Although the Sharks’ major junior-contingent is constituted by only five players, four of the five have been major contributors to their teams’ success this season.
The Sharks top Canadian Hockey League prospect (CHL) this past regular season is probably 21-year old center Kris Newbury of the Sarnia Sting. Newbury was not signed by San Jose out of this year’s training camp, which Newbury attended, unlike a few other CHL prospects, but the Sharks’ 5th round pick, 139th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft managed to put up 34 goals and 58 assists for 92 points in 64 games. After the mid-season Christmas Break Newbury put up 54 points in 32 games as the Sting managed to finish 3rd in the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference with 90 points from a 41-19-7-1 record. The 5’11” 192-pound center finished second in goals, assists, and scoring for Sarnia, fourth in power play-goals with 11, led Sarnia with three short-handed goals. The scrappy Newbury also finished third in penalty minutes with 149 for the Sting, featuring nine fights during the season and six 10-minute misconducts, constituting 105 Newbury’s penalty minutes.
Newbury’s totals put him 9th in OHL-scoring, 8th in OHL-assists, 12th in power play assists in the OHL with 25, and 8th in the OHL with a plus/minus of 36. The assistant captain of the Sting also managed to finish 21st in OHL goal-scoring and 26th in penalty minutes.
For a comparison in Shark 4th line center Mark Smith’s final WHL campaign with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, the scrappy center put up 42 goals and 67 assists in 70 games, along with 206 penalty minutes as a 20-year old. Newbury turned 21 Feb. 19. Newbury and Smith obviously have some similarities, and hopefully San Jose signs Newbury over the summer to help bolster the Cleveland Baron’s line-up, where he may find himself competing with the recently acquire Brad Boyes and German prospect Marcel Goc for ice-time. Should those three be Cleveland’s first three centers next season, talent will not be lacking.
Sarnia, ranked 9th in the final regular-season BMO Bank of Montreal Top Ten Rankings, faces-off against the Guelph Storm in the OHL play-offs in a best-of-seven series starting Friday, Mar. 21.
The Sharks may have pulled off a major coup in signing the undrafted Gorges this past September out of training camp. The 18-year old defenseman, twice passed by NHL teams in the draft, was part of the Kelowna Rockets’ huge success this season as the top-ranked CHL team by the BMO Bank of Montreal Top Ten Rankings heading into the play-offs. Kelowna’s record was 51-14-6-1 for the season with 109 points; good for first in the WHL’s British Columbia Division, first in the Western Conference, and first overall, losing only four games after singing Auld Lang Syn to ring in the new year.
Gorges, who missed 17 games because of a torn MCL, returned to action Jan. 1, giving Kelowna three top-notch puckmoving defensemen in Nashville Predators prospect Tomas Slovak, Chicago Blackhawks prospect and college-defector Duncan Keith, and Gorges himself. Had Keith played the entire season in the WHL, (he played the Fall 2002 semester for Michigan State before moving to the WHL) the diminutive defenseman likely would have led the WHL in defense-scoring, which instead was taken by Gorges’ defense partner: Tomas Slovak. But Gorges had the same point per game average as Slovak at 1.09, based on 11 goals and 48 assists in 54 games. Despite missing 18 games this season, Gorges finished sixth on Kelowna in scoring, fifth in assists and fifth in power play-goals with 6.
At the league level, Gorges still managed to finish seventh in WHL defenseman-scoring, 3rd in WHL defenseman-assists, and tied for third with Slovak in WHL defenseman-point per games, behind Keith and Seattle’s Tomas Mozjis. When all players are factored in, Gorges still finished 21st in WHL-assists, seventh in power play-assists with 29 (Slovak was first with 41), and 18th in plus/minus at +27.
Gorges’ main knock, like Keith, is size, at 6’0” 180 pounds. Despite the need to put on some more muscle, Gorges is durable, as the torn MCL was the first injury Gorges’ career that caused him to miss a game. Still a young player, Gorges will play with the Rocket again next season, as the left-shooting native of Kelowna will be ineligible to play in the American Hockey League for the Barons because of his age. (The CHL has a rule that players must turn 20 on or before Dec. 31 of the current season in order to play the entire season in the AHL or any minor pro hockey league, such as the ECHL.)
