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Latvian prospect Balcers impresses Sharks at rookie tourney

Forward hopes to follow in footsteps of countrymen Ozolinsh, Irbe

by Eric Gilmore / Correspondent

SAN JOSE -- Twenty-one Latvians have played in the NHL, and two of them, defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and goalie Arturs Irbe, began a long career in the League in the early 1990s with the San Jose Sharks.

Rudolfs Balcers, a 20-year-old forward prospect from Latvia, hopes to follow in their footsteps.

The Sharks drafted Balcers in the fifth round (No. 142) of the 2015 NHL Draft, and he signed an entry-level contract July 13.

Balcers has never met Ozolinsh or Irbe, but he certainly knew about them while growing up in Latvia.

"When you were small and there were Latvian guys in the NHL, it was a big deal," Balcers said Tuesday, the final day of the Prospect Showcase, an event that featured rookies from the Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes in San Jose. "They're legends in Latvia. They've been around hockey always there."

Balcers started making a name for himself Saturday when he scored three goals and had one assist in a 7-4 victory against the Avalanche in the Sharks opener at the rookie event.

"That's a good first impression," said Roy Sommer, who coaches the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League. "He always seems to be around the puck. High skill set. He's opened some eyes, that's for sure."

Balcers had one assist Sunday in a 7-1 loss to Anaheim, giving him five points. He had the day off Tuesday when the Sharks defeated Arizona 5-3 in their Prospect Showcase finale.

"You get those points, you know you're kind of where you want to be," Balcers said. "I've been skating with the NHL guys now for two days. Just kind of get to see what that looks like. They're not going 100 percent, but still, you know, just being on ice with them, just see what you got to expect for camp."

When the Sharks signed Balcers, assistant general manager Joe Will called him "a natural goal-scorer who has proven that he can find the back of the net when his team needs it most."

Balcers had 40 goals and 37 assists in 66 games for Kamloops of the Western Hockey League last season, his first in North America.

"I wouldn't say I'm a pure goal-scorer," Balcers said. "Obviously I like to score goals. I kind of feel like I'm around the puck at the right time, right place, and I get my chances. I can still make plays and pass to my [teammates] and they can score. I mean, scoring goals, I've been kind of doing that all my career. I don't really want to stop, you know.

"I don't think my shot is that hard. I've been working a lot on my shot this summer. I'd say it's more accurate than it's hard. Right place, right time and usually the puck goes in."

Latvia is home to a Kontinental Hockey League team, Dinamo Riga, but Balcers had dreams of playing in the NHL and moved to Norway in 2011 to continue his career, believing it would improve his chances of getting drafted. He played his first of two full seasons for Stavanger in Norway's top professional league in 2014-15.

"Probably if you play in Latvia, the best thing you can do is make the KHL team and play in that league, but if you want to go somewhere else and go somewhere where hockey's better, you got to probably move somewhere else," Balcers said.

After adjusting to smaller rinks and more physical play in the WHL in 2016-17, Balcers said his immediate goal is to secure a spot with the Barracuda, which would put him one step from the NHL.

"I want to stay up [in the AHL] all year and from there, who knows, anything can happen," Balcers said.

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