Having just passed the midway point of the 2008-09 season, the Worcester Sharks have a 23-18-0-2 record. They’re definitely ahead of where they were last year but not ahead of where they want to be. Throughout the month of January, the Sharks have continued to climb in the standings. Regardless of the injuries, promotions, demotions, storms, postponed games, and seemingly never-ending bus trips, they haven’t wavered.
“This squad has a lot more character than we had last year,” said Worcester head coach Roy Sommer. “We seem to have a better mix of individuals.”
From the bottom to the top of the roster, rookie or veteran, they’ve remained stable throughout the year.
“The franchise has been notorious over the years for bringing in quality players,” he added. “They’ve had such a good eye for what they project these guys should be able to accomplish in the AHL and even at the NHL level.”
While adapting San Jose head coach Todd McLellan’s playbook back east, Sommer and Co. also vowed that Worcester was going to compete hard all the time and that they wouldn’t be outworked.
“I know every coach says that, but I don’t know how true that is unless you are involved in it,” he said. “Out of the 43 games we’ve played, I feel there are only about three or four games where I thought we really didn’t compete.”
Worcester has had some low points, but they’ve been short lived. They haven’t lost more than three games in a row and they’ve only been blown out four times over those 18 losses.
As far as the peaks go, they’ve come in bunches. Currently, the Sharks are 6-2-0-1 since the beginning of the New Year. Throughout the season, they’ve had one five-game winning streak and multiple back-to-back wins.
The Sharks currently lead the league with an average of 36.1 shots per game, which has helped increase scoring. With 123 goals to date, they’re on pace to surpass last year’s total of 216. But Worcester has been just as giving, surrendering 131 goals to the opposition.
Which brings us to the Sharks only really sore point, special teams. The team is ranks eighth in the league in penalty minutes, while their penalty-killing unit ranks 23rd out of 29 teams in the AHL. Meaning, of the 131 goals scored against Worcester, 33 percent of them have been scored on the man advantage.
On the power play, they’re only a tad better, ranking 22nd overall. Out of 217 chances with an advantage, the team has only converted 15 percent of the time or simply, 33 goals.
“Our special teams on both sides have been inconsistent,” Sommer admitted. “That is one thing that definitely needs improving heading into the final stretch and the playoffs.”
Sommer can’t stress the importance of the little things enough, but overall he thinks the Sharks are in a good position for a stretch run.
“Special teams, staying healthy and continuing to improve will get us there,” he said. “I really don’t think we’ve even seen our best hockey. I think that’s still in front of us because we have a lot to improve on. We’re heading in the right direction and we have all the intangibles.”
Special teams like every other aspect of their game have to be effective in the tight Atlantic Division.
“We’ve got a good mix and it’s just a matter of the guys believing in themselves and getting into the playoffs,” he reiterated.
With 37 games remaining on their schedule, all the teams in the Atlantic have a chance to make the postseason.
“There’s a lot of parity,” Sommer said of the division. “If you take a vacation you can find yourself out of it. You know, if you have a bad weekend, you can go from first or second to fifth. You got to make sure you’re prepared to play and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
From day one, the Sharks lines have constantly been shuffled. As previously mentioned, injuries and recalls have forced Sommer to tinker with his parings from time to time. Regardless of the moving, Ryan Vesce and Lukas Kaspar are the two players who have remained a constant for Worcester.
“Without those two guys, I don’t know where we would be in the standings,” Sommer said. “Kaspar has been outstanding for like the last four weeks and then you have Ryan Vesce right there too.”
Vesce is leading the team in scoring with 44 points (14 goals 30 assists) in 43 games. Kaspar is a bit off Vesce’s total only because he’s missed some time with Worcester when he was called up to San Jose. Through 36 games, he’s second in scoring with 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists).
While Kaspar is leading the prospects in scoring, Jamie McGinn is playing with the utmost confidence and poise after returning from a stint with San Jose to start the year off. He simply impresses night-in and night-out. It’s really no surprise, because the rookie hasn’t stopped improving since he joined the franchise. Even as a younger player, he’s already been noted for playing a real calm and confident pro-style game. The coach praised his ability to finish his checks, play strong along the boards, as well as getting into the right spots and doing those little things right.
"He’s really a young old guy,” Sommer explained. “He’s kind of a throw-back guy when you look at the way he plays. He’s got unbelievable work ethic, he listens, and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
In 31 games, the former Ottawa 67’s winger has 19 points (10 goals, 9 assists) 40 penalty minutes and is a plus-4.
While McGinn has been flying high for the majority of the year, rookie pivot Steve Zalewski has taken a little time to find his game at the next level. Though, what Sommer is seeing now is a smart two-way player with good offensive instincts and tons of potential. He can win those crucial face-offs and he’s good at distributing the puck. Zalewski is also becoming good positional player, both with and without the puck. To date, he ranks fourth on the team (second among prospects) with 24 points (8 goals, 16 assists) in 43 games.
