One minute he was trying to crack his first NHL lineup in San Jose. The next minute the goal was the same, but the jersey had changed after a blockbuster trade. Rudolfs Balcers, a 21-year-old left winger from Latvia who was the least heralded of the four players who left San Jose in exchange for Erik Karlsson, now wants to wear the red, gold and black of the Ottawa Senators.
Last season was Balcers’ first as a pro. In the days before the trade, his AHL coach had praised his work ethic, skill set and smarts. “There were lots of ‘wow’ moments with this guy,” said San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. “He would come down, and the defense would back in, and all of a sudden he’d cut across real quick and release his shot. And you’d go, ‘Wow, that’s NHL right there.’ ”
Balcers has been working on a few aspects of his game – skating, protecting the puck, defense. “Offensively, you play any way you can and try to score a goal,” Balcers said. “But defensively, you have to think and be focused. There’s so much skill out there, you want to be in the right spot at the right time.”
He has taken an unconventional path to the NHL’s doorstep. Balcers left home at 14 to play in Norway and was still skating there when the Sharks chose him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft. He spent another year there before going to the WHL, where he led the Kamloops Blazers with 40 goals in 2016-17. Last spring, Balcers also played for Latvia at the World Championship. Given a leadership role by ex-NHL coach Bob Hartley, Balcers finished as the team’s leading scorer as Latvia won four games and gave Canada and the U.S. scares before losing in overtime.
After the trade, Balcers didn’t take the bait when it was suggested his chances of making the NHL might be better with the rebuilding Sens. “It depends on myself, you know,” he wrote in a text, downplaying the change of scenery. “If I do good in the camp and some games, you never know.”
This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.