Although undrafted, Gorges could end up one of the Sharks’ best prospects acquired in 2002 as a puck-moving defenseman, whom Slovak credits with helping solidify his own game. At the least, Gorges should end up an offensive weapon in the AHL, but the NHL cannot be ruled out, as the Sharks could use defensemen with Gorges’ playmaking abilities to complement Jim Fahey. A consistent contributor, Gorges managed a 10-game point streak from Sept. 21 through Oct. 12, and a 6-game streak Feb. 21 through Mar. 1. (Gorges managed at least one point in 40 of his 54 games.)
Kelowna, a favorite to win the Memorial Cup, starts their play-off drive against the Vancouver Giants Saturday, Mar. 22.
Competing with Kelowna in the B.C. Division is Plihal’s Kootenay Ice, who finished third in the B.C. with 83 points based on a 36-25-6-5 record. (One point behind the second-place Kamloops Blazers) The 19-year old Czech center, who turns 20 next week on Mar. 28, put up 35 goals and 42 assists in 67 games. Plihal’s totals put him second on the Ice in scoring, second in goals, fourth in assists, third in power play goals in 12, second in short-handed goals with three, and sixth in penalty minutes with 113. Don’t be deceived by Plihal’s penalty minutes, they do not derive from tough play, they derive from many obstruction-related penalties. The 6’3” 192-pound 5th round draft pick (140th overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft) Czech did manage three 10-minute misconducts, and one fight in a line-brawl against Red Deer Jan. 10. (Said line-brawl also earned Plihal one of his 10-minute misconducts.)
Plihal’s offensive exploits put him 24th in WHL scoring, 22nd in WHL goal-scoring, 39th in WHL-assists, 30th in power play-goals with 12, 21st in power play-assists with 24. On eight occasions Plihal opened scoring, good for 5th in the WHL, and had six insurance-goals for Kootenay, good for 11th in the WHL.
As previously reported, Hockey’s Future writer Tom Hoffert has said that, “Plihal is a typical Euro in the WHL: dominates some nights, non-existent others.” Demonstrating his abilities to dominate, Plihal was named the game’s “First Star” in nine contests. Like Miroslav Zalesak before him, Plihal will have the opportunity to round out his game in Cleveland next season, as the Czech was signed last fall before being assigned to Kootenay. (Plihal could have been assigned to Cleveland had the Sharks wanted, as he was drafted out of the Czech Republic, not the WHL.) Although Plihal’s effort can be questioned, he did manage a nine-game point streak Dec. 27 through Jan. 11, in which he compiled seven goals and seven assists. After a one-game scoring lapse against Lethbridge Jan. 12, Plihal managed six points in his next four games (Jan. 17 through Jan 25), tally in each game. From Feb. 1 through Feb. 14 Plihal had a six-game scoring streak with two goals and fives assists.
Plihal did miss three games Feb. 28 through Mar. 2, ending his two-month tour of scoring excellence after the WHL’s Christmas Break, injured by a kneeing penalty by fellow Shark prospect Josh Gorges.
The Czech finished the season strong and Kootenay now hopes that Plihal can play his best as the Ice face the Kamloops Blazers Friday, Mar. 21 to kick off a best-of-seven series against the division rival.
Clowe, the pride of St. John’s, Newfoundland, had another good QMJHL season, only this season Clowe was traded from the Rimouski Oceanic to the Montreal Rocket, who will be moving to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island for next season as Clowe will no doubt play for Cleveland. Clowe was signed Sept. 26 to a three-year two-way contract, that, as reported by the St. John’s Telegram’s Robin Short, paid Clowe a $200,00 signing bonus, with an AHL salary of $50,000 and an NHL salary of $400,000. Although Clowe had an extended stay with San Jose’s and Cleveland’s training camps, missing nine games for the Oceanic, the 6-2 205 pound winger is likely penciled in to play in Gund Arena next season.
