by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat
Maxim Letunov’s route to the highest level of the sport of hockey hasn’t been a traditional one.
In his teens, Letunov left his native Russia to play Tier-1 hockey in Dallas, with the Dallas Stars U16 travel team. Then, he opted to play a pair of seasons in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms before moving on to the University of Connecticut, because as he put it, he wasn’t physically ready to compete at the major junior level despite being 6-foot-4.
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 San Jose Sharks in a draft-day trade.
Before he was even a sophomore at UConn, he was already part of his third NHL organization.
After two more stellar seasons as a Husky, Letunov decided to forgo his final season of collegiate eligibility and signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Sharks in March of 2019.
As a rookie a season ago, the center collected 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 57 games with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. Respectable numbers for a first-year pro, but stats weren’t the problem – consistency was. After a red-hot start, Letunov’s game faded as the season progressed and he even found himself being scratched for a handful of games, a scenario many young players go through.
Fast forward to this year and Letunov might as well be a different player. Before his first NHL recall and first NHL action on Feb. 4 at Calgary, Letunov had already surpassed his point and assist totals from his rookie season in 18 fewer AHL games and was pacing the Barracuda in points (30), assists (20) and power-play goals (four).
His leap in year two could be attributed to several factors, but experience may be the biggest one.
“Understanding the game more (has helped). Last year I got off to a good start and then slowed down,” said Letunov. “It’s a lot of games, you’ve got to be strong in your mind and physically as well so I worked on both things in the summer and it’s paying off so far.”
Letunov also recognized that in order to deal with the rigors of a long pro season, he had to be physically equipped, so he used the offseason to build strength while also gaining the quickness needed to be successful in the modern pro game.
“The strength in the gym was one of the priorities, but also getting quicker, getting better skating to be able to cutback in the corners and get away quicker.”
“He’s doing a good job of finding ways to contribute every night,” said Barracuda co-coach Michael Chiasson. “Not only with points but creating scoring chances, he’s creating space for his linemates, he’s doing a better job of being able to play through that 15, 16, 17-minute mark… he’s building his engine.”
He’s also not looking ahead. During his rookie season, Letunov found himself not staying in the moment which forced him to press which subsequently impacted his game in a negative way.
“You’ve got to approach each game one at a time. I think that’s the biggest thing, you can’t look in front too much. You’ve got to approach it one day at a time, one practice at a time and one game at a time.”
“He’s starting to learn what it takes each day with prehab, rehab, recovery, eating right and putting time in at the gym. That’s a big thing he worked on this summer was learning what it takes to be a pro,” said Chiasson. “He puts in the work and he has the demeanor that he wants to be a good pro. I think a lot of that started with his self-assessment at the end of last year, realizing maybe he did hit a wall. He realized how hard the dog days of the season can be and he put in the work this offseason and now he’s being rewarded.”
While it’s one thing to reach the NHL and another to stick there, if the 23-year-old can continue to follow the trajectory his on now, he’ll be a regular in the Sharks lineup in no time.