a very quick skater who never seems to stop moving his feet. He has very good top end speed and excellent acceleration. He is always first in on the forecheck and creating turnovers in the offensive zone. A quick first step helps him to win races to loose pucks all over the ice. He can change speeds when on the rush, using this as a weapon to fool defenders. Chartier also has good agility and edgework. He is able to make quick cuts and beat defencemen in one-on-one situations. He might be a little undersized, but he is very strong on his skates and has excellent balance. Chartier can win battles in the corners and is good at establishing his position in front of the net.
Chartier is a pure goal scorer. When his teammates get the puck he seems to find the soft spots in the defence and is always open to bury a feed in the back of the net with a strong, hard shot and good release. He has the soft hands to finish in tight and the coordination and quickness to get tip-ins and pounce on rebounds. Through sheer hard work down low he is also able to create chances for teammates and picks up assists that way. He protects the puck well on the cycle and makes smart passes to keep it moving. Chartier sees the ice well, and has the hockey IQ to make the right pass when the options are presented to him.
Chartier’s speed and stickhandling ability also make him a dangerous forward on the rush. He can take a defender wide and cut to the net. If they back off of him to avoid this, he uses the open space to fire a shot on net or set up a teammate for a scoring chance. Chartier can handle the puck moving at close to his top speed which can translate into offence.
Chartier uses his high-effort level on the backcheck as well. He is willing to do whatever it takes to win, blocking shots, cutting down passing lanes, and taking a hit to make sure the puck gets out at the defensive blue line. He is a smart player who understands how to provide effective support and backpressure. When a turnover is created, Chartier can transition the puck up to offence quickly.
Chartier will also be involved in the training camp battle for the Sharks fourth line centre role. He must stay healthy in the coming years, as this is the biggest impediment to his NHL success at this point.
#7 Prospect: Maxim Letunov
Centre/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born February 20th, 1996 — Moscow, Russia
Height 6’4″ — Weight 185 lbs [193 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the 2nd round, #52 overall, at the 2014 NHL Draft
Acquired by the San Jose Sharks in June 2016
Letunov finished his career at the University of Connecticut with a 12-goal, 28-point junior season. The Russian centre opted to sign his first pro contract with the Sharks following the conclusion of the college campaign.
Letunov is a decent skater, especially for his size. He gets around the ice well, with decent top-end speed and acceleration. His first step can be improved as it is a little bit clunky. He could also work on his agility and edgework, being smoother in his cuts and changes in direction. Letunov needs more core strength to use his size effectively on the boards and in front of the net.
Letunov sees the ice well and can make smart passes to teammates. He is more effective in the cycle than on the rush and maintains puck possession well beyond the hash marks. His long stick allows him to protect the puck. He is a good stick-handler who can open up passing lanes with quick movements. His shot is hard and accurate, but he needs to sharpen his release slightly in order to be a better goal scorer.
Letunov has good size at 6-foot-4 but continues to need to bulk up. He has gotten considerably bigger over his three years in the NCAA but more improvements are needed. This would help him to be stronger on the puck and to play a more physical game in the corners and in front of the net.
Bulking up would also help Letunov in the defensive end of the ice. He needs to be more aggressive and stronger in his own end. His long stick and big frame are effective at cutting down passing lanes and creating turnovers through an effective poke check. He also has good instincts and keeps himself on the right side of the puck, forcing defenders to the outside. Letunov is good in the face-off circle. He is also not afraid to block shots.
Letunov also comes to Sharks training camp looking to be involved in the battle for the fourth line centre position. He has the best size of the three but comes in as the longshot in the race due to the fact that his college career is not as impressive as Gambrell, and Chartier already has significant AHL experience. He is likely to start with the Barracuda and work his way up to San Jose.
#8 Prospect: Sasha Chmelevski
Centre — shoots Right
Born June 9th, 1999 — Huntington Beach, California
Height 6’0″ — Weight 185 lbs [183 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 6th round, #185 overall, at the 2017 NHL Draft
A sixth-round pick, Chmelevski is looking like a steal for the Sharks. He put up 35 goals and 76 points in 68 games for the Ottawa 67s last year. Chemlevski then added five points in five games in the OHL playoffs before joining the Barracuda for the stretch run. As a youngster in his first AHL action, Chemlevski put up four points in six regular-season games and two points in four playoff games.
