by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat
Do you know the way to San Jose?
The 1968 pop hit by Dionne Warwick wasn’t written for Maxim Letunov. But it certainly could have been.
For most players within the Sharks organization, the path they took to get to the heart of Silicon Valley was a much more conventional one than the route San Jose Barracuda rookie center Letunov took.
To start, Letunov left his native Russia in his teens to play Tier 1 hockey in Dallas. Listed at 6-foot-4, the 22-year-old admitted he wasn’t physically ready to compete at the major junior level and instead opted to play a pair of seasons in the USHL before moving on to the University of Connecticut.
In 2014, the St. Louis Blues selected Letunov in the second round of the NHL Draft, 52nd overall. A year later, they shipped him to the Arizona Coyotes for a draft pick and veteran defender Zbynek Michalek. And then, following a breakout freshman season at UConn in which he was named a conference all-star and the Huskies’ Most Valuable Player, Letunov was acquired by the Sharks in a draft-day trade.
Before Letunov was a sophomore at UConn, he was part of his third NHL organization.
After two more stellar seasons as a Husky, Letunov decided to forgo his final season of collegiate hockey and signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Sharks in March.
Instead of sulking about what could have been in St. Louis and Arizona, Letunov didn’t change his approach or his end goal of making it to the NHL.
“I didn’t know how to take it at first when I was traded,” said Letunov. “I was still in college and had never even touched pro hockey so it was a different feeling. When I was traded the second time, it was another whirlwind, but I never let it affect me. I continued to work and follow my routine.”
The Barracuda are off to their best start in franchise history, and Letunov has been a major part of the team’s early success. The rookie has five goals and nine points in 14 games, and as a part of the AHL’s youngest roster, Letunov has become a go-to player for Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer, who has used him in all situations so far.
“I think things work out for a reason,” said Letunov. “I’m supposed to be here and I’m enjoying being in this organization. I know they want me here and that’s a great feeling.”
When the Sharks traded for his rights two years ago, they saw a potential top-six forward at the NHL level.
“Max has the overall package you’re looking for in today’s game. His skill, his size, the way he plays the game, are all things you’re looking for in a prospect,” said Barracuda general manager Joe Will. “As he continues to gain more experience at the pro level, build his body in the weight room, and become a pro, he has the potential to be a top-line forward for us at the next level.”
Letunov joked that when he was drafted he was under 160 pounds. He’s since added roughly 25 pounds to his frame and continues to build his body to withstand the physical demands of the pro game.
“The game’s a bit faster and stronger so you’ve got to take care of your body and always be ready to go 100 percent,” said Letunov. “I’m continuing to develop my game to become a more complete player. This level is much different than college so it’s important to try and get faster and stronger.”
“You don’t find too many guys with his height, that also have his skill package,” said Will. “That’s what makes him so intriguing. With skill guys, you don’t want to rush them so that’s why we felt good about him coming to the Barracuda. He needs lots of ice time and big minutes and that’s what he’s able to get in the AHL.”
Letunov is one of 11 rookies on San Jose’s roster and will continue to gain valuable experience as one of the Barracuda’s top forwards.
“Max has been a huge part of what we’ve been doing here,” said Sommer. “I’ve been able to throw him out there at any point of the game. You can’t always say that about young players but he’s been excellent.”