High-scor­ing prospect prov­ing doubters wrong

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS - By Paul Gackle pgackle@ba­yare­anews­group.com

SANJOSE » Sharks prospect Dy­lan Gam­brell laughed when he was asked the last time he’s scored 70 goals in a sea­son: “never.” The AHL Bar­racuda’s top scorer, Ru­dolfs Bal­cers, said he’s never reached the 70-goal mark at any level be­cause, “that’s just way too much.”

Sasha Ch­melevski, an­other hot prospect in the Sharks pipe­line, ad­mit­ted he’s in the same boat.

“No. I’ve never scored 70 goals,” Ch­melevski said. “But I know some­one who has.”

Ch­melevski was re­fer­ring to the short guy with the long name sit­ting next to him in the Sharks locker room Thurs­day af­ter­noon.

Jay­den Hal­bgewachs ( pro­nounced HALLB- GWACHS) might be the most-in­trigu­ing at­trac­tion at the Sharks an­nual prospects show­case be­ing held at SAP Cen­ter Fri­day night. Although he led the Cana­dian ju­nior leagues in scor­ing last sea­son with 129 points (70g, 59a), Hal­bgewachs feels like an un­der­dog at Sharks de­vel­op­ment camp this week. At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Hal­bgewachs knows he’ll need to over­come doubts about his size to get a shot in the NHL.

“You’ve al­ways got to prove your­self more than other peo­ple when you’re the size I am,” Hal­bgewachs said. “Imay not get there in the first year, or even the sec­ond year. But down the road, I know I can do it if I keep work­ing hard.”

No one en­vi­sioned Hal­bgewachs, 21, as an NHL player, let alone a mi­nor lea­guer, dur­ing his draft year in 2014-15. As Timo Meier thrust him­self onto the Sharks’ radar by col­lect­ing 91 points in 61 games as an 18-year old that sea­son, Hal­bgewachs barely found the ice with the West­ern Hockey League’s Moose Jaw War­riors, earn­ing eight points in 59 games as a fourth liner.

But af­ter scor­ing 50 goals and col­lect­ing 101 points in 2016-17, the un­drafted for­ward was be­ing courted by gen­eral man­agers across the NHL last win­ter. Hal­bgewachs even­tu­ally signed with the Sharks in De­cem­ber.

“It was just the best fit,” Hal­bgewachs said. “The Sharks re­ally elab­o­rated on the idea that my size does not mat­ter in this or­ga­ni­za­tion. Know­ing that, it was hard to say no”

Hal­bgewachs is join­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion at a time when more and more un­der­sized play­ers are find­ing their way into the NHL. Cal­gary Flames for­ward Johnny Gau­dreau is among the league’s most- elec­tri­fy­ing scor­ers and he’s only 5-foot-9, 157 pounds. Tampa Bay Light­ing for­ward Tyler John­son, listed at 5-foot-8, 183 pounds, is a three-time 20- goal scorer, and Jona- than Marches­sault (5-foot9, 174 pounds) helped lead the Ve­gas Golden Knights to the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal by record­ing 75 points in 77 games.

As the game gets faster and more skilled, teams are shed­ding the beefy one- di­men­sional grinders from their ros­ters, giv­ing more chances to speedy- cere­bral play­ers, such as Hal­bgewachs.

“Those guys are im­pact play­ers in the league right now,” Bar­racuda head coach Roy Som­mer said. “That’s the beauty of the way the league’s go­ing — it’s gone to more skill and quick­ness. That’s where ev­ery­one’s try­ing to get to right now. They’re not try­ing to get slower.”

Som­mer said Hal­bgewachs is en­ter­ing a much friend­lier en­vi­ron­ment that the one an­other un­der­sized Sharks prospect con­fronted five years ago.

Yanni Gourde, who’s listed at 5- foot- 9, 172 pounds, started his pro­fes­sional ca­reer un­der sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, win­ning a scor­ing ti­tle in the Que­bec Ma­jor Ju­nior Hockey League af­ter go­ing un­drafted. But the Sharks or­ga­ni­za­tion cut ties with Gourde less than two years into his pro­fes­sional hockey ca­reer. Gourde even­tu­ally re-emerged with the Light­ning last sea­son, record­ing 64 points and fin­ish­ing sixth in Calder Tro­phy vot­ing.

“I don’t think a guy like that had a chance 10 years ago,” Som­mer said.

“Those types of play­ers with that type of skillset, speed and vi­sion, you put them with the right play­ers, the sky’s the limit.”

As bound­less as the ceil­ing might be for Hal­bgewachs, he knows that a ca­reer in the NHL isn’t a slam dunk. In fact, the odds are stacked against him. The last WHL player that scored 70 goals, Pavel Brendl in 1998-99, suited up for just 78 NHL games over parts of four sea­sons. Yes, teams are giv­ing more chances to un­der­sized play­ers, butHal­bgewachs will need to de­velop his game just like ev­ery­one else to get a shot in the NHL.

Hal­bgewachs is ex­pected to open the 2018-19 sea­son as a top- six for­ward with the Bar­racuda. He knows he’ll need to put in a lot of work to reach the next level. The 21-year old stamped his ticket to Sharks de­vel­op­ment camp by trans­form­ing him­self into a 70goal scorer in ju­niors. He’ll need to ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar growth to make it in the NHL.

“It’s hard to even think of my­self as a 70-goal scorer. That isn’t the mind­set I have,” Hal­bgewachs said. “It doesn’t mat­ter how many goals I scored in ju­nior hockey, this is a whole­new league and a whole­new chal­lenge.

“I’ll need to prove my­self all over again.”

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