An incredible skater, Chmelevski has outstanding speed as well as excellent acceleration. He is dynamic off the rush and can use his ability to change speeds as a weapon. If defencemen don’t respect his speed, he can beat them to the outside and cut to the net. If they back off too far, he can slow down and use the open space to make plays. He also has excellent edgework. Chmelevski has the ability to change directions on a dime. This makes him extremely elusive, both with and without the puck. He could stand to add a little lower body muscle and be stronger on the puck.
Chmelevski reads the play extremely well and makes very good decisions with and without the puck. His stickhandling is very good, with the ability to control the puck and make fancy moves while moving at top speed. Chmelevski can control the puck, protect it, and make plays in very tight spaces. He also has a strong wrist shot and a quick release. He couples this with an excellent one-timer and the ability to score in tight to the net to be a pure sniper.
Chmelevski also has good passing skills, but can sometimes focus a little too much on his own shot. When he is moving the puck effectively, he has good vision and the ability to feather the puck through tight areas. Chmelevski has nights where he fights in traffic, gets to the net, makes plays in the corners, and generally looks like a first rounder. In his draft year, he also had nights where he was completely invisible. He’s done a better job maintaining his intensity this season, but still drops off from time to time.
Chmelevski’s defensive game is a real work in progress. The issues with intensity affect him in the defensive end as well. He has a tendency to float a bit defensively, waiting for his teammates to get the puck and start the transition. He also can fly the zone early, looking to create a breakaway before its even sure that the puck will clear his end. Its something he must fix, or it will continue to drive coaches crazy.
Chmelevski will likely head back to Ottawa in order to continue to work on his defensive game. The offensive talent is there and he showed real commitment to improve this past season but there is still a ways to go. As this will likely be his final OHL season, if the 67s are not looking like OHL Contenders at the trade deadline, expect them to move Chmelevski to a contender as they look to add draft picks or younger players. A long playoff run could add some much needed experience.
#9 Prospect: Antti Suomela
Centre — shoots Left
Born March 17th, 1994 — Espoo, Finland
Height 6’0″ — Weight 172 lbs [183 cm / 78 kg]
Suomela was signed by the Sharks as an undrafted free agent after he led the SM-Liiga in scoring with 60 points in 59 games for JYP. He also helped the club claim the Champions Hockey League title.
Suomela has a quick first step and good acceleration. He can change speeds and this variability can catch defensemen off guard. He has good top-end speed and can pull away from defenders if he gets a step on them. Suomela has decent edgework and agility, with the ability to make quick cuts in the offensive end. He can stand to get stronger and improve his balance to win more battles on the boards, something that he will see more of in North America.
Suomela is a smart player. He can create openings with his skating and takes advantage of them with an accurate pass to a linemate. Suomela sees the ice well and makes smart passes with the puck. He has shown the ability to quarterback the powerplay from the half-wall in Finland and set up scoring chances. He also has a stron and accurate wrist shot and quick release. He has the soft hands to finish in close to the net as well.
Suomela is good defensively. He anticipates plays and uses a quick stick to break up passes and create turnovers. He is not a physical defender but is always in the right position. Suomela is good in the faceoff circle. He supports the defence down low, but will need to be stronger to defend the cycle against NHL players.
Suomela will also compete for the Sharks open fourth line spot. He is a couple of years older than the other competitors, and has already spent several years playing hockey in a professional league. However, he will also need to adjust to playing in North America and on the smaller ice surface. Even if he starts in the AHL, he will be a callup option.
#10 Prospect: Noah Gregor
Centre — shoots Left
Born July 28th, 1998 — Beaumont, Alberta
Height 6’0″ — Weight 180 lbs [183 cm / 82 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 4th round, #111 overall, at the 2016 NHL Draft
Gregor finished his WHL career with a season split between Moose Jaw and Victoria. He put up 29 goals and 65 points in 60 games. He also added six goals and 12 points in 11 playoff games. Gregor also played one playoff game for the Barracuda.
Gregor has decent size and plays a strong all-around game. He shows ability in all three zones. He is a good skater. Gregor has very good speed and acceleration. He also shows good agility and edgework, allowing him to maneuver in and out of traffic, both with and without the puck. Gregor could stand to improve his core strength and his lower body strength in order to generate a more powerful stride, improve his balance, and be stronger on the puck. It will also help him when battling in the corners.
