The first few weeks of the the 2014-15 season have provided an early glimpse of what San Jose Shark fans can expect going forward during the youth movement in San Jose. General manager Doug Wilson has not shied away from injecting young, inexperienced players into his roster.
With Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, and Mirco Mueller all currently playing with the big club (Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in Hockey’s Future’s Top 20 Sharks Prospect Rankings), the top of the prospect pool has been chipped away, and most of the immediate talent has been exposed. However, there is still tremendous depth hidden beneath the surface. If anything, the fact that Hertl, Tierney, and Mueller (the latter two of which are not guaranteed to continue playing with the Sharks after nine games) are in the NHL and playing well should help shine the light on some of the other, less notable prospects in the Sharks system.
The wing positions have always been something of a weakness for the Sharks in recent memory. And while the left wing depth in the organization is not strong, it is considerably better than it was last season.
Barclay Goodrow, last season’s free agent signing out of the OHL, leads the way, and creates an immediate NHL impact due to his shot, checking ability, and solid two-way play. Having technically broken camp, a preseason injury has caused Goodrow to miss every game so far this season. While it is uncertain if he will remain with the team when he returns from injury, Goodrow’s preseason sniping abilities and chemistry with fellow youngster Chris Tierney should have him fast-tracked for an NHL job.
While Goodrow fills more of a bottom of the lineup role, the Sharks left wing depth is primarily composed of offensive minded individuals who lack the same grit and defensive reliability. Gabryel Boudreau has had a hot start with the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, but like last year concerns of whether Boudreau is the one actually ‘driving the bus have arisen, as most of his early season success has come from the brilliant play of Laurent Dauphin. Emil Galimov, like Boudreau, offers top-six potential from a long-shot perspective. Galimov looks poised to better his KHL totals from the year before. Dylan Sadowy of the OHL and Petter Emanuelsson of the AHL are both having decent starts to their season, and while both pride themselves on their two-way play, they probably are not strong enough or skilled enough to crack an NHL lineup in the next few seasons. Emanuelsson, while a gifted skater, probably ends up being an AHL regular.
A point of great strength for the organization, the Sharks possess a great deal of depth at the center position in all levels of development. Tomas Hertl, who currently lines up on the wing of Joe Thornton, is head and shoulders above the pack, and through his scoring ability has cemented himself as an NHL regular. Eventually Hertl could be moved to the middle, but with Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture all in the mix it will be tough for any prospect, let alone one of the best in the league like Hertl, to break into that role in the next few years. This means young forwards like Dan O’Regan and Rourke Chartier, who are showing above average scoring skill this season, will likely be forced to the wing if they ever make it to the NHL.
With so many talented top-six forwards already in the mix, and the bottom six being a real area of concern, the fact that the Sharks’ prospect pool is stacked with role players and gritty two-way forwards is a real bonus; ideally the holes up front will be filled by the draft. Freddie Hamilton, the most NHL-ready center not currently playing in the NHL, has long been rumored to crack San Jose’s lineup. His play was underwhelming during training camp, however, and he effectively lost the third-line center job to fellow prospect Chris Tierney. The younger, Tierney plays a similar style of game to Hamilton, who focuses on shutting down the league’s best scorers. However, Tierney brings with him a bit more high-end offensive skill and a stronger, albeit quiet, leadership presence that is rare among twenty-year-olds. While Tierney might eventually be sent back down to the AHL due to his ineffectiveness on face offs, he could foreseeably fill the third-line center spot for many years to come. Noah Rod and Sean Kuraly project to be future game-changers on the third line, and in a couple of years they could be a potent forward pairing, utilizing their bodies and exceptional board-play to create offensive opportunities and cause chaos for the opposition.
As strong as the depth at center is, the Sharks do have some weak links in their midst. Jake Jackson and Ryan Carpenter are decent hockey players, but they lack the defensive prowess to make up for their lukewarm offensive potential, meaning the likelihood of these two ever sticking in the NHL is very slim. Still, they provide exceptional depth, and Carpenter has shown some confidence in Worcester and could be a real force this season in the AHL.
Last season the right wing depth in the organization was almost non-existent. However, with so many centers in the system it is likely that this problem will eventually solve itself as these prospects funnel to the professional level. The Sharks made huge strides on the right side this summer at the draft when they selected Nikolay Goldobin. It does not really matter what side Goldobin plays; he is an offensive dynamo, and he has the ability, even as a teenager, to change the outcome of a game. Unfortunately, as he has shown early on in both NHL preseason and in regular season play with HIFK of SM-liiga, that is not always a good thing. Goldobin’s lack of drive to play defense is one thing, and the Sharks hope by loaning him to a strong defense-first team that he will be able to eventually correct this issue, but the real issue seems to be with Goldobin’s dangerous decision-making in the offensive zone. He makes a lot of poor turnovers; he has already handed over the game twice in just four games of play in Finland. Goldobin is a long-term first round selection, as he has the potential to be a great top-six forward who is going to take some time to develop.
