There are a lot of scouts throughout the NHL who will tell you that the San Jose Sharks have the best group of young defensemen in their system than any other team in the NHL. Included in this list are players such as: Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, Andrei Zyuzin, Mike Rathje, and more… What makes San Jose’s defensemen so appealing, is not only that they’re good, not only that they have more than a few of them, but that they have all different types, for a well rounded defense as well. While every team wants to have a specific direction, you also want some variety. They have big guys, smaller guys, and everything in between. What I intend here is to go through some of San Jose’s main defensive young guys, and let you know what to possibly expect in the future from them.
The Sharks best prospect back on defense is also one of the NHLs top 10 prospects-Brad Stuart. Stuart had what can only be best described as a “so-so” World Junior Tournament. Defensively, he wasn’t that bad, he was holding his own, and you couldn’t really say that he was horribly guilty of any serious lapses. However, he was not as effective on offense, or on the PP as many had hoped. He only scored one assist in the tournament (against Finland), no goals, although he did have a few very good chances in the first game vs. the Czech Republic. This led many people to worry about Stuart, fearing that if he can’t handle big games, he won’t be able to handle the NHL. This is definitely true, but one tournament does not make or break a player. While the Islanders can and should look at Robert Luongo for his strong play, they can’t look at it and determine that he’s going to be a Hall of Fame goalie. Nor can the Sharks look at Stuart’s performance, and conclude that he’s a bust. Keep in mind that this is his first WJC tournament, and was less experienced than most players at such games. Stuart was traded to the Calgary Hitmen a couple weeks ago to hopefully help surge Calgary to the Memorial Cup. Keep in mind also that Sharks Head Coach, Darryl Sutter, was quoted as saying that he was one of the best players in training camp, but decided to send him back to the WHL at the last minute, feeling he would learn more there. I strongly agree with this move, and feel you’ll probably see him in San Jose next year, and maybe even once his WHL season is over. Stuart has 13 goals, 9 of which on the power play, 28 assists, and 53 minutes in the penalty box in 37 games for Calgary, and Regina this year.
Another young defenseman the Sharks have waiting in the wings is 20 year old, Scott Hannan. Hannan started the year with the San Jose Sharks, sticking with the team until mid-November, but only playing in 5 games. The Sharks decided that he would be better off playing in Kelowna of the WHL, than sitting in San Jose, and it was probably a wise choice. Hannan continues to play his very typical game. There’s nothing about him that totally sticks out, but he continues to play a very solid game. No one particular thing has come up to the forefront, but his all-around game continues to elevate. He regularly plays 30+ minutes a game, and has been one of the leaders on the Kelowna Rockets. He was one of the last cuts for the Canadian National Junior team for the WJC, which angered many people, wondering why they made that decision. Oddly enough, Hannan, like Stuart, has been the subject of trade rumors of late also. This due to the fact that the Kelowna Rockets will most likely miss the playoffs this year, and since Hannan will probably be with the Sharks next year, they would like to get a young kid for him now while they still can… Hannan has 4 goals, 3 on the power play, 20 assists, and 59 penalty minutes in 24 games. Most of his time missed was due to the time he has spent with the Sharks. One thing that does scare me with Hannan is his history of concussions. He has had a few of them in his brief hockey career, and had another minor one this year. Hannan will also likely be here next year.
