San Jose Sharks European Prospects 2002-03 Season Review

By Kevin Wey

Although lacking the talent of San Jose’s German prospects, the Sharks’ six players playing outside of Germany still found themselves strong on San Jose’s depth chart. Below is a review of their 2002-03 seasons, and projections for next year.

Tero Määttä

Shark fans have had high hopes for San Jose’s first pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (41st overall), Tero Määttä, but the big Finnish defenseman had not given much reason for this hope until the end of this past season. The 6-1 214 pound native of Vantaa Finland started the season with the Espoo Blues of the Finnish Elite League after attending the Sharks’ training camp for a couple weeks. Only seven games into the Blues’ season, and playing on only the fourth defensive pairing on his return, Määttä was loaned to Ässät. The Finn’s six games with Ässät saw an increase in Määttä’s ice-time, but the stint was cut short after he was suspended for three games for an illegal hit.

After the Karjala Cup break, Määttä returned to Espoo, often skating on the fourth pairing again with Tommi Pelkonen for most of November, but then Rami Alanka until the Baltica Cup break over leading up to Christmas. After the Baltica Cup break, Määttä saw more ice-time on the second and third pairings. Although Jan. 23 marked a heartbreaking 5-4 overtime loss to HIFK for the Blues, it also marked the start of Mäattä’s service alongside Czech ace-blueliner Jiri Vykoukal. With Vykoukal, Määttä saw a regular shift on even strength and on the penalty kill. After missing the playoffs last season, Espoo managed a fourth place finish with 68 points in 56 games, with a record of 25-16-15. A heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to Tappara in the first round of the play-offs in game seven ended Espoo’s, with Määttä finishing with three assists and 85 penalty minutes of 50 regular season games and an assist in seven playoff games.

Määttä’s physical game has been buttressed by an improvement in his defensive awareness as well as increased calmness when making outlet passes, no longer panicking and just slapping the puck. The 21-year old Finn even played a couple exhibition games for Team Finland leading up to the World Championships as Finland waited for many of its players to arrive and for the Finnish Elite League playoffs to conclude.

Depth defenseman Jesse Fibiger is a restricted free agent this summer, and the Sharks just may pass on re-signing the steady AHL blueliner and give Määttä a chance to adjust to North American hockey and to take control of his development. Ryan Kraft knows how hard Määttä can hit, after a Määttä check on the diminutive Kraft shattered the glass in training camp. Perhaps Määttä will make his next big hit with the Cleveland Barons next season if San Jose chooses to give one of its two non-overage European prospects a shot.

Tero Määttä 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIM+/-
Espoo5003385+5
Espoo*70114+2
*Määttä’s statistics include games played with Ässät

Michal Macho

San Jose’s lone Slovakian prospect Michal Macho faced a difficult 2002-03 season for Slovan Bratislava on the fourth line, after establishing himself as a second or third-line player in the Slovakian Extraleague with HC Martin the previous two season. He is the Sharks’ second non-overage European prospect. Macho saw his ice-time decrease from the third line on Slovan after his production tailed off after the third round of the Continental Cup. In the 27 games leading up to Slovan’s first action in the Continental Cup, Macho had five goals and four assists as a 20-year old on arguably the best Slovakian Extraleague team. Macho even managed to score the game-winning goal against Sokol Kiev in Slovan’s second game in Group L (third round) of the Continental Cup. (Slovan also appeared in the Continental Cup Superfinal, finishing fifth out of the eight team, although undoubtedly better than fourth place Keramin Minsk.) Macho failed to tally in his remaining 27 games, missing one game in the first 27, finishing with nine points in 53 games. Macho dropped to the fourth line as Slovan rose to the top and took the Extraleague regular-season championship with 107 points on a 33-9-12 record.

Slovan followed their regular-season feat by winning the Extraleague championship. Macho played in 12 of the 13 games and managed one goal playing on the fourth line.

The 5-11 172 pound Macho, one of only two right-handed centers on San Jose’s entire depth chart, might want to find reprieve in Cleveland following his reduced playing time with Slovan, but the signing of free agent center Craig Valette and the influx of other prospects the Barons may mean another season in Slovakia for the former Slovakian World Junior Championship team member. One possible solution would be for Macho to accept a three-way contract, and start in the ECHL until injuries in San Jose and Cleveland make room for Macho to prove himself. The Slovakian does have some upside that does warrant future consideration. The two-way Macho, also known as a good face-off man, will need to add some size to win physical battles in the AHL, and perhaps even the ECHL.

Michal Macho 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIM+/-PPGSHGGWGGTG
Slovan Bratislava5354926+110010
Slovan Bratislava*12101000000

Angel Nikolov

The Sharks’ second round pick, 37th overall, of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft may only be a trivia question answer to most fans, but to Elite Leagues across Europe, Nikolov is a top-four defenseman. After a solid 20-point season for JYP of the Finnish Elite League in 2001-02, the 2002-03 season was a bit of a disappointment for the big Czech blueliner. Nikolov started the season skating on the first and second pairings, but ended up on the second and third pairings after missing all of December due to injury. In 46 games, Nikolov managed only two goals and 11 assists. While Nikolov’s season was not as good as the previous, JYP’s season improved as the team finished sixth in the Finnish Elite League standings with 65 points on a 25-19-12 record. Although JYP lost to Kärpät in the first round of the playoffs, the effort was a vast improvement over missing the play-offs entirely in 2001-02.

