One of the unfortunate perceptions that new Senators prospects Rudolfs Balcers and Josh Norris are going to have to deal with is getting people to accept who they are instead of who they’re not. They’re not Erik Karlsson. They’re not Miro Heiskanen. Or Cody Glass. Or Cal Foote, Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh.
They’re Rudolfs Balcers and Josh Norris.
In this article, I’ll attempt to describe these players to you in hopes of setting the appropriate expectations for them. San Jose had a middling prospect pool to begin with — part of the reason why many didn’t think they’d be a suitable trade partner, especially in comparison to Vegas, Tampa Bay, or Dallas — but the Sens acquired two of their best, here. There’s an obvious caveat: the Sharks were one of those teams that had most of their skilled young talent already on the roster — the Tomas Hertls, Kevin Labancs, and Timo Meiers of the world — but of those who didn’t make it, Balcers and Norris were “up there”. What does that translate to in terms of their ceilings? Fans may not want to hear this, but what I’ll present below leads me to believe that they’re both topping out as good, top-nine talent with second-line ceilings. In the context of our Top 25 Under 25 series, they’d probably slot in somewhere between 11 and 18 for me.
Is that the return you’d expect for a player of Erik Karlsson’s calibre? Of course not, and I think Pierre Dorion and co. have been rightly slammed for this. But while we can blame the Senators talent evaluators for potentially overvaluing middle of the roster talent as high-end pieces, let’s try to make sure they aren’t Nick Paul’d by the fanbase.
Rudolfs Balcers: LW (04/97 - 21YO)
Balcers gets the spotlight for me for a couple of reasons. One, he’s going to be the first to make an impact. Two, he’s signed to a contract. And three, he’s shown flashes of potentially having a higher ceiling of the two, similar to Sens prospect Alex Formenton.
Drafted in the 5th round of the 2015 Entry Draft after being ranked the 80th ranked skater by NHL’s Central Scouting, Balcers had to take an unconventional path to get to where he is today. Born in Latvia, a country without a strong domestic junior program, Balcers has been playing junior hockey in Norway since he was 14 years old against players well above his age group. He consistently ranked high in points-per-game when adjusting for age — a necessity given that Balcers was often a triple or double-underage player in Norway — and eventually caught the attention of the Stavanger Oilers in the country’s top men’s league. In his draft year, Balcers led all U20 skaters in points-per-game (0.58), and was the only one of 14 U18 skaters to score more than four points. Balcers had 21.
Scouts will argue that putting up that kind of production in a weaker league is what you need to catch the attention of an NHL team, and Balcers managed to do just that, with San Jose opting to select him in the 5th round.
He struggled a bit in his post-draft season, with his point-per-game rate in Norway dipping to 0.56, but continued to represent Latvia internationally at IIHF sanctioned tournaments and helped them get promoted to the main U20 tournament in 2016-17.
The jump to another country, akin to leaving Latvia to play in Norway many years earlier, helped Balcers progress yet again. Selected in the first round of the CHL Import Draft by the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, Balcers scored 40 goals — tops among all rookies — and finished the season with 77 points, 29th in league scoring. That convinced San Jose to sign him to his entry-level contract, and as a 20-year-old, Balcers led all San Jose Barracuda in scoring with 48 points.
Emmanuel Perry’s NHLe system aims to evaluate the NHL equivalent of a player’s point production, and had Balcers’ AHL year akin to putting up 25 points. That would’ve had him 8th on the Sens among forwards last year, and is decent third-line production in today’s NHL. Over at Fear the Fin, efowle15 wrote a piece on Perry’s system, and included this on Balcers:
Balcers, Balcers, Balcers. There isn’t much left to say about Balcers. As the Barracuda’s best player last season, he’ll almost undoubtedly see some NHL games this year. Using Perry’s NHLe and adjusting for peak age (25 years old), one projection method suggests Balcers might be a 51-point forward in his prime. This list of players shows Balcers had the 10th-highest age-adjusted NHLe among AHL forwards last season. Fifty-one points is still within the range of average forward production in the NHL, but it’s at the higher end of average. The average 82-game point pace was 36 points. One standard deviation from that is 56 points, so a 51-point Balcers would be just shy of the one deviation threshold. If Balcers continues along the trajectory his numbers say he’s on, we will be witnessing the birth of a decent bottom-six NHL forward, which is about all San Jose can ask for from a fifth-round pick.
Keep in mind that this is just one method for projecting the production of prospects, but a range of 36 - 51 points at the NHL level gives us a good estimation for what “prime” (age 25) Balcers may look like: good production for a complimentary second-line forward or a really good third-line forward.
As a relative unknown for most North Americans in his draft year, it’s hard to find scouting reports on Balcers, other than this one from Cam Robinson of Dobber Prospects (with emphasis added by me in bold):
“Balcers is a rail thin winger with a terrific wrist shot that he’ll unleash at the drop of a hat. The 19-year-old possesses elite-level speed that would challenge even the quickest of NHL talents, but he also has the ability to slow things down and become an elusive element as he enters the offensive zone with the puck. As one of the youngest players in the Norwegian top league the last two seasons, Balcers has produced well, following up a strong draft season by scoring 21 goals in 60 combined regular season and playoff games in 2015-16. Strength will be the overwhelming focus for the young Latvian this summer as he will need to put on plenty of weight before comfortably transitioning to the North American game.”
Balcers himself fought back a little against the “pure goal scorer” mantle, noting this in a profile from 2017:
“I wouldn’t say I’m a pure goal-scorer. Obviously I like to score goals. I kind of feel like I’m around the puck at the right time, right place, and I get my chances. I can still make plays and pass to my [teammates] and they can score. I mean, scoring goals, I’ve been kind of doing that all my career. I don’t really want to stop, you know. I don’t think my shot is that hard. I’ve been working a lot on my shot this summer. I’d say it’s more accurate than it’s hard. Right place, right time and usually the puck goes in.”