Andrei Zyuzin is a player who in my opinion, is being used completely the wrong way by San Jose. They brought Zyuzin back up to the Sharks when Bryan Marchment got injured, but just played his first game on the 1st. Zyuzin was assigned to the Kentucky Thoroughblades back in late October, but refused the assignment for about a week, missing 3 games, resulting in him getting suspended by the team, and getting in Darryl Sutter’s doghouse. Reports were that he was out of the doghouse, since Sutter chalked it up to “the mistakes of youth,” but since he has only played in such limited time, you have to wonder. In that one game that he played, I think he played very well, and I think Sutter was also impressed, at least a little bit. Sutter was quoted as saying “he brought a lot of energy to the team,” and given that the Sharks got out of a 2+ game scoring slump. He was moving the puck very well, playing a lot of time on the PP, and I didn’t notice any defensive lapse on his part. I would fully expect him to get more time as the year goes on. If he doesn’t, then questions will have to be asked to his future with the team…
Probably the biggest surprise of the year for the Sharks is the play of Andy Sutton. Last year, the Sharks signed Sutton, coming out of college, expecting that he would be a project. Dean Lombardi was quoted as saying that he’s probably a good 3 years away from the NHL. No one would have guessed that he would be a regular on the Sharks the very next year. Sutton’s case is largely a case of in the right place at the right time… Gary Suter was out for the start (and the entirety as it turned out) of the season, Mike Rathje was missing for much of training camp negotiating a contract, and Marcus Ragnarsson was out for the first month of the schedule with a thumb injury. This gave Sutton time to play in preseason games, where he simply made the most of his opportunity. Now that Bryan Marchment has fallen victim of a knee injury, it has created a need for a guy who can hit, and Sutton has done that very well in his absence. Sutton has had what you would expect from a rookie-ups and downs. He has racked up frequent flier miles to and from Kentucky and San Jose, but it looks like he’s here to stay now, especially given the injury to Marchment. In the last month, he has been teamed with fellow big man, Mike Rathje, another young defenseman, although one who has been with the team for a while. In my opinion, Mike Rathje is not only one of the most underrated players, but one of the most abused by the fans. He has literally gotten blamed for goals scored, that are not only clearly not his fault, but even goals that were scored while not on the ice… He has struggled the last few games, and was the man to sit last game where Zyuzin finally got a game. All that aside though, Andy Sutton has been a very pleasant surprise, bringing a physical presence to the ice that the Sharks desperately need.
Playing for the Canadian National Team, is Shawn Heins, another big, young defenseman, with a very hard shot. The Sharks signed Heins last year, also out of the IHL where he was playing very well… It was reported that eight different teams were talking to him about signing, but he decided to go with the Sharks. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come up with a lot of information on Heins this year, nor have I seen him play in any games yet. I understand he’s been very solid playing for Team Canada, chipping in 4 goals and 14 assists in 31 games. As well, he won the hardest shot contest in the UHL, breaking former Shark Al Iafrate’s record, blasting a shot of 106.0mph, and then also won the fastest skater competition, with a time of 13.984 seconds. Heins is already 25 years old, quite old for a rookie, but look for him to possibly be in a Sharks uniform sometime next year.
A defenseman who is no doubt a project player for the Sharks is Jim Fahey, playing for NorthEastern University. Last year, Fahey captained his Catholic Memorial high school team to an undefeated season. This year, as a rookie on a very young NorthEastern team, with only one senior (a center), and only four juniors (all forwards). The entire defensive core, consists of freshmen and sophmores, and you could make a strong case that he’s been their #1 dman, as a rookie. That’s a tough job for any player, let along a kid 19 years old. If you believe the roster, he’s grown over an inch since he was drafted as well. Fahey has 4 goals and 14 assists in 23 games this year, and has been hampered somewhat by an injured wrist, which he has finally taken a couple games off to allow heal. Look for Fahey to possibly make a name for himself in the next year or two playing in college, then possibly making the jump not to long after that to the NHL.
So do the Sharks have the best defensive core of young defensive talent in the NHL? I think you would be very hard pressed to find a team with better young talent than the Sharks currently have at this position. Just look at this list of legitimate defensive prospects for the Sharks (in no order): Heins, Sutton, Zyuzin, Stuart, Hannan, Fahey. There’s your starting six guys right there! And that doesn’t include Mike Rathje, who’s only 23, Marcus Ragnarsson who’s still just 27, and Bryan Marchment who still has a few good years left in him. Taking a look at a group of guys that deep, and you can not help but think that the Sharks will be strong at this position in years to come. There will certainly be a guy or two in that list who doesn’t work out. As big a fan as I am of Jim Fahey, I’m not betting my bottom dollar on him. But even given that, the Sharks will still have a solid blueline that they’ll need if they plan on contending for The Cup.