The Sharks and Avalanche enter Tuesday night's contest as kindred spirits, as both are without their top centers.
San Jose is set to play its sixth game without Joe Thornton, who's out indefinitely after injuring his right MCL and undergoing surgery, and Colorado will play its third without Hart Trophy frontrunner Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon injured his shoulder in the Avalanche's first game after the All-Star break.
In MacKinnon's place skates a player who represents another point of commonality: 23-year-old rookie Alex Kerfoot. Kerfoot signed with Colorado this summer after a four-year career at Harvard, and San Jose was one of a handful of finalists for his signature.
He ultimately chose the Avalanche because he'd have the opportunity to make the NHL right away, and have the chance to grow into an even bigger role thanks to the eventual trade of Matt Duchene. So far, the decision's paid off: Kerfoot's tied for ninth among rookies in goals (12) and tied for seventh in points (32), despite averaging just 13:35 per night in ice time.
That's not an opportunity he would have gotten right away with the Sharks. San Jose's gotten contributions from second, third, and even fourth-year players, but the rookie forwards have had more difficulty.
Marcus Sorensen's become something of a regular, but has managed only three goals in 18 games in a fourth-line role. Danny O'Regan's shuttled back and forth between the Sharks and AHL Barracuda, and has also spent most of his time on the fourth line.
Considering Kerfoot has 25 more points than the combination of O'Regan and Sorensen, it's reasonable to wonder what could have been. If anything, though, Kerfoot's relative success reiterates how much circumstances matter when developing players.
For instance, Kerfoot is averaging 3.67 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick. That's more than O'Regan (2.2) and Sorensen (3.06), yes, but not nearly enough to explain such a massive difference in production.
That's especially true when you consider Kerfoot barely plays more than Sorensen and O'Regan in five-on-five situations. He only averages 1:09 in five-on-five ice time than Sorensen, and 46 seconds more than O'Regan.
The difference is opportunity. Kerfoot regularly skates on the power play, and has spent most of his five-on-five ice time with Nail Yakupov (nine goals) and J.T. Compher (10). O'Regan's gotten some looks on the power play, but both he and Sorensen have spent most of their time at even strength with Joel Ward (four goals) and Barclay Goodrow (four).
It's tempting to look at Kerfoot's season and say San Jose missed out on a productive rookie, but it's also fair to wonder how productive O'Regan or Sorensen would be in Colorado if given the same opportunity. Nurture, not just nature, is vitally important to developing prospects, and the Sharks simply would not have been able to develop Kerfoot under the same circumstances as the Avalanche.