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Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role

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Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role

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 start with center Dylan Gambrell. 

Dylan Gambrell's second professional season didn't begin in the NHL, but it ended there. 

The 22-year-old split time between the Sharks and their AHL affiliate last year, scoring 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 51 regular-season games with the San Jose Barracuda and leading all Barracuda players (minimum five games played) in points per game (0.88). That scoring touch didn't immediately translate to the NHL, but Gambrell ultimately scored his first NHL goal on a big stage during his 13th career game, when the rookie drew into the lineup in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. He signed a two-year contract with the team last week. 

The Sharks' litany of offseason departures up front should, barring any additional moves this summer, give Gambrell a chance to crack the big club's roster out of training camp and begin the season in the NHL for the first time in his career. Here's what to expect from the most recent San Jose draft pick to make his NHL debut.

Dylan Gambrell

Draft year, position: 2016, second round (No. 60 overall)
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-foot
Weight: 185 pounds
2018-19 team: San Jose Sharks/San Jose Barracuda (AHL)

Skill set

Gambrell is known for his versatility and two-way acumen, in large part because of his speed and hockey sense. He skated on the top unit of the University of Denver's power play and penalty kill under current Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery and played a big role for the Barracuda last season. 

Although he has finished with more assists than goals in every season dating back to his days at Denver, Gambrell boasts a strong shot. He scored on 13.6 percent of his shots in the AHL last season, and 11.8 percent of his shots in college. Gambrell's lone NHL goal, a quick wrist shot past Blues netminder Jordan Binnington, provided a glimpse at his shooting skill

Training-camp proving ground

Once the Sharks make it official and re-sign veteran center Joe Thornton, there could be up to three forward spots up for grabs based on the lineups San Jose iced in the Western Conference final. Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Joe Pavelski signed elsewhere earlier this month, arguably leaving roles vacant on three separate lines. 

Gambrell, who was used on the wing and down the middle by Sharks coach Peter DeBoer last season, has an opportunity to win a spot as a bottom-six forward. That likely would be as the fourth-line center, allowing Barclay Goodrow to move back to the wing. Whether or not the Sharks reunite with Patrick Marleau, Gambrell seems like a longshot for a look on the wing higher up the lineup. Still, his offensive pedigree at lower levels can't necessarily be discounted given who San Jose will have to replace. 

Best-case scenario

Gambrell seizes an opening among the Sharks forward corps at training camp, eventually becoming a staple in San Jose's NHL lineup. He begins the season as the team's fourth-line center against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 2, and remains in the spot in the regular-season finale against the Anaheim Ducks six months later. 

As the season progresses, Gambrell earns a role on the penalty kill and allows DeBoer and the Sharks coaching staff to selectively manage the minutes of top centers Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. Chipping in 20 to 25 points against bottom-six competition would be an added bonus. 

Worst-case scenario

Gambrell can't seize a spot in training camp or crack the NHL lineup outside of intermittent injury call-ups. He continues to play well with the Barracuda but becomes a "Quadruple-A" player in his age-23 season: Prolific in the AHL, but unable to earn a regular role in the NHL. 

That makes the Sharks, who are light on draft picks and tight against the salary cap, explore acquiring a fourth-line center at the trade deadline ahead of the Stanley Cup playoff push. 

[RELATED: How rival Golden Knights look after free agency]

Realistic expectations

Gambrell might not spend the entirety of the season in the NHL, but it is fair to expect him to win a spot on the roster out of training camp and enter the postseason as a regular forward. 

After re-signing defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Timo Meier to big contracts, the Sharks need contributors on cheap deals. Gambrell, who reportedly carries a $700,000 salary-cap hit over the next two seasons, fits that bill. 

A shortage of available forwards pressed him into the Sharks' lineup in the Western Conference final, and he responded by scoring San Jose's only goal in Game 6. He'll need to rise to the occasion again in a similar situation this fall.

Sharks emphasizing importance of first goal in desire to pile up wins

Sharks emphasizing importance of first goal in desire to pile up wins

SAN JOSE -- Jumping out to an early lead doesn't always guarantee a team will win, but that's been the theme for the Sharks through the first couple of weeks of the regular season. 

