by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
A little more than a year ago, San Antonio Rampage rookie forward MacGregor Sharp was just looking to make an impression.
The Anaheim Ducks took notice early and often, an investment of attention that paid off in a big way later.
"It’s been pretty amazing," Sharp said while taking a rest one evening in San Antonio last week. "It all happened so fast. You don’t get a chance to step back and think about what you’ve done. Everything has been like a whirlwind."
That swirl includes 15 games in Bakersfield of the ECHL (four goals, 10 assists), eight in Anaheim and seven with the Rampage (two goals, three assists). And that doesn’t even factor in how far along the undrafted Sharp came at the University of Minnesota-Duluth without ever really going anywhere.
"To be honest, when you are a kid you always dream of playing as a pro," said Sharp, 24. "As you start progressing through levels it becomes a reality that the opportunity is there for you. I always believed in myself, if I worked hard and did the right things every day, I’d be there."
As recently as the start of his senior season at Minnesota-Duluth, Sharp could have held a meeting of everyone else who believed he was a future NHL’er in a penalty box and had plenty of room to spare.
During his first three years at the school, Sharp was a sound two-way forward who stood out only because his team was so pedestrian. He compiled 58 points overall in that stretch, and, unbelievably, paced the team in scoring as a junior with just 17 points.
"There was a learning curve for me. As a team, we weren’t scoring a ton of goals," he understated. "We understood we couldn’t play an open game with a lot of those teams with top guys. I definitely learned a lot of little things defensively."
Anaheim had its antenna pointing in Sharp’s direction from early in his senior season. Even though the player had done little to merit more than a passing nod, the Ducks were already checking up on him.
"He’s just a kid who got more opportunities to play at Duluth, and he got more confidence," said David McNab, senior vice president of hockey operations for Anaheim. "It was easy to like him."
Very quickly, he was easier to love. Unless you were trying to shut him down.
Sharp scoffed at precedent and laughed all over the score sheet. He showed up at school his senior season with an improved shot and compiled 26 goals (second in the nation) and 24 assists in 43 games.
"I just decided to come in as a fresh start, was really motivated to put up some numbers," Sharp said. "I definitely didn’t think it was going to work out that well, but we had some good guys around us. It was a pretty special year. You are having the time of your life with some of your best friends."
That was just the window dressing, since Sharp had yet to produce in clutch moments for a team that was a stranger to big games. But he blew away that concern by helping his school win the WCHA tournament with a hat trick in the Final Five title game. In seven postseason games (including two in the NCAA tournament) Sharp came up with six goals and three assists.
"It wasn’t pressure for us," Sharp said. "We were having fun with it. When you are having fun, you don’t really feel any pressure."
Sharp’s fan club was growing exponentially by now, and NHL scouts pitching free-agent deals were at the front of the line to apply for membership cards. But Sharp, recalling the Ducks’ overtures before he literally became "Mr. Big Shot," took a pact from Anaheim.
"Obviously, Anaheim was my first choice," he said. "When they are there the whole way, they speak to you a lot. It shows you are doing something right."
The Ducks assigned Sharp to Bakersfield because they don’t have an AHL affiliate this season, a fluky circumstance that obviously set up his unique change of scenery. But McNab points out that Sharp first had to bank enough trust to earn a recall.
The defensive groundwork he laid in his first three seasons in college, plus the offensive potential he flashed as a senior showed Anaheim that this was a player who could be relied upon in a range of situations.
"You can put him in offensive roles. You can put him in defensive roles. If you need to kill a penalty, he can kill a penalty," McNab said. "When you are a 24-year-old rookie, you can’t be a guy who needs developing. You have to be farther along. Those are the types of players coaches like to have around."
Sharp said he felt like he blended right in after his switch from an understudy to a key figure in the Ducks’ main cast.
"I think when I was out there, I played pretty well," he said. "The players up there are so good, it makes things easier for you. You just have to concentrate on doing little things on the ice. It’s been good, though, because I’ve been in a lot of different roles."
Now, at last, he gets to play the part of a top AHL prospect. When the Ducks were done with their first look at him, they shipped him to San Antonio. With most of his belongings still in Bakersfield, he was trying to stretch a suitcase full of clothes until Christmas.
At least he’ll have a place to unpack his stuff once he gathers it all. Last week, he got the word of stability that every player trying to establish himself in the AHL wants to hear — it’s time to move out of the hotel and find an apartment.
"I’ve been in a hotel quite a bit this year. I’m looking forward to set up shop," he said. "Living out of a suitcase can get old in a hurry. It’s definitely been quite a ride."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.