Positives on the Prospect Prospectives

By Mike Delfino

As the Sharks started their 10th season, there were areas that were unquestionably keys for the Sharks if they were to succeed. By far, the two most important areas were getting the free agents signed, and the improvement of young players such as Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan. Of those two objectives, the first was accomplished successfully, with only Owen Nolan out opening night. However, the jury is still out on the development of the younger players.

The first two games of the year, Patrick Marleau looked more out of place than he did last year. There were times when he literally stood there and did practically nothing, while his opponents were whizzing past for scoring chances or turnovers. However, after those first couple games, Marleau has improved a great deal.
Since then, Marleau seems to have taken on a new attitude towards his game.
“The key is to keep the intensity up and play level high,” said Marleau after nearly connecting on several chances vs. Boston, and scoring once.
In that game he scored a bit of a fluke goal, but created many more chances that were either saved, shot wide, or hit the post. The biggest difference is that he’s creating chances that he wasn’t creating last year. He’s using his speed and natural ability to if nothing else, get the puck deep in the offensive zone. He may not get a point, but it’s often his work that is paying off in the long run of a 60-minute game.

One could make a case that Marco Sturm has been the unsung hero of this young season. While his numbers don’t jump out at you, the amount of time he has spent on the PK unit is. Going into Tuesday’s game vs. Columbus, Sturm was 3rd on the team in PK minutes behind Rathje and Ragnarsson, 1st among forwards. In addition, he already has three shorthanded goals, a total exceeding the total amount of all other teams in the NHL.

Sturm has also shown an ability to get to any loose puck and flip it up ice, wasting precious minutes killing a penalty. If the Sharks can get their PIM total down, Sturm will become that much more important at even strength, not spending his energy in shorthanded situations.

Among the young players, the position of most concern for the team had to be defense, with three players of one year or less experience all playing important roles.
Brad Stuart showed last year that he has the potential to be one of the best defenseman in the league. He is continuing to impress this year, as he is often running the power play, and setting up key plays. He seems to be getting a bit overwhelmed at times in his defensive coverage, but that is to be expected out of a player so young.

Last year Scott Hannan showed that he might be the Sharks’ next version of Bill Houlder. He is continuing to do that this year, playing his typical consistent style of play.
He hasn’t wowed anyone with his offense, but he is doing everything necessary of a NHL defenseman. In the game against Boston, Hannan made a diving poke check to stop what would have been a two on none break against Yevgeni Nabokov. The stop warranted a well deserved standing ovation from not only the fans in San Jose, but his teammates as well.

What has been the biggest surprise of the year thus far has been the play of Shawn Heins. When he got his chance to play when Gary Suter went down with a rib injury, he took full advantage. He recorded his first goal and assists, and has not been the defensive liability that it was feared he would be. If he continues to impress, don’t be surprised to see one of the defensemen moved down the depth chart, or even traded to make room for Heins on a more regular basis.

An injury to Steve Shields has given Evgeni Nabokov a chance to prove that he is for real. In five games Nabokov has proven himself, at least for the time being, to be a legit goalie in the NHL.
Nabokov has shown a great ability to position himself well, and very good use of his stick. Nabokov used to rely solely on his athletic ability, and would often get beat by opponents who took advantage that he left corners open. Now, he’s begun to play the angles better, keeping those corners closed off, and still using his natural abilities.
Nabokov has not taken the starting job from Shields, but he has proven to the Sharks that they don’t need to worry about their goaltending if they want to give Shields a night off. He also might spark a goaltending controversy next year, as the Sharks will be looking to get something out of both Nabokov, and prospect, Mikka Kiprusoff.

Last but certainly not least; one cannot discount the contributions of the last two rookies, right wing Matt Bradley and center Mark Smith. After playing in the CHL and two years in the AHL, Bradley and Smith are both showing this year that they belong.
In only a few games, the combination of Bradley and Smith along with left wing Alexander Korolyuk, the trio has grown to be a line the Sharks can rely upon to play steady defense, and even be an offensive threat as all three have shown an ability to make the goalie work.
“(Smith and Bradley) played hard, other players can learn a lesson from them,” said Sharks Coach Darryl Sutter after their first NHL game vs. St. Louis where the rest of the team looked lethargic at best.
One of the main weaknesses for the Sharks has always been that they didn’t have a fourth line with offensive punch, now they do, and the trio is working very well.

If the Sharks young group of players continues to emerge, the Sharks can very easily make some noise in the NHL. Now that the free agents are signed, their number one priority is back to hockey. For the young players, their number one priority is figuring out where they belong in the NHL. For some it may be future All-Star games, for others it may be nothing more than a short stint. It’s up to them to prove which it will be.

Look for updates such as these after every five games or so, as I hope to keep readers updated on a regular basis as to how the youth of the Sharks are doing. In future articles, look for updates on players such as Jeff Friesen, Mike Rathje, and Nik Sundstrom, who while all have been in the league for quite some time, their average age is only 25-years young.