And after scoring the first goal of a game for the first time this season against the Flames -- and going on to win, no less -- San Jose is looking to establish that early-game presence more often. 

"It was nice to score first for once and feel good," Logan Couture said without hesitation Sunday night after the Sharks skated away with a 3-1 victory over Calgary. "We built off the third period in the Chicago game (last Thursday) which is what we really wanted to do."

Kevin Labanc agreed. "That was a big lead for us and we've got to start every game like that. That's got to be our focus."

Per Hockey-Reference, San Jose went 31-8-5 during the 2018-19 season when they scored the first goal, and outscored opponents 102-85 in first periods according to Statspass. The Sharks then averaged 22:41 minutes of lead time per game last year, per MoreHockeyStats.com, en route to winning 46 games and coming in second place in the Pacific Division.

While history doesn't always repeat itself, it's evident the Sharks have a better chance of winning if they can get on the scoreboard first, instead of battling back from behind. As the first five games of this season have shown, rallying out of an early hole can be challenging -- and resulted in four straight losses to begin the campaign.

"We've been talking about the last five games about coming (from) behind," Tomas Hertl said. "It costs you a lot of energy and it's hard."

This isn't to say San Jose can't win a game coming from behind. Per MoreHockeyStats.com, the Sharks won 20 regular-season games last year in which they didn't score first. But with the new season comes new challenges, and as of late, San Jose is giving up too many breakaways and prime chances. With wrinkles in the Sharks' defense still being ironed out, they should be looking to get on the scoreboard first as frequently as possible.

"I still think we could be a little bit better," Hertl said after Sunday's win. "This was one of our better games but we have to work."

Surely, the Sharks want that work to carry over into their next game -- a Wednesday night matchup against the Hurricanes. In addition to being tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, Carolina is 4-0-0 this season when scoring the first goal. 

San Jose has the advantage of getting practice time in before Wednesday's game, whereas the Hurricanes will be playing the tail end of a back-to-back -- just like the Flames were the last time the Sharks took the ice. 

[RELATED: How Sorensen, Simek are progressing in return to Sharks]

If the Sharks can score the first goal again on Wednesday, they'll greatly improve their chances of notching a three-game win streak.

How Sharks' Marcus Sorensen, Radim Simek are progressing from injuries

How Sharks' Marcus Sorensen, Radim Simek are progressing from injuries

The Sharks haven't lost since adding Patrick Marleau to their lineup last Thursday, and they could get another boost on the wing Wednesday. 

Marcus Sorensen fully participated in Tuesday's practice, skating with Joe Thornton and Barclay Goodrow on San Jose's third line, according to reporters in attendance. Sorensen could play Wednesday night against the surging Carolina Hurricanes. 

Sorensen missed the Sharks' last three games with an upper-body injury. The Swedish winger left San Jose's Oct. 5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the second period after crashing into the end boards. 

The 27-year-old scored a career-high 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists) last season, primarily playing alongside veteran center Joe Thornton on the Sharks' third line. The pair played fewer than 250 5-on-5 minutes without one another, and San Jose outscored opponents 36-30 with the two on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. 

The Sharks have only scored 13 goals in six games this season, so Sorensen's return -- on top of Marleau's integration into the lineup -- should help San Jose's offense. The team also entered Tuesday tied for fifth in goals against (22), but it might be a little longer before they receive a corresponding boost on the blue line. 

[RELATED: Marleau thanks Sharks fans for such a warm welcome back]

Defenseman Radim Simek, who remains on injured reserve and has yet to return to the Sharks lineup after undergoing knee surgery in March, skated after practice with fellow injured blue-liner Dalton Prout on Tuesday. General manager Doug Wilson told reporters via a team spokesperson that Simek has not experienced a setback, but is not practicing with the team in order to focus on the areas he needs to address in his rehab. It's possible Simek rejoins the team ahead of their five-game road trip beginning in Buffalo against the Sabres on Oct. 22.

The Sharks compiled a 29-9-3 record with Simek in the lineup last season, and San Jose allowed lower rates of shot attempts, shots and chances with the Czech defenseman on the ice at 5-on-5 than when he wasn't. Including the playoffs and the start of this season, the Sharks are just 15-21-1 in Simek's absence.