Two other role-playing forwards who have both seen action in almost all Wocester’s games are T.J. Fox and Frazer McLaren. Fox is a two-way player teetering more on the defensive side, with six points (3 goals, 3 assists) 11 penalty-minutes and a minus-8 rating. McLaren’s transition into the AHL as an enforcer is going as planned. He has a lone goal to go along with his team-leading 103 penalty minutes.
Jones suffered a broken jaw early on in the year and missed significant time. The 23-year-old out of Merrimack has been on the road to recovery since early December. After making a pit stop in with Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL, he’s been back with Worcester just under a month now. He’s still getting his bearings back and is anxious to develop a certain level of confidence and comfort out there. In 18 games, Jones has one goal, six penalty minutes and a minus-1 rating.
Morris on the other hand has been out with a concussion since the end of November. Before leaving he was excelling with team, compiling 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 17 games.
On the back end, there’s been a nice blend of youth and experience for the Sharks. Obviously anytime you have a 16-year NHL veteran like Kyle McLaren around, it can’t be a bad thing. McLaren’s been around a lot more than he’s been on the ice as he’s dealing with a hand injury. In his stead, AHL veterans Patrick Traverse and Brendan Buckley have picked up some of the slack.
Worcester’s top prospect blueliner was Derek Joslin, but he was recalled to San Jose at the start of the year. After settling into his role this season, Joslin was able to become an immediate physical presence at both ends of the ice. He still leads all defensemen in scoring with 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists), 26 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating in 34 games played. He made such an impact, he was named to the Canadian AHL All-Star team.
“Joslin had an excellent first half,” he said. “We might not see him again for a while.”
After a successful career back at Princeton, Mike Moore is living up to the hype at the next stage of his development. There have been no complaints from the coaching staff, as the former Tiger has been working hard and has been a sponge in order to make the most of his opportunity. He’s a defensive-defenseman with good presence and poise. But what most are starting to love about him is his bone-jarring hits.
“He’s really physical and focused,” said Sommer. “Moore probably has one of the lost arts as an open-ice hitter. He’s really laid some guys out this year.”
Since the start of the season, Moore has progressively moved his way up to the top pairings and is one of Sommer’s most trusted players. It shows, as he leads the team with a plus-12 rating. He also has a modest 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) over 41 games.
Holding up the rear is Jason Demers. Though he started off slow, the former seventh-round pick is starting to come into his own. He’s another tenacious rearguard who can move the puck effectively. He might not be as polished some of the guys ahead of him, but he’s seeing more time on the ice – including the power play and he’s making progress. Demers has 15 points (2 goals, 13 assists) and 24 penalty minutes in 43 games.
Thomas Greiss started off the year slow for Worcester. Though, he was on recalled to San Jose for almost two weeks in the middle of November. This opened the door for Taylor Dakers, who went 5-0-0 – including one shutout – with a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage. However, just as Greiss was getting ready to return, Dakers hit a bit of a rough patch. The two would share the duties throughout the month of December, with Greiss only being the slightest better.
When the New Year kicked off, Greiss catapulted out of the gate and has been solid since. In the month of January alone, he’s posted a 5-1-1 record with a 2.24 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage. Overall, he has a 14-10-2 record with a 2.62 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage.
“I feel that Greiss is about where he was two years ago, where he was just unbeatable,” Sommer added. “He’s found his game right now and he’s doing a great job with it.”
As for Dakers, he’s bounced back a bit, but he’s not entirely out of the woods yet. He got shelled in his last start and the one before that. Although, those two games were 13 days apart. On the year, he has an 8-5-0 record a 3.00 goals-against-average and a .887 save percentage. Overall, Sommer is mindful of his work and optimistic for what the future holds.
The biggest thing that is working for Worcester is their poise and resiliency. They’ve got a good roster with decent blend of rookie, mid-level, and veteran players. There is harmony as far as McLellan’s system goes and it’s paying off at both ends of the franchise. San Jose’s willingness to recall the best player at any given time has also helped the farm team. Players know where they stand within the system and they’re always vying for a spot. Saying as much, it’s bred a lot of healthy competition among the players. In turn, that’s helped push Worcester towards the top of the Atlantic.
A lot is also working for Sommer too, but he’ll be focused on righting his special teams. He’s also trying to get his players to find more consistency in their puck possession and puck pursuit. They don’t have problems generating shots, but they’d improve their overall effectiveness if they can control the tempo.
In his final year of his entry-level contract, Ashton Rome is probably not where he envisioned he would be this season. Instead of skating with Worcester, Rome has spent the entire season with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL. He was red hot in November scoring 14 points (9 goals, 5 assists in 13 games. Since then though, he’s cooled off a bit. Overall, he’s registered 29 points (17 goals, 12 assists) and has a minus-6 rating in 35 total games. He’s second on the team in scoring, but he leads the team in goals.