For the San Jose Sharks, the 2020-21 season has come to an end. Finishing seventh out of eight teams certainly fell below the expectations of the team; however, several Sharks players or prospects will be playing in the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships beginning May 21st in Riga, Latvia.
While there are former Sharks players to root for in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, most notably Joe Thornton with the Toronto Maple Leafs, there are five Sharks players participating in the 2021 IIHF World Championships representing three different countries. Here are the players by country looking to bring home a medal and get valuable international playing experience representing their country.
Lean Bergmann – Germany
Bergmann played only one NHL game this season but has 32 to his name. He played primarily for the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL this season, scoring seven points in 32 games. Bergmann hopes to bring some experience and maturity to a very young German team. Aside from 2020 draftees John-Jason Peterka (Buffalo Sabres) and Tim Stutzle (Ottawa Senators), the rest of the German roster will be composed of 2021 draft-eligible players.
With such a young team and many other strong rosters, it seems unlikely that Germany will be in contention to get a medal; they are, in fact, listed as the 8th-most likely country to win. Regardless, they will gain valuable experience competing at a high level and representing their country. Bergmann will hope that a strong performance from him will help his case to play primarily in the NHL in 2021-22.
Timo Meier – Switzerland
Meier will join countryman and former 1st overall pick from 2017 Nico Hischier to represent Switzerland. Meier and Hischier will be joined by current NHL players Jonas Siegenthaler and Philipp Kurashev, as well as former NHL player and Sharks draft pick Mirco Mueller. The rest of the roster is comprised of professionals from various clubs in Europe. Although mostly non-NHL players, there are a few really strong players, which explains why they are right just ahead of Germany as the 7th-most likely country to win. Meier has been trending downward in points pace since his high of 69 points in 2018-19. No doubt the talent around him has declined as well since that season. Regardless of that, he hasn’t exactly achieved the breakout I pegged him for previously.
Aside from the quality of teammates, Meier hasn’t exactly received any huge favors from the coaching staff either. Both his average time on ice and power play minutes dipped to a three-year low this season. He is doing his part by keeping his shots per game around three, although his hits have dropped considerably from last season. If he figures himself as a power forward, he needs to increase the physical nature of his game. Hopefully Meier gets to play with Hischier, who will arguably be the best center he has played with in years. If those two can find chemistry and have a good tournament, perhaps Meier can get back to being a positive force for the Sharks in 2021-22.
Ryan Donato, Kevin Labanc, Sasha Chmelevski – United States
The United States currently has the 5th-best odds at winning, which makes sense considering they are sending a pretty talented group of players. Only one American player, Matthew Beniers, is eligible for the 2021 Draft, and he already won gold at the U-18 World Junior Championships. Many of the Americans are current or former NHL players, so they should have the edge on some nations in terms of experience at an elite level.
Labanc just completed his first season under his new contract of $4.75 million per year until the end of the 2023-24 season. He famously signed a one-year contract worth $1 million after his 56-point season in 2018-19. He now has just one season above a 43-point pace and four seasons under, so it seems like that 56-point season is the outlier. He would like to prove that he is capable of being a 55-point player or better.
Labanc is certainly a capable two-way forward. According to Evolving-Hockey, he was second only to Tomas Hertl in Corsi percentage this season and third in expected goals percentage, so he should also help the Americans offensively. Even though he had zero power play goals this season and only three assists, he should get a look with the man advantage, and perhaps the confidence he gains at the World Championships can translate to 2021-22.
Ryan Donato is coming off his first season in San Jose, where he had six goals and 14 points in 50 games for a 33-point pace over 82 games. That pace would be relative on par with his previous two seasons where he was with the Minnesota Wild and Boston Bruins. Donato looked really good early in the season, cashing in with seven points in his first 13 games. He was also playing a career-high 14:48 time on ice. Throughout the season, though, his time on ice fell, as did his point production. He ended with just one point in his last nine games.
