In this report, I’m going to cover what is undoubtedly the most important position on the ice. Take a look at Stanley Cup winners throughout history, and what do they all have in common? Goaltending. At the very least, it’s been good, if not great. Detroit has had Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon. In previous years it’s been names such as Broduer, Roy and Richter. So who’s going to be the goaltender for the Sharks when they eventually win the Cup? Will it be one of the below named players, or someone else currently with another team or in juniors?
Last year the San Jose Sharks made a trade where they acquired goaltender Steve Shields and a fourth round pick from Buffalo in exchange for a second round draft pick and career minor leaguer Kay Whitmore. Thus far, Shields has been very impressive. The Sharks hope for him to get about 30 starts this year, and he’s proving that he could be ready for more than that even. Many people expect Shields to start as many as 50 games next year if he continues to impress. Last year, the Sharks had some question in net when it came time for Mike Vernon to take a rest. This year, that is no longer a concern, as Shields has done an excellent job. One of the biggest criticisms of Shields going into the year was his ability to handle rebounds. Usually, that’s something that a goaltender has already gotten pretty good at by that time in his career, but was something Shields had trouble with the previous years. This year, that has not been as much of a problem. The rebounds he does let up aren’t as juicy as they once were. Right now, perhaps his biggest problem is his stickhandling, which right now, needs a lot of work, but is getting better. Whether he has the stuff to be the #1 man next year will be largely dependant on how he does as the year progresses and the start of next year, when it comes for him to play 2 games in 3 nights, instead of one game a week.
In Kentucky, the Sharks have John Nabokov playing quite well. Last year he struggled quite a lot, recording a record of 10-15-3, with a GAA of 3.77. He improved greatly as the year progressed, which leads many to believe that it was the adjustment to the North American game that was causing him to struggle. Last year was his first year in North America, after coming from Russia where he dominated. This year, he started off slow again, but did not take long for him to come around. His current stats (as of 12/29/98) are: 18GP, 2.08GAA with a save% of .924, 12-5-1 record, and now 5 shutouts, as he just finished shutting out Philadelphia as I’m writing this. (the other stats do not reflect the shutout he just recorded on 12/30). He and Sean Gauthier still share much of the time, but Nabby has gotten much of the starts as of late, and is starting the bigger games. Many expect him to take over the full starting job after the All-Star break. I would like to see how he does as the full fledged number one man in Kentucky before I see him in San Jose. If he continues to impress there as the #1, there’s a chance he could be ready to backup in San Jose as early as next year.
In Richmond of the ECHL the Sharks have Terry Friesen, which could be experiencing some of the problems that John Nabokov suffered from last year. This is Friesen’s first year in professional hockey after coming over from the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL. Friesen dominated at the WHL level, either leading or the runner up in just about all categories, and runner up in Goalie of the Year honors. However, after being assigned to Kentucky immediately after the Sharks training camp, he struggled, and was sent to Richmond of the ECHL, where he continues to struggle… His play as of late is starting to come around, but has not yet earned the starting role in Richmond, and is splitting time. He has played in 15 games, with a record of 5-8, with a 3.96GAA and a .882 save%. A likely scenario would be for him to go to Kentucky next year, and either back up John Nabokov after Gauthier leaves. Another possible scenario would be in the case where Nabokov was called up to San Jose, then likely he would back up either Gauthier or one of the European goalies who could possibly make their North American debuts.
In the college scene, the Sharks have Michel Larocque as the starting goalie at Boston University. The last three years he has shared the starting job with Tom Noble, a Chicago Blackhawk prospect. This year the Boston University hockey program has gone through a bit of a rebuilding phase, as it is a very young team, especially on defense. Due in part because of a very weak defense in front of him, and due largely in part due to inconsistent play by Larocque, he got off to a horrible start, going five games before he got a win. Now, he has come back on strong, and is playing very solid, and is back to being one of the top goalies that he was last year and the year before… His stats are: 10 games played with a GAA of 3.39, and a save% of .898. His record stands at 5-4-1. As you can tell, if it took him 5 games to get his first win, you can tell the kind of run he’s been on of late. While he may have started off slow, this could very well be attributed to the fact that he was unfamiliar with the defense in front of him, and that he was spending far to much time killing penalties. A lot of people questioned whether he had the fortitude to be the number one man, which obviously, would be a problem if he eventually made the NHL. I guess we’ll see as the year progresses to see whether he can maintain his status as one of the top young goalies in college. It is possible that he could play in Kentucky next year, but more likely that he would be playing in Richmond of the ECHL if the above scenarios come true.
The Sharks have a couple goaltenders in Europe as well who are highly regarded by some… Vesa Toskala is playing in Finland, who many compare to Dominic Hasek. Not in his stats, or how good they expect him to be, but in his style… He doesn’t really have much of a style, but he gets the job done. Last year he led his team to the Finish Finals last year. He has struggled a little bit this year, as it would seem that players are being far more successful when they’re going to the upper corners hard. Considering that shots in the NHL have some serious velocity to them, this is something he’ll have to improve upon. Another goalie who’s stock has risen some of late is Miika Kiprusoff. Many people will tell you that Kipper is the best goalie in Sweden, and they very well may be right… He has been very strong of late… I saw a game a few weeks ago that I was in absolute awe of. 3 on none… He stopped the first shot, big rebound, over the right side, blast up high, shot that, deflected to the boards, wrapped around, stopped that too… I nearly fell off my chair when I saw him do that. It was really something… There have been rumors of the Sharks trying to bring him over here. It’s reported that last summer the Sharks were close to signing him, but couldn’t get it done before the season started. Dean Lombardi was quoted as saying that they’ll probably be bringing over one of the goalies from Europe “not to long from now,” but that was a few months ago, so we shall see if that happens next summer. If that does happen, I would predict him playing somewhere in the IHL, where the bigger competition would benefit him more.
Near the start of the year, Sharks GM Dean Lombardi was quoted as saying that the Sharks could be interested in drafting a goalie with one of their first picks in the next draft. He pointed out that the earliest the Sharks have ever drafted a goalie was in mid rounds. The earliest being Terry Friesen in the 3rd round. This brings up an interesting question. Right now, the top goaltender for the 1999 draft is scheduled to go around #7-10. If the Sharks find themselves drafting in one of those positions, do they go with the goalie, or go with a center that could also be available at that time which they also need? Do they trust the goaltending prospects in the 2nd round to be strong enough to possibly make an impact? All this will certainly sort itself out later in the year when two things occur: 1) when the Sharks find out better where they’ll be drafting, and 2) the players for the 99 draft sort themselves out better to where they’ll go. If they’re picking around #15, then the next best goaltending prospect may not be till the 2nd round, so do they trade down, up, stay where they are and pick the next best player? Once again, tune in later this year for a better grasp of this question…
In my next article, I’ll cover some of the talent from Europe. Including names such as Miroslav Zalesak who is currently playing in the World Junior Championship for Slovakia, the above named goaltenders a little bit, and also a couple names who are gone, forgotten by some, but definitely not forgotten by all. That’s coming up soon…