Sasha Chmelevski was drafted in the sixth round (185th overall) in 2017. Many times, sixth round picks don’t end up making it to the NHL, or even the AHL, but the San Jose Sharks have a knack for finding talent late in the draft. From his time in the OHL to representing his country internationally, and now in the AHL, it’s time for a deep dive into this promising prospect.
Big Improvements in 4 OHL Seasons
His draft year was his second OHL season and he put up a respectable 43 points in 58 games, an improvement from the 19 points in 34 games in his draft-1 season. It was his draft+1 season where Chmelevski really started to turn heads with 76 points in 58 games for a talented Ottawa 67’s team and 4 points in 6 games for the San Jose Barracuda. He also chipped in 2 points in 4 playoff games for the Barracuda in 2017-18.
His 4th OHL season was even better as he racked up 75 points in 56 games for the 67’s and extended that with a team-leading 31 points in 18 playoff games as the 67’s fell just short of winning the OHL championships, losing to the Guelph Storm four games to two. This is where Chmelevski really started to develop as a leader and a key player to be relied upon during a deep playoff run.
Chmelevski represented the United States at the 2019 U20 World Junior Championships where he scored 7 points in 7 games for the squad who went all the way to the championship before losing to Finland. During the championship game against the Finns, Chmelevski was calm under pressure and able to spot his teammates like this:
He also represented Team USA at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in 2015-16. Chmelevski scored 4 points in 5 games, good for 8th on a stacked team with the likes of Quinn Hughes and Brady Tkachuk. The United States lost in the Final that year to the team Russia.
Not so Fleet of Foot
One knock against Chmelevski is that he’s not the best skater. His stride is inefficient and doesn’t generate a lot of power, most of the time. When he gets going, he can get to the puck in a hurry, but his agility and lateral movement can seem labored at times. There is, however, promise to his skating:
Hockey Prospecting, which tracks players based on NHL equivalency, has some pretty interesting comparables. I wouldn’t put much stock into the comparables from his draft year as Chmelevski is a much better player now than he was then. Comparables are always tricky, each player truly is unique, but based on the style of play and how likely they are to be an NHL regular, I think the closest comparable is Anthony Cirelli.
If you aren’t familiar with Cirelli’s work, I highly recommend you read the March 23rd, 2020 piece by Joe Smith on The Athletic. Smith makes the case that Cirelli should win the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward as he is already a fantastic two-way player. He reveals that Cirelli’s Tampa Bay Lightning forwards refer to him as “Selke” out of respect.
While the offensive numbers aren’t quite there compared to some of the recent winners, he also hasn’t had the offensive opportunities as the past six winners of the trophy, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and Ryan O’Reilly.
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If you rank forwards by the advanced metric Total Defense (the sum of even-strength and shorthanded defensive goals above average divided by replacement), Cirelli was #1 in 2019-20, ahead of Ryan O’Reilly, Phillip Danault, Anze Kopitar, Brad Marchand, Sean Couturier, and Mark Stone. Cirelli consistently gets very few offensive zone starts (45% in 2019-20), yet has points per 60 minutes ranked 136th amongst forwards per Evolving Hockey.
Which Sasha Will it Be?
So will Chmelevski develop into something closer to Jason Dickinson or Cirelli, or even Teuvo Teravainen? It is impossible to say of course, but one of the traits that probably has served Chmelevski best is his drive to get better. This intangible he shares with Cirelli and why I think the comparison is a good one.
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Chmelevski, like Cirelli, isn’t the best skater, doesn’t have the best shot and isn’t the biggest guy at only 6’0” (so is Cirelli), but the two of them possess tremendous hockey intelligence. They know where to be and how to get there ahead of the puck. They are sound positionally and are thus rarely caught out of position. Because of their positioning, they can score timely goals – your shot doesn’t need to be that good if the goalie is out of position.
Why Won’t He Make it?
If Chmelevski either doesn’t make it or doesn’t stick in the NHL, it will undoubtedly be because of his skating. His drive to improve has translated to all other areas of his game so I have a feeling he is working hard on this now. However, the pace of the NHL is a step ahead of every other league in the world and it might prove to be too much for the American.
His first full professional season went pretty well with 27 points in 42 games. Chmelevski will likely need another season in the AHL and will hopefully continue to improve and take on a bigger role on the team. It is possible that when he comes to Sharks training camp in December 2020, he earns a job, but the more likely scenario is that he will get the best shot to succeed in the NHL in 2021-22.
Though a natural center, Chmelevski has played right wing and that is the Sharks’ greatest need, especially if Kevin Labanc leaves before 2020-21. Based on opportunity, he might get a shot in the NHL a little before he is quite ready, which might be a challenge for his development. In the end, I expect he will be a middle-six center or right-winger if he makes it.