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.
Draft year, position: 2017, sixth round (No. 185 overall)
Weight: 190 pounds
2018-19 team: Ottawa 67's (OHL)
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.
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.
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.
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.