Sasha Chmelevski

Joe Thornton's return should benefit Sharks' promising young forwards

Joe Thornton's return should benefit Sharks' promising young forwards

SAN JOSE -- In addition to hitting multiple career milestones last season, Joe Thornton was instrumental in bringing out the best in some of the younger players around him.

With a stacked crop of fresh faces looking to crack the roster this season, Jumbo Joe -- fresh off signing a one-year deal that will keep him in teal -- will likely lead the way yet again in developing some of San Jose's future stars.

"It's a privilege for all of us to be around him because it's contagious," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said of Thornton on Friday at the team's practice facility. "How he's impacted this franchise on and off the ice, but also his teammates and all the young guys who have the ability to learn and watch (him) and see what it takes to truly be great."

Last season, Thornton found success as San Jose's third-line center with Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc on his wings. The 23-year-old Labanc and 27-year-old Sorensen both registered career-highs in points, many of which were scored while playing alongside No. 19. According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio combined for 23 goals during the 2018-19 season.

Thornton's ability to get so much out of the youngsters around him is "rare," Wilson said, although part of it can be attributed to how close San Jose's AHL team plays to the big club.
 
"It's funny, there were years (Thornton) would go to Barracuda games and he'd say 'those are my guys,'' Wilson mused.  "It's one of the reasons we love to be so loyal to our own players. The proximity of the Barracuda being here, the rink being right across the street, and the fact that our players and our veterans follow them."

Training camp doesn't get underway until next week, but the Sharks are already excited about the contingent of young players looking to make the big roster this year, mainly forwards such as Ivan Chekhovich, Sasha Chmelevski and Lean Bergmann. San Jose noticeably lost some of its offensive firepower over the offseason with Joe Pavelski among the crop of players who departed in free agency. But Wilson went so far as to say the Sharks are "as excited about this group of forwards coming in as we've ever been" heading into camp.

No doubt, having a veteran like Thornton in the dressing room with such a promising young group coming in gives the team a boost.

"The energy -- it's funny to see all the young kids come in and look over and see Joe Thornton in the gym," Wilson said. "(It) just creates a lot of energy and excitement around this group."

Whether any of the young hopefuls coming into camp play on a line with Thornton still remains to be seen. At the very least, San Jose's incoming class will get a little bit of time during camp to learn from the future Hall of Famer. 

[RELATED: Jumbo fully healthy as he prepares for 15th Sharks season]

"I've never met another player who loves the game like him, loves this team, and makes everyone around him better like that," Wilson complimented.

Sharks prospects to watch: Sasha Chmelevski has NHL breakout potential

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Sharks prospects to watch: Sasha Chmelevski has NHL breakout potential

Editor's Note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with forward Sasha Chmelevski.

After getting his first taste of professional hockey to close out the 2017-18 season, Sharks prospect Sasha Chmelevski saved the best season of his junior career for what might have been his last this past year. 

The 2017 sixth-round pick scored six points in 10 regular-season and playoff games with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda in the spring of 2018, and followed that up 75 points (35 goals, 40 assists) with the OHL's Ottawa 67's last season. He impressed for the United States at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver, then finished second behind Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki in OHL playoff scoring with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 18 games, as the 67's lost in the OHL's championship series.

Chmelevski, who turned 20 on June 9, technically could return to major junior as an overage player next season. But, he now is eligible to play in the minors as a pro, and could even earn an NHL spot with a strong training camp this fall. Here's what to expect from the talented forward. 

Sasha Chmelevski

Draft year, position: 2017, sixth round (No. 185 overall)
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-foot
Weight: 190 pounds
2018-19 team: Ottawa 67's (OHL)

Skill set

Chmelevski, who is from Huntington Beach, has a well-rounded offensive game. He has the on-ice vision to set up teammates, and a strong shot that he uses early and often. Over his last two regular seasons and playoff runs, Chmelevski combined for 585 shots on goal in 147 games and has only been held without a shot four times during that span. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson praised Chmelevski's "high-end hockey IQ" when the prospect signed his entry-level contract last summer, and Chmelevski won multiple awards with the 67's for his academic success. He told the Daily Pilot during his draft year that he grew up admiring Pavel Datsyuk's two-way game and Andre Tourigny, Chmelevski's coach with the 67's, said that one element of the center's game stands out above all. 

