After Sasha Chmelevski heard his name called in the sixth round of the 2017 National Hockey League draft, his spoken mentality at the time was — like many late-round picks with greater aspirations — to say that the draft is just a number.
The Huntington Beach native reached a new milestone in his hockey career on Friday, Feb. 5, when he made his NHL debut for the San Jose Sharks.
It was a thrilling experience for the 21-year-old center, one that saw him pick up his first point in the league, while the Sharks also mounted a two-goal comeback in the third period to defeat the host Anaheim Ducks 5-4 in a shootout.
“It’s everything you ever wanted as a kid,” Chmelevski said despite the coronavirus pandemic resulting in his debut taking place in an empty arena. “You dream about that moment, no matter if there’s fans or no fans. It’s just about being there and saying that, ‘Yes, I played in the NHL.’ It was a great feeling.”
Chmelevski picked up an assist in the first period, playing a touch pass in the neutral zone ahead to Marcus Sorensen, who sent a pass from the left circle to the top of the goal crease, where Matt Nieto finished to open the scoring. There were multiple Southern California connections on the play, as Nieto is from Long Beach.
“He played very well at the beginning of the game, and I thought the game caught up a little bit to him in certain situations, but for a first game, I think he should be happy about how he played,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said of Chmelevski to reporters after the game.
Chmelevski, who played youth hockey with the Anaheim Wildcats growing up, saw six minutes 11 seconds of ice time in the contest.
A strong showing in training camp landed Chmelevski a spot on the Sharks’ taxi squad this season. In his first full season of professional hockey, Chmelevski produced 11 goals and 16 assists for the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League during the 2019-20 campaign.
“Last year, I would have wanted to make my debut, obviously, and try to stick around, but that wasn’t the case,” Chmelevski said. “I still had a great season, and I think I took a lot of positives from that, a lot of good experience, understanding that pro hockey, you’re going to need to be consistent on an everyday basis in order to get a call up.”
Asked what he worked on to make himself an asset for the NHL club, Chmelevski indicated that he feels that it is important to play within his skillset.
“You’re trying to do whatever you do best,” Chmelevski said. “For me, I’m a smart player who makes plays [and is] responsible. I’m not looking to go and do something extraordinary that I usually don’t do.
“If it happens, it happens, but my game is predicated off of skill, hands [and] smarts, so I think just making myself elite in those areas is what has allowed me to have a chance at making a team.”
Should he draw into the lineup more often, one fascinating aspect of this coronavirus-impacted season is that the entire 56-game schedule is being played within the division. The eight teams in the Honda West Division will face each other eight times.
“I think the biggest thing that the team, and everyone I’m sure around the league, notices is every night is really valuable,” Chmelevski said. “You can’t lose points and get behind, so I think every game, you have to treat it like a mini playoff game, and as we move on through the season, I think games carry more and more weight.”
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