But ultimately, we have a decent picture of his style of play: Balcers is an elusive winger who likes to have the puck on his stick before unleashing a quick, accurate wrist shot. He’s a bit undersized at 5-foot-11, 174 pounds, but clearly worked on his strength when transitioning to North America considering he was reportedly at ~160 pounds a couple years ago.
With fellow second-year pros Filip Chlapik and Colin White competing for NHL spots with the Senators this season, there’s no reason why Balcers — a player who outscored both by a wide margin in the AHL last year — isn’t the favourite to make the team. Having a capable puck carrier with the speed to transition in the neutral zone will be key for the Senators this season having lost Karlsson, and goal-scoring ability is always a plus for a team that isn’t expected to score very many.
Josh Norris - C (05/99 - 19YO)
Introduced by Pierre Dorion as one of Brady Tkachuk’s best friends much to the ire of some, Norris is a reliable, pass-first centre that’s come through the U.S. Development Program like Tkachuk, Logan Brown, and Colin White.
He started playing with the U17 program as a 16 year old, putting up a respectable 0.61 points-per-game to rank 6th among regulars on his team. Tkachuk and Norris played together at the U17 World Hockey Championship that year, where they both put up 5 points in 5 games as the U.S. failed to medal.
In his draft year, Norris improved his play tremendously. He put up consistent point-per-game production throughout the year in both phases of the U18 program — playing games against NCAA and USHL opponents —and at the U18s, often lining up as his team’s top-line centre. This meant key faceoffs, all-situations play, and Norris was also trusted enough to play key PK time, netting 3 shorthanded goals. Whether he was up against older opponents or his peers, Norris managed to lead or rank near the top of his team in scoring. The program didn’t have an Auston Matthews, Clayton Keller, Jack Hughes-type player to electrify crowds, meaning that it was offence by committee; the consistent, hard-working Norris seemed to get the bulk of the opportunity. In their yearly draft profiles, the folks over at the Nation Network compared Norris’ production to a familiar name, Colin White, who put up a point-per-game for the USDP in 2014-15, and pointed to his 2.70 shots per game — first among draft-eligible players in the USDP/USHL — as a good sign. Overall, their model had 41.5% of players similar to Norris go on to become NHL players, and although that may sound low, it’s important to remember: many draft picks, even high ones, do not become regular NHLers.
Ranked between 23th (ISS, McKenzie) and 67th (Future Considerations), Norris was pegged as a late first-rounder, early second-rounder when he was taken as a “safe” pick, 19th overall, by Doug Wilson in the 2017 Draft. I usually hesitate to bring up NHL scouting combine results in these parts, mainly because we haven’t really seen any correlation between those who rank well there and those who go on to be more productive pros. However, in Norris’ case, it’s been reported that his combine results were one of the reasons why Wilson “reached” to take him earlier over the more dynamic Kailer Yamamoto, Kristian Vesalainen, and Eeli Tolvanen. Norris ranked first in the agility drills, vertical jump, peak power, and mean power; fourth in bench press; and eighth in pull-ups.
What about his on-ice play? Here are some scouting reports, with emphasis added in bold by me:
Norris has everything you want in a top-six center – size, speed, strength, and the ability to make his linemates better. He’s thick, strong on his skates, plays physical, is matched up against top players and also provides offense on special teams, including on the penalty kill. A playmaker with soft hands and a very hard, accurate shot, Norris plays a heavy game and uses his size and determination to win puck battles. He’s a solid stickhandler and controls the puck in tight spaces, and he settled things down by curling or weaving away from pressure. Playing in traffic isn’t a problem for Norris, and he’s consistently poised on his zone entries. Additionally, he is smart enough to use his physicality without taking unnecessary or emotional penalties. A talented, mature leader with an NHL-ready build.
He doesn’t have high-end offensive potential, but his two-way game at a premium position should make him a nice compliment to a team’s bottom-six.
He plays of a pass-first game yet can find the back of the net with his quick release and accurate shot. Norris is a player that does not receive enough attention for his strong all-around game and shows good compete and grit to his game when needed.
What does this leave us with? Norris is an athletic, strong two-way centre with solid playmaking ability. He seems to have gotten by with a mature, physical game, but lacks high-end offensive talent that would give him a higher ceiling, leading to some mixed reviews from scouts.
Norris just wrapped up his freshman year with the University of Michigan, where he put up 0.63 points-per-game — 7th on his team and second behind Quinn Hughes among first-year players — and 2.65 shots-per-game. An immediate comparison to Colin White, who, as a freshman had similar shot rates but 43 points in 37 games for Boston College, is apt but potentially not fair to Norris, as White was thrust into top-line minutes for a weaker Eagles squad while Michigan had a much stronger, veteran team that made it to the Frozen Four. Erik Johnsgard’s profile of Norris over at Fear the Fin for their T25U25 series has a detailed look at Norris’ past season that’s well worth the read, so what I’ll stress here is the future.
With three of Michigan’s leading point-getters departing for various professional opportunities, there’s opportunity abound for Norris to take the lead and become a collegiate standout in his sophomore year. The Senators signed White after his second season and Wolanin after his third, so it’ll be interesting to see how long they wait to sign Norris given the negative energy surrounding the team. Playing with his friends from the U.S. Development Program in a market with a ton of opportunity may mean that we’ll worry for nothing, but it’s safe to say that we should spend a fair amount of time watching Norris closely this season to see what kind of player he’ll become.