The importance of a team’s depth at all positions was proven last year when at various times in the season many of the Sharks top players such as Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse and Steve Shields missed games due to injuries or suspensions. Without the contributions of players like Tony Granato, Jim Montgomery and Bill Lindsay, it is hard to say where the Sharks would have finished in the playoff race. Particularly Granato filled a role where he patched holes where necessary; ending up playing 61 games in what will likely be his last NHL season.
As the Sharks close in on training camp, the core of their team remains in tact. The addition of Adam Graves and the retention of Gary Suter gives the Sharks four solid scoring lines and three experienced defensive pairings. The only players still unsigned are defenseman Mike Rathje, center Patrick Marleau, and right wing Todd Harvey.
Last season it was the Sharks forward lines that were plagued by the injury bug. With Nolan missing 25 games due to various injuries and a 12-game suspension by the NHL, and Damphousse missing almost half the season with a shoulder injury, the Sharks were without their two best players, much of which at the same time. At various other times the Sharks were without the services of Scott Thornton who played a key role in the Sharks’ strong third line and Todd Harvey who played strong on the fourth.
While it is expected that the Sharks will sign someone like Jim Montgomery, currently, the Sharks will be forced to look to some of their youth for help. Players who played key roles in Kentucky last season such as Chris Lipsett, Jarrett Dueling and Larry Courville are either no longer Sharks property or unrestricted free agents.
A player who will be asked to take on more of a role than he played last year is centerman Mark Smith. Smith played sparingly in 41 games last season while centering the fourth line. Smith likely stands to inherit much of Granato’s old role with the team.
Smith is a prototypical third or fourth line player. He will likely never be a huge scoring threat in the NHL, but he can be counted upon to play solid defense and may be the team’s best man in the face-off circle. A 1997 ninth round pick, nobody expected Smith to make it this far, but he is taking pride in proving them wrong.
Drafted in 1995 by San Jose, Ryan Kraft has taken a long road to the NHL. After finishing his college eligibility, he attended Sharks camp on a tryout basis, earning a spot on the team’s ECHL affiliate in Richmond. He played his way through the ECHL, making it to Kentucky in the 1999-00 season. Last season, Kraft led Kentucky in goals (38), assists (50), power play goals (13) and short-handed goals (7).
His efforts last season earned him a promotion to San Jose during the playoffs after his season in Kentucky was over. He didn’t play in any games, but the promotion could serve as a positive omen to the future for him.
Kraft stands an excellent chance to make the Sharks next season at some point if he can maintain his level of play. Another thing that makes Kraft an attractive candidate for promotion is his versatility. He can play any of the forward positions in any situation. While Sutter likely wouldn’t use him to kill penalties, he could be used in all other situations on any line at any position.
A Shark who has a chance to make the team directly out of training camp is right wing Jonathan Cheechoo. The weak point for him has always been his skating, which at times has been atrocious. However, over the summer he has made remarkable strides in his skating. He has turned his skating into what was once a serious issue into what would have to be considered average among NHL players.
Cheechoo has a tremendous amount of natural skill. He can put moves on the goalie or defenseman that simply put you in awe. One can make an easy case that Cheechoo possesses more natural ability than any other Shark prospect. At this point the only thing that stands in Cheechoo’s way is the position he plays—right wing.
Last season the Sharks defense remained remarkably healthy. Only Suter and Marcus Ragnarsson missed any significant playing time, both missing 14 games due to injury. However, despite the healthy blueline, the three players that consisted of the seventh defenseman (Shawn Heins, Bobby Dollas and Jeff Norton) combined to play 64 games for the Sharks, 38 of them by Heins, the only one left of the group.
Heins will remain a key depth player for the Sharks. As an everyday player he has certain weaknesses that would be exploited. However, against certain teams, he provides certain skills, most notably a shot recorded into the 100 mph range that can help win games, and give older players such as Suter and Bryan Marchment a rest.
The Sharks also have one of the top defensive prospects in Jeff Jillson who will be battling for roster spot next season. With the recent re-signing of Heins, Jillson will likely play much of the season in Cleveland, the team’s new AHL home, but if Jillson plays well there he would likely be first in line for a promotion to San Jose.
