Rudolfs Balcers proves importance to Sharks in win over Kings

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Five different Sharks score in impressive home win over Kings

Balcers proves importance to Sharks in win over rival Kings originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Where would the Sharks be without Rudolfs Balcers this season?

That's sort of a strange question, considering he began the condensed 2021 campaign as an Ottawa Senator. The Sharks traded him to the Sens three years ago this September, as part of the package to fetch two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Balcers and Karlsson are teammates now, with the former assisting on the latter's game-winning goal in the Sharks' 5-2 victory over the rival Los Angeles Kings on Friday at SAP Center. That combination would've been hard to envision before San Jose claimed Balcers off waivers on Jan. 12, but Balcers' importance is becoming increasingly evident as the season wears on.

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"He's been probably -- for me anyway, not knowing the player before he came over -- one of my best surprises," Sharks coach Bob Boughner told reporters in a video conference. "I think he's gonna be a good player for us for a long time."

According to Natural Stat Trick, Balcers led the Sharks on Friday with five shots on goal and five high-danger chances at full strength. He also paced San Jose with 1.36 expected goals and four hits.

Balcers' first-period goal was his career-high sixth of the season, and the 24-year-old needs only two more points to exceed the career-high mark he set in 36 games as a rookie two seasons ago (14 points). It helps Balcers is playing two additional minutes per night than he did in either of his last two seasons in Ottawa, but the Latvian winger is making the most of his opportunity.

Since Balcers' season debut on Feb. 6, only four Sharks (Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc) have scored more goals. The Sharks possess the puck more with Balcers on the ice relative to his teammates, and he has found a niche alongside Hertl and Timo Meier on the team's suddenly solid second line.

San Jose is 12-9-3 with Balcers in the lineup this season, and 6-8-1 without him.

"I remember when he was here before, we were excited about him," Sharks captain Logan Couture said. "[General manager Doug Wilson] pulled me aside in Arizona at the start of the year, and said that Rudi was available and we were gonna grab him. ... I hadn't watched him play in Ottawa too often, usually when I'm watching those games I'm looking only at [former Shark Chris Tierney] on Ottawa, so I didn't know how he had played the last little while. But he's been very good for us."

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So, would the Sharks be without him? Probably not within striking distance of a playoff spot -- they're three points back of the fourth-place Arizona Coyotes with two games in hand -- and almost certainly lacking a forward to round out their top six.

Balcers' career-high 13.3 percent shooting percentage almost certainly isn't sustainable, but his career-high 0.95 5-on-5 expected goals per hour and 5.34 5-on-5 high-danger chances per hour, according to Natural Stat Trick, offer encouraging signs he can be an impactful winger if the goals dry up. The Sharks entered the season with five clear, top-six forwards, and Balcers has rounded out San Jose's top two lines nicely.

He's a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but Balcers is playing his way into longer-term job security.