"His best asset, for me, is his competitiveness," Tourigny told the Ottawa Sun in April. You play ping pong with Sasha, and if he loses, he will want to fight." 

Training-camp proving ground

Chmelevski will have an opportunity to break camp with the Sharks in September. The departures of longtime captain Joe Pavelski and wingers Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist in free agency created openings among San Jose's forwards, and Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. told The Athletic's Kevin Kurz that San Jose coach Peter DeBoer would "like to have two centers on each line [who] can take faceoffs" in addition to mentioning "competition at center."

As Kurz noted, it's possible that Chmelevski will be in the mix for a spot on the wing as well as one down the middle. Chmelevski conceivably could get a look on Joe Thornton's wing on the third line if DeBoer moves Kevin Labanc on to Logan Couture or Tomas Hertl's line, or one centering the fourth line if Barclay Goodrow moves back to the wing. The Sharks have long converted centers to wingers -- with Pavelski arguably the most prominent example -- and Chmelevski's versatility bodes well for his chances down the line.

Best-case scenario

Chmelevski earns a spot out of camp, and never really looks back. DeBoer utilizes the forward in a variety of roles as he tries to settle on the right forward combinations, eventually giving Chmelevski consistent minutes on Thornton's wing. 

Separated by two decades in age, the pair finds strong chemistry and Chmelevski rides it to 15 goals in his rookie season. The void left by Pavelski, Donskoi and Nyquist is not entirely filled by the end of Chmelevski's first campaign, but the 20-year-old nonetheless helps by delivering on his initial promise. 

Worst-case scenario

After making the team out of training camp, Chmelevski's first professional season mirrors that of Finnish forward Antti Suomela. Suomela started fast centering a line with Donskoi and Evander Kane, but was sent down to the AHL on Dec. 11 and did not suit up for the Sharks for the remainder of the season. 

Chmelevski has no problems with the pace of the AHL thanks to his brief Barracuda experience, but still struggles to produce much offense and doesn't return to the NHL as other players pass him on the organizational depth chart. There's still hope for improvement in the second year of his entry-level contract in 2020-21, but he ends 2019-20 on the outside looking in at the Sharks roster. 

[RELATED: Sharks' Merkley needs time to develop, but future is bright]

Realistic expectations

Making the big club out of training camp would be encouraging, but Chmelevski starting the season with the Barracuda would not be considered a setback. That could allow the forward to establish himself at the professional level, and earn a look with the team soon after the regular season begins. 

Chmelevski should, at least, be in the mix for an NHL roster spot throughout the season. He has the potential to hang on to one by the end of it, which would be welcome news for a salary cap-strapped Sharks team in need of cost-controlled talent to surround an expensive core. If he can, San Jose's depth up front would look much stronger moving forward. 

Sharks notebook: Prospects quickly making impression at development camp

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Sharks notebook: Prospects quickly making impression at development camp

SAN JOSE -- How the Sharks' prospects perform during this week's development camp might not bear much weight on who makes the NHL roster in October.

If anything, it serves as more of a "getting to know you" event.

But San Jose's development camp scrimmage Wednesday did, however, give Sharks and Barracuda coaches an early look at new players and served as a check-in for prospects who've spent the past year with their junior teams.

Not to mention a sneak peek at how these players could look at the AHL and NHL levels.

"You can say what you want about it being a 'development' camp, but I think it's an evaluation also, of guys and where they're at and where you see them down the road," Barracuda coach Roy Sommer said after the scrimmage. "It gives you a pretty good picture of what the future looks like."

Even though Wednesday's scrimmage was just that, the future for some of San Jose's top prospects already is looking pretty bright.

Top forward prospects impressing

Forwards Sasha Chmelevski and Ivan Chekhovich already were two prospects the Sharks were excited to have in their system. 