Joining Goldobin on the right side is Daniil Tarasov, a player who plays very similarly to Goldobin but without as much high-end talent. Tarasov has done very well on the scoresheet at the AHL level, but his one-dimensional play is going to make it difficult for him to climb out of his current role as one of the offensive weapons in Worcester. As it stands now, Alex Schoenborn, Chris Crane, and Max Gaede realistically do not have the talent to make the NHL–but if the younger Schoenborn re-invents himself as a rough and tough grinder with a little bit of a scoring edge like Scott Hartnell, as he was drafted to be, instead of trying to play more of finesse game like he has been playing this season, he could one day make it.
Kevin Labanc is having a breakout year in Barrie, scoring at above a point-a-game clip, and is starting to turn some heads. With a lack of NHL projectable forwards on the right side, the Brooklyn, New York native is destined to rise in the rankings. He could be a dark horse candidate to make the Sharks next season if a spot opens up on in the top six.
Without real star power, it is easy to dismiss the San Jose defensive prospect group. Make no mistake, though, as this is one of the most groomed and promising future blue lines in all of hockey. As a nineteen-year-old, Mirco Mueller is impressing the hockey world; he already looks like a veteran for the San Jose Sharks, is completely poised with the puck, and looks strong in his own end. His shot is a huge area of concern, as is his severe lack of offensive ability, and it will likely be one of the reasons he could eventually be sent to the AHL. Even so, Mueller has the potential to be a top pairing defender.
Konrad Abeltshauser had a lot of hype heading into training camp, but a nagging injury kept him from really making his mark. Still not quite as high on the depth chart as a lot of fans believe, Abeltshauser brings with him a tremendously sound game but his lack of physicality on most nights and ability to be pushed around will slow down his development. He is still one of the better options this season to be called up if San Jose needs a defenseman, but the reality is that he is still a few years away from being a real factor.
With considerable depth on Worcester’s blue line, it could conceivably be a down year for Dylan DeMelo, who at the tail end of last season and at training camp this year looked like he made tremendous progress in his development; in fact, he arguably leapfrogged Matt Tennyson and Abeltshauser. Worcester seems to be going with an older, more experienced lineup this year, and while DeMelo has a year of pro hockey under his belt, players like Taylor Fedun and Taylor Doherty are eating up big minutes, and DeMelo’s numbers will likely fall.
At the collegiate level, the Sharks boast two of the better NCAA puck-movers in Michael Brodzinski and Joakim Ryan. Both players have considerable offensive ability but also holes in their games that could prevent them from making them jump to the NHL. If Brodzinski can continue to play defensively responsible hockey while maintaining his electric offensive attack he could be a potential star, and if Ryan can overcome his size issues he could find himself as a very capable power play quarterback. These two are long shots, but the payout would be massive.
What Cliff Watson and Gage Ausmus lack in terms of offense, they more than make up for it with defense. Both of these defense-first rearguards likely do not factor into the immediate plans of the Sharks, and will probably not see a contract from the Sharks when their college career ends unless they can develop more offense or somehow become among best shutdown defensemen in collegiate hockey.
While many pundits praised the Alexis Vanier pick early on, the main knock on the big defenseman has always been his skating. Unfortunately, this season it does not look like he has been able to overcome this issue. No matter how much of an offensive weapon this player has the potential to be, his greatest obstacle will always be skating, and it probably will hold him back from really climbing the depth charts.
Conversely, Julius Bergman, another 2014 draft selection by the Sharks, has tremendous skating ability with a smooth stride, but he lacks the high-end offensive upside that could really propel him up the ranks. He has potential, and he started out very strong for the London Knights this season, but he still has a lot of growing to do, especially when it comes to puck possession in up-tempo games. He projects to be a top-four defenseman right now, though that could be a little bit generous.
Not as strong as they have been in years past, the San Jose goaltending prospects feature two good, yet unexceptional, young men with no real bonafide future No. 1 goaltender in this group. Troy Grosenick (who aged out of prospect status this season), has been spectacular in Worcester early on, which means, prospect J.P Anderson has yet to find himself in an AHL game this season. Anderson had a decent prospect tournament for the Sharks, but he still does not exude confidence, and with Grosenick likely to get the bulk of the starts for the foreseeable future Anderson looks to be more of a stop-gap solution at the AHL level.
Like Anderson, Fredrik Bergvik has found himself in a backup role after being promoted and has yet to play in 2014-15. Bergvik, who plays for Frolunda, has found himself bounced around in search of playing time, but even when he did play this summer for Sweden’s U20 International team, he did not look as sharp as he had in the year prior. His rebound control seemed very suspect, and he had trouble tracking the puck on North American ice. Still, the Sharks pride themselves on being able to find talent where no one else can see it, and when you look at a goaltender like Alex Stalock, who came out of nowhere to effectively be competing for the starting role this season, it is never wise to close the book on any Sharks goalie. Seeing as Bergvik is so young and skilled, if any goalie were to climb the ladder, it would be him.
Follow Craig Fischer on Twitter at @fgiarc