Graduated Prospect: Sam Steel

Photo: USA Today

By Thomas Harrington

Anaheim is not one of the 24 teams which will be returning to play later this summer. As a result, it’s time for the summer prospect articles to begin. As usual, I’ll start off with Anaheim’s graduated prospects. This year, there’s just one: Sam Steel.

Steel’s first full season in the NHL didn’t go as hoped. He didn’t light up the scoreboard on a consistent basis and he wasn’t in the Calder conversation at all during the season. Last summer, Steel wasn’t expected to be the NHL’s best rookie, but the hope was that he would at least come up in the conversation. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and once award ballots do come out, I don’t expect to see many, if any, votes for Steel. Still, despite his lower-than-hoped-for production, Steel did show why he’s been one of Anaheim’s top prospects for a number of years. He’s just not quite at the level many were hoping for yet.

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Steel spent the entire year in the NHL and didn’t see any time with the Gulls in the AHL. In 65 games he scored six goals and 22 points. Most nights he played between 14 and 16 minutes, falling below 12 minutes only once and getting almost 22 minutes in one game in December. While he’s not projected to be Anaheim’s future number one center, the expectation is that he’ll become their second-line center; it just didn’t happen this past season.

Last summer, I had one big expectation for Steel: to prove that he had become a legitimate NHL player. Even though his lack of production was disappointing, my focus was Steel just getting in as many games as possible. Well, missing only six games out of 71 means that Steel did meet the expectation that I set for him last summer. I had intentionally not set any expectations for what kind of scoring he’d put up, primarily because I expected him to struggle at times. The NHL is a hard league to find success in, and I didn’t want a low output of points to bring down what I was hoping to see from Steel. That being said, scoring only six goals was disappointing after he had scored six goals in 22 NHL games in the 2018-2019 season.

Whenever hockey returns, Steel will have his work cut out for him. Just because he carved out a spot in the NHL for himself this past season doesn’t mean his job is safe. Steel is going to have to be much better if he wants to keep it. Besides Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique to compete with, he’ll also have to fight for playing time against new acquisitions like David Backes and Danton Heinen. Also, rookies Trevor Zegras and Benoit Oliver-Groulx will be vying for NHL time. Finally, if Anaheim does draft a center with their first pick of the draft, that will add even more to the competition for a roster spot. If Steel wants to stay in the NHL on a consistent and long term basis, he’s going to need to be much better going forward.

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Now that Steel has proved that he can play in the NHL, he needs to start scoring at a much higher level. If he wants to truly become Anaheim’s second line center this coming season and for the foreseeable future, he needs to start putting the puck in the back of the net on a much more regular basis, and setting up his teammates for goals even more often than that. I won’t put a number on it, but Steel does need to score at a much higher point per game pace this coming season if he wants to be a long-term Duck.

One thing that could help Steel, and a lot of Anaheim’s other young players, is to get physically stronger. Steel clearly has the skill to compete at the NHL level, but I don’t think he has fully adjusted to the physical nature of the NHL. He doesn’t need to become a bruising power forward, but he does need to do a better job of handling the physical play of the opposition. If he can do that, I think he can become the player that many have envisioned he would be over the last couple of years.

Steel has one more year left on his entry-level contract and he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Bob Murray try to sign him to a short-term extension this summer. However, the two could also look at next season as a prove-it year for Steel and wait until next summer to sign him. If he can score 20 goals and 50 points, then he could get a long-term extension. However, if he scores 10 goals and 30 points, a shorter extension would be more likely. Regardless of how long a contract and when he signs it happens, I do believe that Steel will get a one-way deal when an extension is signed.

With the lone graduated prospect now done, normally I’d turn to the prospect profiles and go over the new prospects that Anaheim has acquired over the last year. However, I’m going to do something different this summer. Before getting to the prospect profiles, I’m going to look back at last year’s graduated prospects and see how well they did this past season. The five players who I considered graduated last summer and are still with the organization are Troy Terry, Kiefer Sherwood, Max Jones, Brendan Guhle, and Jacob Larsson.

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July 5th, 2020


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