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Balcers Shines For Latvia At Worlds

by Aaron Vickers @AAVickers / sjsharks.com

HERNING, Denmark - The San Jose Sharks should be excited about Rudolfs Balcers. Bob Hartley certainly is.

Hartley, head coach of Latvia's National team, has come away impressed with what he's seen up close from the Sharks prospect at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

And he thinks San Jose should be pleased about what they have in the product of Liepaja.

"Be very excited," started Hartley, who coached the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup in 2001, and has spent 13 seasons behind a National Hockey League bench with the Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames before settling into the role of coach the Latvian national team in December 2016.

"I followed Rudolfs basically all season, watching his videos, and he's gifted. Just look. He finished first in scoring on his AHL team. I've been in the AHL for five years. Best development league in the world.

"He's spending his time there and he's getting stronger, he's getting quicker. He's very gifted. Great shot. Great sense for offense. He has a nice confidence about himself. It's inside of him, but you can see it. You can feel it.

"It's just a matter of time, maybe a year or two, and he'll definitely be there."

Balcers had a standout season as a rookie with the San Jose Barracuda, the Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate. He paced the team in scoring with 48 points, including 25 goals, in 67 games played as a first-year pro -- seventh in the league among freshmen.

He is standing out yet again, for Latvia at the World Championship.

Balcers shares the team-lead with three goals and five points in six games at the tournament.

It's been an eye-opening experience for the left winger, who was selected in the fifth round (No. 142) by San Jose in the 2015 NHL Draft.

"I've played at all the junior levels before. It's been fun to represent Latvia every time," said Balcers, who turned 21 a month before the World Championship started.  

"When you get to the stage like this with the big National team, it's different. It's been awesome. Guys have been awesome. Just seeing the other teams…there's so many stars playing in the tournament.

"Just watching them…you watch them on TV and your goal is to play against them one day in the National Hockey League. You just see them here in the tournament and the way they play. Just being on the ice with them, it's fun and you can see where they are at, and you know what you have to work on.

"It's a lot of fun."

It's been an eye-opening experience for those watching Balcers, too.

Despite his age and inexperience, he's been Latvia's most relied-upon forward.

"He has a nice confidence about himself," said Hartley, who has dispatched Balcers for an average of 20:26 per game -- tops among forwards and third overall for the Latvians.

"He's not that kid that thinks he's somebody else, but you can tell he's enjoying the moment. He's really taking advantage of the situation. Power play, penalty killing…we're giving him lots of ice time. We count on him and he's been unbelievable for us."

There's plenty of reasons for Balcers to feel assured.

He's held his own against the likes of Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames in the tournament.

Balcers has been just as valuable, if not more, to his country.

He has been named Latvia's player of the game twice, including in a 3-2 overtime win where he scored twice -- including the game-winner in spectacular fashion -- and again in a 5-0 victory against Korea. He also logged 24:18 in ice time in a 3-2 loss against Team USA, the most among any forward in the game.

Though he's felt a boost from his performance, he's not declaring himself ready for full-time NHL action, which would make him just the 22nd Latvian ever to play in the league, just yet.

"It's hard to say," said Balcers, who had 40 goals and 77 points in 66 games with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League last season. "I haven't played a real NHL game yet so I don't know how that feels. If they put me in, I'll do everything I can.

"You just have to wait until that day."

But Hartley, impressed by his star forward, sees Balcers as an NHLer.

Sooner rather than later.

"He wants to learn," Hartley said.

"He's a good young man. I think that he's definitely an NHL player. He just has to keep improving his game away from the puck and keep working on his strength, on his speed.

"His potentials and abilities will definitely make him an NHL player.

"There's no doubt in my mind.

"I think that the Sharks have a good one."

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