That excitement was turned up a notch during Wednesday's scrimmage when the two, paired up with forward Lean Bergmann, exuded almost instantaneous chemistry.

"The scrimmage had a pretty good pace to it, but those two guys stood out," Sommer said. "Both of them I think will be really good players at the American League level."

Both skaters spent brief stints with the Barracuda since being drafted by San Jose, but they hadn't spent much on-ice time together before Wednesday.

Chmelevski acknowledged it was nice to find that on-ice dynamic so close to the start of camp.

"That was pretty much the first time we've played as a line," the 20-year-old center said. "Our chemistry was great today, and I really liked the way we played."

Russian winger Chekhovich is coming off a monster season for Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the QMJHL, and Southern California product Chmelevski recently tallied seven points for Team USA in the World Junior's competition.

Needless to say, this current go-round together at development camp is going a bit smoother than when they first played with the Barracuda a few years ago. 

"When we both came to the Barracuda a couple of years ago, we didn't really know what to expect," Chmelevski said. "Me and him, we really got along well, and obviously he's a great player. I think there's a lot of similarities to our game, and he's a good guy to be around. So, it's definitely fun reuniting with him in camp."

Both players already have created some buzz as being Barracuda players who could get a look with the big club. Chmelevski said his goal for the summer is to keep building on his game, no matter for which squad he plays.

"Regardless of where I do play this year, I just want to keep improving my game," Chmelevski added. "Just prove that I deserve to be here."

Ferraro receives tips from former teammate

Blueliner Mario Ferraro was paying close attention to the Sharks when they played the Avalanche in the second round of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Not just because he was San Jose's second-round pick in the 2017 draft. But because his former University of Massachusetts-Amherst teammate, Cale Makar, was playing for Colorado.

When asked if he'd had any contact with Makar during that time, Ferraro laughed.

"During [the playoffs] I think he was pretty dialed in, so I didn't talk to him as much," he said with a grin. "But after, I asked him a few questions."

The left-handed defenseman admitted, however, that watching a teammate from afar play in the NHL gave him some perspective.

"It builds a lot of confidence in myself and my former teammates," Ferraro explained. "We see how a player we compete against every day in practice and compete with is doing well. It says, 'Hey, maybe I can be that guy as well. I can play at the next level.' "

That confidence already is shining through. Development camp is just a couple days old, but Ferraro already has made a big impression.

"One of the most high-energy guys you've ever seen, he does not have a bad day," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. enthusiastically said. "He's had a really good camp so far."

Sommer agreed: "Early in the scrimmage, I thought he kind of carried the play. Kind of a hard guy to play against."

On top of being fast and a playmaker, the prospect out of King City, Ontario, demonstrated in Wednesday's scrimmage that he isn't afraid to play a physical game -- a good quality for a player who will have the opportunity to start off training camp with veterans such as Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

Merkley making progress

Ryan Merkley didn't register any points in the two games he played with the Barracuda this past season. Nevertheless, San Jose is happy with what it saw last year when checking in with the 2018 first-round draft pick.

"We were probably at 40 of his games this year," Wilson said. "Whenever we went to his games, we would talk to him afterward."

Merkley was considered a risky pick-up for San Jose, being noted as an offensively minded defenseman who needed to focus more on the defensive side of his game, But after ending the season with 71 points and a plus-four in 63 games, the Oakville, Ontario, native appears to be making the right adjustments.

"I thought I had a good start," Merkley said of his season, which started with the Guelph Storm before a mid-season trade to the Peterborough Petes. "In Guelph, I had good numbers -- thought I played well. I had a tough adjustment going into Peterborough to start, but I think I picked it up near the end there."

[RELATED: Sharks issue qualifying offers to six players]

While his regular season brought on some uncertainty because of being traded, Merkley said he felt good being at his second development camp in San Jose.

"It's more comfortable, for sure," Merkley said. "When you're coming in your first year, you're nervous, you don't know what to expect, how hard it is. But it certainly feels good being here for a second year."