After a shaky start, the Worcester Sharks have turned a corner, with improved all-around play and the opportunity to climb the standings in the AHL’s Atlantic Division. Head Coach Roy Sommer, in his 12th season with the San Jose Sharks organization (his 10th as a coach for their AHL affiliate), knows that there is little room for error, especially in such a tough division. As they push towards a spot in the playoffs, the biggest thing will be a consistent effort every night.
“I’d like to be in a playoff spot right now, but we’ve been playing our best hockey as of late and hopefully that continues,” said Sommer. “We’re healthy, and we’ve got some other players in our lineup right now, so that’s made a difference. Everything’s just starting to come together for us.”
Aside from consistency, he would like to see his team generate more even strength offense, as well as continue improving special teams play. While their power play has been good all season, he would like them to find more ways to score with the man advantage. Also on the agenda is an improved penalty kill, which has been among the worst of the league this season. In 36 games (the fewest games played of any team in the league), the Sharks have a 17-14-3-2 record, good for sixth in the Atlantic Division.
The Sharks’ top goaltending prospect, Thomas Greiss, has made the majority of Worcester’s starts this season. Greiss, currently on recall in San Jose to backup Evgeni Nabokov, is in his second professional season. As a rookie, he played his way into the starting role for Worcester, and finished third among rookie goaltenders in the league (17th among all goaltenders) for 2006-07. Despite a couple shaky starts this season, Greiss continues to progress, and on a whole has been a solid, reliable goaltender.
Statistically, his numbers are not overly impressive, but they are in part a reflection of the team’s performance in front of him. In 23 games, he is 12-10-0-1 with a .900 save percentage and 3.03 GAA.
“He’s the real deal,” said Sommer. “I’m sure they’ll see that up in San Jose if he gets a couple games in. He’ll show them that he belongs at that level, that he can compete at that level and win games.”
In his time with the organization, Sommer has had the opportunity to work with a number of goalies who went on to play in the NHL, including Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala. With Greiss, he sees comparable talent, and believes the potential is there for an even better goaltender.
“To get a goal on him, you have to earn it — he doesn’t give up a lot of soft goals. He still has some things to work on, but for the most part, for as young as he is, he’s pretty advanced.”
Taylor Dakers, a rookie this season, has made a handful of starts for the Sharks, but is still adjusting. At this stage, it is not his on-ice performance that needs work as much as it is growing accustomed to being a professional athlete, something that should develop with work over the course of the season. In just nine games, he’s got 3.13 GAA and .893 save percentage.
“He’s got to work on his practice habits — I don’t think they’re as strong as I’d like to see them,” Sommer said, then added, “But you get him in a game, and he gets it done.”
The Sharks’ team defense is another area that has improved as the season progressed. Players who struggled early have begun to hit their stride, and the team has become better at limiting quality scoring chances. Surprisingly, it was one of the younger players who stepped up early on.
Derek Joslin, a product of the Ontario Hockey League, is in his rookie season with the Sharks, and has made a swift adjustment to the pro game. He’s been able to contribute some offense, particularly on the power play, where all five of his goals were scored. Joslin has also more than held his own physically, and on a couple occasions, dropped the gloves.
“He’s probably been game in and game out our most consistent player,” said Coach Sommer. “He moves pucks, he plays tough, and he’s hard to play against. He’s running the first power play, which is one reason why our power play is as good as it is — you take him out of the lineup and we’d be in trouble.”
Dan Spang, who missed more than half of his rookie season from injury, got off to a rough start this year. For him, it was a matter of finding his game again, as he appeared to lack the comfort level and confidence to play to his ability. All of these things have improved tremendously since the beginning of the season. Spang currently leads all defensemen on the team in scoring, and since the beginning of December, has averaged nearly a point per game.
“He started the season and he struggled, and in training camp he struggled. His game was a mess,” explained Sommer. “He took responsibility and looked at a lot of tape, and [Assistant Coach] Dave Cunniff spent a lot of time with him. Just in the last little while his game has been catapulted, and he’s playing pretty good hockey for us right now.”
Averaging just over a point per game, Mike Iggulden is enjoying a career season and currently leads the team in scoring. Iggulden has the size to play a solid physical game but his greatest asset is his ability to create offense, something he’s improved upon steadily since his rookie season.
“Occasionally defensively he gets in trouble, but offensively he’s worked on things. He’s got size and speed, he goes to the net, and you know he’s got one of those things you can’t teach — goal scoring,” said the Sharks coach. “A lot of guys have the whole package, but you put them around the net and they don’t finish. He’s a kid that can finish for you and those guys are hard to find.”
Twenty-two-year-old Czech forward Lukas Kaspar has both the size and ability to be a big point producer. After a slow start, his offense has come more regularly, and on the season, Kaspar has 17 points in 30 games. His coach pointed to the tendency to over-handle the puck and trying to do too much as areas that sometimes affect his ability to put up points. For Kaspar, the effort and ability are there, he just needs to keep his game simple, and the hope is that he will continue to show up on the scoresheet. Kaspar earned a brief recall to San Jose, where he appeared in just three games.
“He’s got big time skill, he’s trending up right now and he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” said Sommer. “He’s a horse. He’s a big kid, and he can skate, and shoot a puck. He’s getting things done and getting pucks to the net, all those intangibles that get you points. When he does that and plays physical, he’s effective.”
Tom Cavanagh doesn’t always get a lot of recognition, but he is a workhorse for Worcester. Cavanagh is tied for third on the team in scoring at 21 points, and while he’s not flashy, he’s a player that does a lot of little things right. He is determined, competitive, and the type of player who will make that second effort to get the job done.
“He’s a kid that plays with a lot of heart. He’s got pretty good hockey sense and he knows the way to get it done. He’ll go right through you to get after a puck or to retrieve a puck — he’s just not a pretty player to watch. He’s another kid, if he was out of our lineup, we’d be in pretty big trouble.”
While Ashton Rome is on pace to exceed the 11 points of his rookie season, he is still not playing to his abilities. Rome has just three goals to date, for a total 10 points in 30 games, and his coaches are still trying to coax a consistent effort from him. He’s still early in his career, however, and the opportunity for improvement is certainly there.
“This is a kid that’s an unbelievable athlete — everything he does he’s good at,” explained Sommer. “He gets out there and he gets lazy, and he just doesn’t have any consistency to his game. I wish it’d come out, because probably he’s our best skater and he can probably shoot the puck better than anyone in our organization, but three or four goals isn’t good enough for him. He should be better than that and a lot of it is the way he brings himself to the game. He doesn’t always come ready to play. When he does — which is like one out of every five or six games — then he’s effective, but the other four or five, sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get out of him.”
T.J. Fox, who signed with the Sharks as a free agent in 2007 after completing two seasons with Union College, is in his rookie pro year. Still finding his way, he’s currently at nine points in 30 games, and much like Rome, hasn’t yet been a consistent factor in games. It’s something that should develop over time, as he acclimates to the rigors of the pro schedule and figures out the level of work he needs to bring to the rink each day in order to be successful.
“We haven’t seen what he’s capable of bringing to the table yet,” said Sommer. “He’s another guy that if you don’t wake him up all the time, he’ll just kind of sleep through games — but then there have been games where he’s dominated. Again, it’s a consistency thing.”