Donato will be a restricted free agent this offseason, so a strong showing at the world championships may pique the interest of other teams. It remains to be seen how interested the Sharks are in re-signing him, but he definitely looked like a player who could play in various positions in the lineup. A more consistent role either with the Sharks or with another team would probably serve Donato well.
Chmelevski is the third member of the Sharks to join his fellow Americans in Riga. The former 6th-round pick from 2017 has made tremendous strides in the past few years, so much so that I placed him in tier two of the prospect pyramid. The 21-year-old has 20 points in 27 Barracuda games this season, which was an uptick from the 27 points in 42 games he had in 2019-20.
Chmelevski made his long-awaited debut this season, appearing in just five games as the Sharks rotated through various young players appearing in their first several games. Keeping in mind the small sample size, Chmelevski looked really good. He was creative and found open space for himself and teammates. According to Natural Stat Trick, he had the 5th-best individual expected goals per 60 minutes on the team. Hopefully for his sake and for the Sharks, he finds another gear at the World Championships and translates that to the Sharks in 2021-22.
Mario Ferraro – Canada
The Canadians have the second-best odds at winning, right behind the Russians. Ferraro should really help their odds, as he is likely to play top-pairing minutes for Canada. He has evolved into a top-four option for the Sharks; he is certainly one of their best left-handed defenders as both Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are right-handed. Surprisingly, Nikolai Knyzhov led the rearguards in Corsi against per 60 minutes, and Radim Simek was just ahead of Ferraro as well.
Ferraro was third in average time on ice for defenders on the Sharks, demonstrating how much the coaching staff trusts him. He also saw a big jump in power play time this season. In 2019-20, he averaged only 20 seconds of power play time, but in 2020-21, he was at 1:03 and recorded four power play assists. Perhaps this experience can help him take his game to the next level.
Alexander Barabanov – Russia
Knyzhov was invited to play for Russia, but he is dealing with a minor injury, so he will not be available. The invitation is a testament to his fantastic season, as he was certainly not at all likely before this season to play for Russia. The Russians were already the favorites to win and would have been even more likely if Knyzhov were available.
The two-time Gagarin cup winner, Barabanov came to North America this season after several successful years with the SKA-St. Petersburg system of the KHL. In addition to his KHL success, he has three medals representing his country between Olympic, World Junior, and World Championships. Due to his international résumé, he may have received the call to represent Russia despite his performance in the NHL. His time in Toronto didn’t exactly go as planned, but once he was traded to the Sharks, his season turned around.
Barabanov finished strong with seven points in his final nine games and playing over 17 minutes of time on ice. He was also getting over three minutes of power play time in teal, something he never sniffed on the Maple Leafs. His strong performance in the fourth quarter of the season earned him a contract extension, as he signed with the Sharks for the 2021-22 season for $1 million.
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Between his hot end to the season and what will hopefully be a successful run for Russia in this tournament, Barabanov should come into 2021-22 with a very good chance to be a fixture in the top six. He has clearly shown he has good offensive instinct and sits fourth on the team in expected goals for per 60 minutes behind Hertl, Labanc, and Rudolf Balcers. He seems to be fairly average defensively, so at least that should be a reason to limit his ice time.
Who to Root For?
It may be that most Sharks fans are local within California and therefore likely to cheer for the Americans. There are no doubt fans from around the world who cheer for the Sharks, and loyalty to that country will likely supersede Sharks fandom. Luckily for Sharks fans, they have a lot of options. They might have had more, as host country Latvia likely asked Balcers, but he isn’t confirmed to be on the roster at this point.
For the sake of the Sharks, I hope all these players have a fantastic tournament and that it continues into next season. If you want to root for the underdogs, Germany with Bergmann and Switzerland with Meier make for great options. With Canada as one of the favorites, they will be a fun team to watch, especially with some of their young players like Owen Power, Cole Perfetti, and Liam Foudy. As for me, I will be rooting for the Americans, especially for Chmelevski, as I still have high hopes for him and think this could be a great stepping stone for him to be a regular NHLer next season.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife.