In this article, we cover the progress of some of the rookies and freshmen on the Sharks roster as we enter the playoffs. Last year, the Sharks had perhaps the best trio of rookies, in Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, and Andrei Zyuzin. This year, the Sharks have had another group of rookies, who may not have been as touted as the above mentioned three, but have done fine jobs as well. Alex Korolyuk and Andy Sutton are the two main factors. Scott Hannan and Shawn Heins each played in five games for the Sharks, but due to limited games played, will not be included.
Patrick Marleau is one of the highest touted rookies to come along the NHL in a very long time. Recently, he admitted that he was not prepared for last years playoff series vs. the Dallas Stars, and that is partly what accounted for his poor performance (only scoring one assist). This year, it is reported that he left practice with five videos under his arm, and has prepared himself for the rigors of the playoff run better. In 81 games, Marleau has 21 goals, 8 more than last year and 24 assists, 5 more than last year (last year he played in 74 games). Despite the increased numbers, he did suffer through a “sophomore slump.” In the first 42 games of the year, Marleau scored 7 goals and 9 assists for only 16 points. In the final 42, he scored 14 goals and 16 assists for a very respectable 30 points. Also keep in mind that Marleau is three years younger than that of the main candidates for Rookie of the Year in the NHL, and it is remarkable how well Marleau is improving. Often times, you can’t help but cringe at a bad turnover, or a “rookie mistake” that he may make. But he’s still a teenager and has fantastic skill. Look for him to be something special in a few years. This will be an interesting playoff series for Marleau to see how he plays into that new stage of development.
Perhaps the biggest improvement in Marco Sturm this year has nothing to do with his actual play. Last year, it was easy to tell that Sturm was beginning to feel fatigued from the much longer NHL. In Germany, his entire year consisted of about 50 games, in the NHL, he played in nearly twice as many adding pre-season and playoffs. This year, his play has remained consistent throughout the year. He has gone through goal scoring slumps (the longest of which was 12 games), but if he wasn’t scoring goals, he was always setting them up. For instance, during that 12 game goal drought, he still contributed with a respectable 4 assists (which was a lot given that at the time, the entire team was in a horrid goal drought). And every game, his defense remained solid, and did all that was asked of him. Sturm’s +7 is indicative of his play this year, solidly in the plus column. Sturm suffered a hyper-extended knee April 12th vs. Edmonton. He sat out the remaining two games, but he is probable to play in the playoffs.
There’s no player in the league, young or old, who had a weirder year than Andrei Zyuzin. Zyuzin started the season in San Jose, but the reason was not because of great play by Zyuzin, but rather because of injuries to Marcus Ragnarsson and Gary Suter. Then, in November, he was assigned to the Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL, and that’s when the weirdness began. Zyuzin refused the assignment, and now that we see what was going on, there are questions whether the bad advice he was getting recently, was being given then too. After serving a brief suspension for not reporting, he did go to Kentucky, and then got called up again in January, playing in his first game back in SJ on February 1st. From then, he played respectable minutes, getting in 11 games, and then before the teams plane flight to Boston on March 20th, he suddenly disappeared. Questions were raised, and fears were brought up that Vitali Shevchenko, an uncertified agent, was extorting Zyuzin for money, threatening to harm Zyuzin’s family back in Russia. There have been rumors swirling around that Shevchenko has been involved in the Russian Mafia scandal that effected Pavel Bure, and some other Russian players a few years ago.
As far as his play goes, it’s been about as up and down as his off-ice problems have been. There have been games where he’s looked very impressive, showing why he was chosen 2nd overall in 1996. In other games, it’s looked as though you wonder why he was drafted at all. He has improved his play as the season goes on, and next year will be interesting. Next year he has a job that is his to lose. The Sharks probably want him to learn from Gary Suter, which was a big blow to him when Suter was lost for the year before the year even started. Zyuzin has been suspended for the first two Sharks playoff games, it is unknown how much, if at all he’ll play in the playoffs.
The 6’6 Andy Sutton has been a pleasant surprise this year for the Sharks. Sutton has played in 31 games this year, often being paired with 6’5 Mike Rathje on the blueline, creating perhaps the tallest defensive pair in the NHL. Sutton’s play hasn’t been particularly impressive comparing him to other rookies throughout the NHL, but given that it was expected that he wouldn’t make it to the NHL for another couple years, just the fact that he made it all is an accomplishment. When looking at unsung heroes of the Sharks this year, the Sharks can look at Sutton as one of them. When Marchment missed almost 20 games in the middle of the year, Sutton stepped in very nicely, providing the physical presence that was lost by Marchment being out. Don’t look for Sutton to see any playoff time with the Sharks this year however.
And last but certainly not least would have to be San Jose’s version of Theo Fleury — Alex Korolyuk. “Korky” as he’s become known to Shark fans has immediately become a fan favorite in San Jose. In 55 games with the Sharks, he has 12 goals and 18 assists, and every one of his goals seems to be highlight goals. Not only have they been pretty goals, but also they have been at key times. Many of his goals have come as the first goal to spark a comeback by the Sharks. Perhaps the biggest reason San Jose has instantly adopted Korky as their own, is that at 5’9 Korolyuk is absolutely fearless. He will take a run at any and all players. Versus Edmonton, he went behind the net, and took a run at Marty McSorely. Korky didn’t exactly get the best of the hit, as he bounced off Marty more than anything, but showed a lot of guts nonetheless (although not necessarily a lot of brains). And to show that Korky is an equal opportunity hitter, he got thrown out of the final game of the year vs. Anaheim for a confrontation with Paul Kariya. Korky will keep his opponents honest. If you give Korky a little bit of room, he’ll make you pay.
What makes Korolyuk’s year even a bit more interesting is that Darryl Sutter expected Korolyuk to make the team out of training camp, but Korolyuk did not impress him at all. Sutter chose to send him to Kentucky of the AHL for further seasoning, and Kentucky Head Coach Roy Sommer wasn’t even sure if he belonged there, as he considered sending him to Richmond of the ECHL. However, Sommer decided to stick with Korky, and he didn’t disappoint. Korolyuk played well in Kentucky, especially after the first month of the year, and then earned his job in San Jose, where he has stayed since. Look for Korolyuk to see a fair chunk of ice time in their playoff series vs. Colorado. Even though Korky doesn’t have any playoff experience, he does fit the type of player that the Sharks will need against a tough Colorado team. It will be interesting to see how he performs in his first playoff series.
The Sharks have a very impressive class of rookies and sophomores. Along with other fine young players such as Jeff Friesen, Mike Rathje and goaltender Steve Shields, the Sharks’ future looks very bright. Next year expect to see the names of either Brad Stuart or Scott Hannan mentioned a lot, as one of them will be the rookie d-man for the Sharks next year. Mark Smith and Matt Bradley could see limited duty with the Sharks if injuries become a problem, but don’t expect to see them start the year with the Sharks unless they do something between now and September to raise their stock. Within two-three years, expect to see Stuart, Hannan, Bradley and Smith, in addition to Adam “The Wild Card” Colagiacomo, Jonathan Cheechoo, Eric LaPlante, and goaltender John Nabokov.