Major Potential in Major Juniors for San Jose

By Kevin Wey

Although the Sharks have not had selected many players from the major junior ranks in the past couple drafts, the Sharks still have five players that should all play in the AHL someday and most should eventually challenge for NHL spots.

It’s a close battle between center Tomas Plihal (pronounced Plee-hahl), right wing Ryan Clowe, center Kris Newbury, defenseman Josh Gorges, and left wing Jonas Fiedler for the top spot, but Czech center Plihal is probably the Sharks’ top prospect in major juniors. Plihal, a center for the Kootenay Ice of the WHL, had 13 goals and 22 assists in 34 games for the Ice, good for third in Ice-scoring behind 2004 Draft-eligible Nigel Dawes and Canadiens’ prospect Duncan Milroy. The 6’3” 192 pound native of Frydlant, will be representing the Czech Republic in the World Junior Championships starting Dec. 26 in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. As the Sharks’ 5th round pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, the 140th pick overall has definitely been worth his selection, and was signed to a contract by the Sharks in training camp, but re-assigned to Kootenay. Plihal could have been assigned to Cleveland because when Plihal was drafted he was playing in his native Czech Republic: It wasn’t until after he was drafted that he came to North America to play major juniors.

Hockey’s Future WHL writer Tom Hoffert says that, “Plihal is a typical Euro in the WHL, dominate some nights, non-existent others.” Plihal has been named the “First Star” of six games so far this season. Although the intensity of Plihal’s play may waver from time to time, Plihal’s production has been rather consistent over the course of the season, and he’s only missed two games, one of which was Kootenay’s first game of the season while Plihal had been re-assigned to his junior club on the same day (Sept. 20). While Plihal’s 50 penalty minutes may feign rough play, many of his penalties have been of the obstruction variety. Hoffert says that Plihal will make the occasional open-ice hit and that Plihal is unafraid to go into the corners.

Hoffert also considers Plihal a play-making center with gifted stickhandling, which the Ice utilize often on the power play, where Plihal has five goals and seven assists. Plihal’s shorthanded production isn’t too shabby either, with a short-handed goal and three assists on the penalty kill.

Plihal will likely be in Cleveland next season, and Plihal is a somewhat special prospect for San Jose in that he’s a forward (he can play both wings if needed) that has some size, but is also putting up decent numbers offensively. At 192 pounds, the Sharks will probably want to boost Plihal’s weight by twenty pounds (of muscle of course), but there’s really no rush on getting Plihal to the NHL. Plihal might serve as an interest center for Slovakian right wing Miroslav Zalesak, assuming Zalesak is in Cleveland next season, but the line would have to be off-set by a more physical veteran left-wing. (Scott Thomas?)

One of the teams the Ice is chasing in the B.C. Division is the Kelowna Rockets, who for some odd reason, feature a dragon as their logo. During the first quarter of the Rockets’ season, defenseman Josh Gorges was on a torrid scoring pace; among the leaders in the WHL in defensive scoring. In his first two games back with the Rockets, after missing a game while in transit from San Jose, Gorges was named the “First Star” of the game. Gorges third game, against the Seattle Thunderbirds, saw Gorges earn two assists on the power play and rack up 15 penalty minutes in a line brawl. The 6’0” 180 pound Gorges, who is an assistant captain of the Rockets, earned one more First Star and a Second Star and a Third Star along the way before he suffered a tear in his MCL against the Vancouver Giants on Nov. 9. Gorges, who said he had never missed a game due to injury until this one, is expected to be out until mid-January.

In his 19 games, Gorges tallied three goals and 15 assists, and is still 7th on his team in scoring despite having missed 15 games so far. The knee injury also caused Gorges to miss a Hershey Cup game between the WHL Western Conference All-Stars and the OHL Eastern Conference All-Stars. (The WHL team, which also featured Plihal, won the game, earning the WHL the Hershey Cup for the first time in the Cup’s three-year existence.)

Gorges, born in 1984, but passed up in two NHL Entry Drafts, was thus eligible to be signed as a free agent, which the Sharks did on Sept. 20 after Gorges impressed the team in training camp. Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton says that Gorges will remain with Kelowna for this season and also next season, meaning the somewhat-diminutive defenseman will have until Sept. of 2004 to bulk up a bit to take the rigors of an 80 game AHL regular-season, or perhaps an NHL schedule.

The Sharks pulled off a major coup in signing the speedy Gorges, and the left-shooting native of Kelowna is already one of the Sharks best prospects as far as offensive-defensemen are concerned. Hoffert also notes that Gorges is rather decent in his own end, but offensive-defenseman are expected to play different game than say ex-Shark/current coach Rob Zettler. Gorges pure offensive abilities will be a welcome addition for Cleveland in 2004, but Gorges will have a tough time cracking the Sharks with fellow prospects Christian Ehrhoff, Jim Fahey, Jeff Jillson, and Doug Murray firmly ahead of him in the rankings. Tero Määttä, Jesse Fibiger, and David Cloutier should not be ignored either. (And Tim Conboy could leave college early if he and the Sharks so choose)

Another prospect who was signed in camp this Sept., but returned to his junior club was winger Ryane Clowe. The 6’2” 205 pound right-shooting winger was signed by the Sharks on Sept. 26, and even re-assigned to the Cleveland Barons’ training camp on his 20th birthday (Sept. 30), but the Sharks and Barons elected to return Clowe to juniors, where’d he be a leader on the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. After missing the Oceanic’s first nine games skating in professional training camps, Clowe set the QMJHL on fire, especially in his final twelve games with the Oceanic, in which he scored eight goals and 15 assists. Clowe also lost his temper often in his last four games with Rimouski, racking up 38 penalty minutes before being traded with Brent McLellan on Nov. 21 to the Montreal Rocket for Danick Jasmin-Riel, Erick Tremblay, and Montreal’s first round pick in the 2004 QMJHL Midget Draft.