The Sharks’ 6th round pick of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft (175th overall) was drafted after only playing 32 games in the QMJHL after being picked up by Rimouski, but the selection has proven to be a good one for Tim Burke and crew, as Clowe managed 26 goals and 49 assists in 60 games this season. Clowe’s good hands placed him fourth in goals on the Rocket and tied for first in assists with Brett Lutes. Known for his work along the boards and occasionally dropping the gloves, Clowe’s 104 penalty minutes were good for sixth on the Rocket. Despite missing 12 games this season, Clowe did manage to finish a respectable 32nd in QMJHL-scoring.
One game after Clowe arrived in Montreal, the winger managed a five-game point streak Nov. 24 through Dec. 8, but went into a small slump in the Rockets’ next eight games, managing only one goal against Shawinigan Dec. 20.
Clowe’s tenure with the Rocket picked up again when former Montreal Canadiens coach Alain Vigneault was signed as head coach Jan. 1. Vigneault’s first game as head coach was Jan. 3, a 4-3 win against Drummondville, which kicked off an eight-game point scoring streak from Jan. 3 through Jan. 19. Clowe failed to tally a point Jan. 24 in a 1-3 loss to the Hull Thunder, but tallied a point in the Rockets’ next five games Jan. 27 through Feb.6, where Clowe went down with an injury and missed the next three games.
In the Rocket’s remaining 12 games Clowe managed seven goals and seven assists, helping the Rocket finish third in the Quest Division with 77 points with a record or 32-27-5-8. Montreal’s season continues Friday, Mar. 21 against the Sherbrooke Castors (moving to Lewiston, Maine next season) in the best-of-seven “Battle of Relocation,” in which Clowe should continue to play a major role for the Rocket in all situations.
There is one area in which Clowe must improve in order to play in the NHL: skating. Vigneault told Short that, while Clowe has great hands, he must improve his quickness and acceleration. That said, Vigneault also told Short, “I definitely see [Clowe] being able to play at a higher level on a good third line, a hard-nosed checking line.” More specifically, “A hard-nose checking line and when he has the opportunity to put the puck in the net, he can.”
In this regard, Clowe could be kind of like the role Jonathan Cheechoo has taken this season, although Clowe’s agility probably surpasses Cheechoo’s, while Cheechoo’s straight-away speed isn’t too bad. However, this will first come in Cleveland, possibly on a third line with fellow Shark prospect Kris Newbury as his center. (Lynn Loyns and Pat Rissmiller would be prime candidates to be the left wing on said third line.)
Fiedler, the Sharks third round pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft (86th overall), was drafted on the basis of perceived upside, as the lanky 6’3” 177-pound Czech saw limited action in 2001-02 with the Plymouth Whalers. This season, the 18-year old Fiedler managed seven goals and 21 assists in 63 games, an increase over his eight goals and twelve assists last season in 68 games.
Before the Christmas Break Fiedler compiled four goals and 12 assists in 33 games, but after the Christmas Break, Fiedler scored only two goals and three assists in his next 18 games. While this may not seem so bad, two assists were tallied in Plymouth’s Dec. 28 contest against Windsor and three assists Jan. 14 against Toronto, in which Fiedler was named the “Second Star.” (Fiedler was also named the “First Star” with the game-winning goal against Owen Sound Feb. 1.)
As a third-liner this season, seeing little power play time, with somewhat sporadic offensive output, Fiedler did help the seventh-ranked (BMO Bank of Montreal Top Ten Rankings) to a second-place finish in the OHL’s Western Conference with 97 points with a record of 43-14-9-2.
The Whalers’ season continues into the play-offs as they face Owen Sound in a best-of-seven series starting Saturday, Mar. 22.
With the firing of General Manager Dean Lombardi, the incoming general manager, especially if he is an external hire, may not share the same assessment of prospects as Lombardi. Meaning, un-signed prospects like Fiedler, and especially Newbury this summer, will have to impress any new general manager, unless somebody such as Wayne Thomas or Doug Wilson is promoted to general manager who are already familiar with the Sharks’ prospects. (Thomas is the current interim general manager.)
With the likely promotion of Clowe and Plihal to Cleveland next season nearly certain, and Newbury hopefully set to join them if an agreement can be reached, San Jose will only have two prospects in the CHL next season with Gorges and Fiedler. However, San Jose’s stock-piling of draft picks by Lombardi, before he was abrubtly fire, will definitely give San Jose plenty of opportunities to increase the CHL-contingent.