Gregor shows good skill in the offensive zone. He has a heavy wrist shot, with good accuracy and a quick release. He also shows a good arsenal of shots, with a strong snapshot and one-timer. Gregor has excellent vision and sees openings to thread the needle to create a scoring chance for a teammate. He has a knack for throwing a saucer pass over an opponents stick and landing it in time to hit his teammate’s blade. His hockey sense is high, as he often makes the right play, and does not turn the puck over a lot. Gregor is tenacious and willing to battle along the boards but needs to improve his overall muscle mass to avoid being pushed around at higher levels.
Gregor is a hard worker in the defensive end of the ice. He is willing to bring back pressure and work to help contain the cycle. However, he can be overpowered by bigger and stronger forwards. His positioning is good for his age, and he has some understanding of how to cut down passing and shooting lanes. It could be improved with more time and coaching to be more consistent though.
Gregor will head to the AHL and play for the Barracuda. The Sharks will hope to see his offensive game translate at the AHL level, and for Gregor to continue to get stronger and improve his defensive game.
Sleeper Prospect: Ivan Chekhovich
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born January 4th, 1999 — Yekaterinburg, Russia
Height 5’10” — Weight 176 lbs [178 cm / 80 kg]
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 7th round, #212 overall, at the 2017 NHL Draft
A seventh-round pick one year ago, Chekhovich played his second season in North America to play for Baie-Comeau. He had a solid rookie season with 29 goals and 60 points in 65 games. He also added three goals and four points in five playoff games. The year was really a tale of two halves though, as Chekhovich had a very slow start to the campaign before being a dominant player in the second half of the year. Chekhovich was even more impressive to end the year in the AHL, he scored nine points in six regular-season games and two points in four playoff games.
Chekhovich is a quick skater. He has a good first step and very good acceleration. His top-end speed is very good as well, but the fact that he can reach it in just a few strides is a real advantage for Chekhovich. He also has good agility and edgework. Chekhovich can stand to add lower body muscle and improve his ability to battle on the boards and in front of the net.
Chekhovich can be a frustrating player. He is highly skilled but has issues with maintaining his intensity game-to-game and even shift-to-shift. When he is on his game, he is an excellent passer. He can make passes on his forehand and backhand, and even put saucer passes on his teamates tape. His excellent stickhandling protects the puck and he uses it to create scoring chances. He also has a very good wrist shot and quick release that can score from further out. Chekhovich is willing to get to the net and can score tip-ins and rebounds as well.
The issue is that Chekhovich does not always play this type of game. He sometimes lacks intensity and can seem to float n the ice. He can disappear and stop going to key areas or fighting for loose pucks. Helping the talented player to become more consistent will be a challenge for his coaches.
Chekhovich’s issues extend to the defensive zone. When he is on his game and plays with intensity on the backcheck, he is a decent defensive player. He could use work on his positioning but he isn’t bad. However, there are times where he watches the puck and stops moving his feet and this will drive coaches crazy.
Chekhovich heads back to Baie-Comeau for another QMJHL season. The Sharks will hope that he turned a corner in the second half of last season and can keep that level of play for this whole campaign. If he does, expect to see him near the top of the QMJHL scoring charts.
The Sharks have some depth in their system but lack a real blue-chip prospect. They have a pair of players who could be blue chippers in Balcers and Merkley, but both come with huge question marks. Overall the system shows the fact that the Sharks have almost always been drafting late in the first round over the last decade or so.
The Sharks signed Jayden Halbgewachs as an undrafted free agent after an excellent overage year in the WHL. His 70 goals and 129 points led the WHL in both categories. He joins a forward group that also includes Scott Reedy, Linus Karlsson, Jasper Weatherby, Joachim Blichfeld, Vladislav Kotkov, Alex True, and Filip Sandberg.
On defence, the Sharks had high hopes for Jeremy Roy, but he just cannot stay healthy. He recently suffered another torn ACL. Filling out the defence depth chart are Cody Donaghey, Kyle Wood, Jacob Middleton, Cavan Fitzgerald, and Michael Brodzinski.
In goal, the Sharks signed Antoine Bibeau last summer. They also have Josef Korenar, Zachary Emond, John Kupsky, and Mike Robinson in the system.
Main Photo: DALLAS, TX – JUNE 22: The San Jose Sharks draft Ryan Merkley in the first round of the 2018 NHL draft on June 22, 2018 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
View the original article on Last Word On Hockey: TSP: Top San Jose Sharks Prospects