JYP will attempt to further improve, but without Nikolov. They released the defenseman from the third year of his contract, despite being one of seven players on JYP with a positive plus/minus. Nikolov has already rebounded and signed with Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Novokuznetsk finished ninth in the Russian Super League standings and depending on roster turnover, Nikolov should be a top-four defenseman for the team. Known for his hard slap shot, decent awareness, and for relatively physical play, Nikolov’s demise in Finland could also mark the elimination of the Sharks maintaining the 27-year old Czech’s rights. With 15 draft picks heading into the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, San Jose may have choose to sever ties if the team drafts a few other European players.

Angel Nikolov 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIM+/-
JYP462111354+1
JYP*70336-3

Pasi Saarinen

After a solid 1999-2000 season, Saarinen has done little since then to justify his selection in the eighth round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. The 26-year old Finn did have a better season with HIFK this season than he did with 2002 Champions Jokerit, where Saarinen received little playing time. Saarinen teamed much of this season on the third pairing with Nicklas Hedberg, is reported to be a defensive liability, which contributed to Saarinen’s -14 rating, second worst on HIFK behind Jari Kauppila at –16.

Saarinen managed two goals and three assists in 53 games this season, with only 53 penalty minutes, a major improvement for the Finn known for taken the occasional selfish major penalty. Twenty-seven of Saarinen’s penalty minutes were accumulated in the first game of the season against Jokerit, including the infamous 25-minute match penalty in Finnish hockey. After missing two games due to suspension, Saarinen was relatively clean except for a 10 minute penalty Jan. 25 against TPS.

HIFK made the play-offs, finishing seventh in the Finnish Elite League standings with 57 points, one more than eighth place TPS and two more than Lukko, who missed the playoffs. Saarinen did not play in the final two games.

Although only 5-11, the 195 pound Saarinen is known as a very strong, physically fit player. However, with results the past three seasons that fall far short of those of Nikolov’s, Saarinen may also find the Shark relinquishing their rights to the Finn in favor of younger Europeans at the draft.

Pasi Saarinen 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIM+/-
HIFK5323553-14
HIFK*20002-1

Alexander Korolyuk

Despite 105 points in 233 NHL games in this lower-scoring era of NHL hockey, Korolyuk did not find himself in San Jose again this season, but instead returned to Russia to play with the AK Bars Kazan. Korolyuk was one of the top offensive players in the Russian Super League, with the 27-year old speedy forward finishing second in Kazan scoring behind Jan Benda with 14 goals and 18 assists in 41 games. Kazan finished fourth in RSL. Korolyuk played okay against Togliatti, but appeared fatigued after garnering a lot of ice-time during the regular season.

Despite Korolyuk’s strong season, Russian national team head coach (and Kazan head coach) Vladimir Plyushchev skipped over Korolyuk, along with Andrei Kovalenko and Maxim Sushinky, when selecting his World Championship team, opting for younger players like Igor Grigorenko, Alexander Semyin, Alexei Kaigorodov, Alexander Suglobov, and Kazan teammate Sergei Zinoviev. Belashenko says that Kazan wants Korolyuk to return next season and expect Korolyuk to do so, meaning San Jose might missing the speedy forward with scrappiness and much-needed offensive creativity for another season.

Alexander Korolyuk 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIMPPGSHGGWGGTG
Kazan41141832443020
Kazan*40000000-0
* = Play-off statistics

No longer a prospect

Robert Jindrich

After a disappointing 2001-02 season, Czech defenseman Robert Jindrich faced more adversity this season, missing thirteen Swedish Elite League games for Timra due to injury to start the season. Jindrich did attempt to play in three, but all were abortive attempts, as the 26-year old attempted to heal an abdominal injury.

Jindrich returned to action full-time in mid-November after the Karjala Cup break, but did not pick up a point until Dec. 30 with a power play goal, 16 games after Jindrich’s full-time return to action. Skating on the third pairing with David Casselstahl for much of the season, Jindrich managed to get stronger as the season went on, and finished with a goal and two assists in 37 games. Although Jindrich’s season was a bit of a disappointment due to injury and the subsequent rehabilitation, Timra made the playoffs after missing the post-season last year.

After a disappointing regular season, Jindrich played well in the playoffs, with Timra hoping that the Czech would return for another tour in 2003-04. However, Jindrich retired and will return to his hometown of Plzen to study at the university.

Robert Jindrich 2002-03
TeamGPGATPPIM+/-ShotsPPGSHGGWGGTG
Timra3712322+11331000
Timra*1002227-1160000

Thank you to Johan Nilsson, Eugene Belashenko, and Mikko Vuori.