Clowe’s stats with Rimouski ended up eight goals and 19 assists in 17 games, thanks in large part to a 10-game scoring streak to close out his time with the Oceanic. Even with Clowe, the Oceanic were a losing team, as the days of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards seem further and further away for Oceanic fans while the team languishes in dead-last in QMJHL standings.

The Rocket had hoped that Clowe would help propel them towards the top of the standings, but the team has a record of 3-6-2 since Clowe was acquired. That said, Clowe did have a five-game scoring streak after he was held off the board in his first game with the Rocket. However, in his last five games, Clowe has only one goal. With the Rocket, Clowe has three goals and five assists in eleven games, and 20 penalty minutes, playing on either the first or second line. For the entire season, Clowe only has one power play goal, although he has 13 assists on the power play.

Clowe was eligible to play in Cleveland this season, as he turned 20 three months before the Dec. 31 cut-off date for 19-year old CHLers to play in the AHL, instead of having to play major juniors again. While Clowe does have decent size and a scoring touch, there are concerns about his skating at the pro level. Clowe, who will drop the gloves occasionally, should be able to latch onto Cleveland as a 3rd or 4th line player next year, based largely on his abilities along the boards. Despite concerns about his skating, the same was said for Jonathan Cheechoo as well, and Clowe has a bit of a nasty streak in him which Cheechoo doesn’t have. At the very least, Clowe should have a long career in the upper minor leagues, but its possible he could be a 4th-liner for San Jose in the future, although he doesn’t have the speed of Mark Smith, Matt Bradley, or Lynn Loyns. Clowe does possess many subtleties, like his board work, which should allow him to succeed at the pro level. (Although, I said the same thing about Willie Levesque late last year.)

Along the lines of Smith, Bradley, and Loyns is center Kris Newbury of the Sarnia Sting. Hockey’s Future OHL writer Brad Coccimiglio says Newbury “is an offensive threat every time he touches the puck.” Newbury’s 19 goals in 32 games would seem to confirm this. The 5’11” 192 pound center (note similarity to Smith) also has 16 assists. Newbury, one of the Sharks’ 5th round picks (139th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, is a regular contributor on the power play and also kills penalties regularly. Newbury also gets penalties regularly, as he has 116 PIM, 25 of which are from fights. Newbury has fought Kingston’s Scott Maher, Brampton’s Stuart Simmons, Missasauga’s Dan Bucella (on the opening face-off of a game no less), Sault Ste. Marie’s Brad Staubitz, and Kitchener’s Andre Benoit. Four 10-minute misconducts also pile on the penalty minutes. (I’m aware the OHL’s website says 76 minutes, but compiled game-stats of my own say 116.)

Newbury, who turns 21 on Feb. 19 next year, will be out of major junior eligibility, and it is unlikely the Sharks will just let him go elsewhere, as he’s too good to let get away. The likelihood of Newbury coming to Cleveland next season means centers like Graig Mischler and Pat Rissmiller really have to perform. (And Plihal is a center as well) It’s difficult to know whether or not Ryan Kraft will be up in San Jose, in Cleveland, or elsewhere. The same is true for veteran minor-leaguer Jeff Nelson, currently playing for the Barons as well. Chad Wiseman also plays center. (Wiseman and Rissmiller have both been known to play left wing) Either way, the Sharks are going to face a log-jam of forwards next year, especially at the AHL level unless some players do not return.

Left wing Jonas Fiedler rounds out the major junior contingent for the Sharks. Fiedler, the Sharks 3rd round pick (86th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, has generally seen third-line duty with the Plymouth Whalers this season. The 18-year old Czech has four goals and 12 assists in 33 games, along with 35 penalty minutes. Fiedler’s +9 rating is the highest of any Shark CHL prospect. (One ahead of Gorges and Newbury) Plymouth currently leads the OHL’s West Division, also ahead of one third-place Sarnia Sting.

Fiedler, a right-shooting left wing, is tall at 6’3”, but lanky at 177 pounds. Fiedler does have a physical side, and has fought Sault Ste. Marie’s Sean Stefanski and Missasauga’s Derek Lyons. Fiedler was named the “First Star of the Game” Oct. 18 vs. Windsor. In fact, from Oct. 18 through Oct. 30 Fiedler went on a mini-tear, scoring a goal and six assists in six games, registering a +6 rating.

The Sharks drafted Fiedler based on his upside and the fact they expected him to play more this season in Plymouth. Last season Fiedler totaled eight goals, 12 assists, and 27 penalty minutes in 68 games. Fiedler should easily surpass those totals and will still have another season or two in major juniors before coming to the AHL in ’04 or possibly ’05. (Or the Sharks could do what they did with David Thibeault, Cory Cyrenne, Cam Severson, Eric Betournay, and others, and just not sign him.)

The CHL returns to actions on Dec. 27, and the World Junior Championships start on Dec. 26, so these Shark prospects, except for Gorges, should be back in action shortly.