However, with Mike Rathje currently without a contract in place, and Brad Stuart already questionable for the start of the season with a shoulder injury, Jillson could find himself with a spot on the roster quicker than even he may have expected.
A fear of many teams is rushing a player too quickly to the NHL, ruining his mental state of mind. In this case the Sharks have the luxury of not having this worry to quite the same extent. Jillson is a very intelligent young player who is very aware of where he’s at in his hockey career and what he needs to do to improve. He understands that setbacks can and will occur, and responds accordingly. If the Sharks do need his help immediately to start the season, they will not have to worry about wrecking his promise for the future.
A depth player that played a key role in Kentucky last year was Steve Bancroft who has been playing in the AHL or IHL for the last ten years with one NHL game in 1993 with Chicago. An original first round draft pick of Toronto before the Sharks existed in 1989, Bancroft has played key roles in several team’s minor league affiliates, providing teams with a depth player who if needed, they could call upon for help.
Bancroft isn’t going to come in and save the Sharks’ defense. If they suffer enough injuries that would require another full-time defenseman, they would likely search the trade market rather than rely on Bancroft for an entire season. However, should a player go down for three or four games and they’re in need of some immediate, short-term help, Bancroft very well may be a suitable choice.
The final Sharks defenseman who may be in line for a spot on the Sharks blueline is Robert Jindrich. In the 1999-00 season, his first in North America, he did nothing but impress. He was one of the team’s top defensemen and was a big part of the team’s offense, making key passes at key times. Although not a big player at 5’11, he used his body when necessary and was a good skater as well.
However, in the 2000-01 season he started slow and stayed that way. At times he was a defensive liability, where in 1999-00 it wasn’t even an issue. While his scoring was similar in both years, last season he only seemed to score when the game was already out of reach. He also avoided contact too much, possibly a result of preseason injuries, and had trouble moving the puck.
If Jindrich can return to his form of 1999-00 he could easily find himself in line for a promotion to San Jose. Particularly with former depth players such as Dave MacIsaac and Greg Andrusak unrestricted free agents, if neither re-signs, that could propel Jindrich to the top of the defensive chart in Cleveland.
If the season started today the Sharks only have five experienced defensemen ready to play: Marcus Ragnarsson, Gary Suter, Bryan Marchment, Shawn Heins and Scott Hannan. Even if they get Rathje signed immediately, the will not be able to rely on Stuart for some time yet, leaving them with the bare minimum of defensemen.
The Sharks proved the importance of depth at goaltending last season when opening night starter Steve Shields suffered an ankle injury in the team’s second game of the season. The injury allowed Evegni Nabokov to start several games in a row, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, the starting tandem is Nabokov and rookie Miikka Kiprusoff who played in five regular season games last season.
Should either go down with injury, the next in line will be Vesa Toskala who inherited the starting job in Kentucky last season when Kiprusoff was called up to San Jose after the Shields trade. While Toskala is not yet ready to be a starting goaltender in the NHL, he would be a serviceable backup to either Nabokov or Kiprusoff.
Kiprusoff is a restricted free agent, which could potentially give Toskala an opportunity. However, Kiprusoff’s contract shouldn’t be one that would stretch far into training camp, as it’s a relatively simple contract to negotiate given his experience.
If it was Nabokov who suffered the injury, Kiprusoff would then be the starter, but Toskala would receive a decent number of games, as the Sharks wouldn’t want to overwhelm Kiprusoff in a season that includes several back-to-back games. If Kiprusoff were the one injured, Toskala wouldn’t likely see much time as Nabokov is used to playing several games in a short time span.
The Sharks have been lucky enough in past seasons not to have injuries mount up. In the 1999-00 season they suffered almost no injuries at all, staying one of the healthiest teams in the league. While last year they suffered three injuries to three key players, those were the only major injuries they suffered the entire season.
If San Jose is lucky enough to have three seasons in a row where the team’s health stays in tact, all this will become a moot issue. However, the likelihood of luck striking three years in a row is no guarantee and not even likely. Every team needs to have players who can fill in when necessary, and the Sharks are lucky enough to have players help their team battle through such injuries.