Depth at center and defense strengths of San Jose Sharks system

By Craig Fischer
Matt Nieto - Boston University Terriers

Photo: Left wing Matt Nieto leads a shallow group of winger prospects for the San Jose Sharks. (courtesy of Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI)

 
The San Jose Sharks have long believed in the philosophy of taking things slow, and letting young players develop to earn the opportunity to play with the big club. Unfortunately for the Sharks in the last five years, there have not been many opportunities earned.

Since the 2008 draft, the Sharks have drafted a total of 32 players but only one of those (Jason Demers) can be considered an NHL regular. The fish have one of the worst draft pick to NHL conversion rates in the league during that span, giving ample ammunition to the critics who tend to take a “what have you done lately” mentality.

The good news however is that, while things have not been great in the prospect pipeline lately, there is a legitimate probability that the work of the past and the slow development process might finally start to pay off in the next few seasons. The Sharks have a number of young-ish (remember, Doug Wilson does not believe in rushing young players) prospects on the cusp of finally breaking out, and while this has been the same story for a few seasons now, there can be no argument that the Sharks prospect depth is the strongest it has been in quite some time.

There are not a lot of puck wizards, but legitimate two-way play down the middle and a very strong offensive-defenseman army rank, improved largely by free agent acquisitions and the 2011 and 2012 drafts, have the Sharks prospect pool looking much improved from an overall perspective. Additionally, with an aging San Jose core coupled with a new CBA, it stands to reason that the development process might accelerate in the coming year. There might be more urgency and dependency upon the active development of young players which could see players like Matt Irwin, Tommy Wingels, Sebastian Stalberg and possibly even Tomas Hertl in a San Jose Sharks jersey as early as the puck hits the ice after the lockout.

Left Wing

The left wing has been an organizational weak spot in recent years, and there has not been a lot on either side of the skill spectrum. When life gives you lemons you sign left wing prospects. Two of the three Sharks prospects on the left side were acquired via free agency, seemingly negating the relevancy of draft pick conversion rates. The kicker here is, Matt Nieto, the one draft pick, looks to be a complete steal as the 47th overall pick in 2011 and might be one of the few up-and-coming prospects to actually “arrive.” The Boston University star forward is relishing his opportunity at the collegiate level, playing occasionally alongside fellow Sharks prospect Dan O’Regan. Having added considerable muscle over the off-season, the 5’11 junior dominates the NCAA game at times on both sides of the puck to the point where he could contend for national honors, and more importantly, find his way to the NHL as fast as the release on his wrist shot.

Brandon Mashinter and Curt Gogol, while not nearly as hyped as Nieto and rightly so, present interesting skill-sets. Both are chock full of toughness and an ability to round out the bottom of a lineup card.  Mashinter has actually had a small taste of NHL action, playing in 13 games in 2010-11. While he will likely never pot more than 10 goals in a season at the NHL level, his combination of skill and grit creates many opportunities for the behemoth winger to contribute on the ice.

Fans of “the fight” will also appreciate what Gogol can bring to the table. In his rookie season with the Worcester Sharks, he finished first amongst AHL rookies with 19 fighting majors. Not overly big at 6’1, he handled himself quite well throughout the season and finished  in the top 10 in fighting majors among all AHL players. Early on in the 2012-13 AHL season, he has been a healthy scratch because the hockey side of his game is not all there. However, the big club has not shied away from “enforcers” in recent years, and in 2010-11, Jamal Mayers found himself in the lineup in all but 4 regular season games and amassed 12 fighting majors. If the Sharks ever needed a heavy hand in the lineup from a player with something to prove, Gogol’s name likely would come up. Gogol is going to really need to work on the hockey side of things to be more than a sideshow and keep players like Matt Pelech from beating him to the punch.

Center

Very few NHL organizations boast the riches the Sharks have at center; defensively this group might be the best. Offensively there are some definite shortcomings outside of 2012 first round pick Tomas Hertl, but the group collectively represents a growing trend in the Sharks organization of players who can play a full 200-foot game in every situation on the ice. From a fantasy hockey perspective, these guys are not going to win any points leagues. From an on-ice perspective however, these are the players that championship-caliber teams are built around, especially when you consider the center depth of teams that have won the Stanley Cup in recent years.

The leader of the pack, is none other than Tomas Hertl, the San Jose Sharks first-round selection in the 2012 NHL Draft. The pick was only San Jose's second first-round pick since 2007 and the other pick, Charlie Coyle, is now a member of the Minnesota Wild organization. There is not much to say that has not already been said about Hertl – he is gifted in all facets of his game, has a terrific head on his shoulders, and continues to find success against men with Slavia Praha in the Czech Extraliga. And yet, after falling in the pre-draft rankings by many scouts, Hertl is not a household commodity around the league yet. Many scouts still question his skating mechanics despite the fact he has above average speed and agility; just because it is not pretty does not mean it does not work. Hertl, who was included in Hockey's Future's Top 50 Prospect Rankings, gets results and is rarely caught behind a rush because of his excellent positioning and awareness. At a closer look, he is probably perfectly suited as the poster boy for the undervalued and unheralded centermen of the San Jose system.

A prototypical center in the NHL is above 6 foot. There just are not a lot of undersized players playing the position anymore, so Dan O’Regan (5’9), Colin Blackwell (5’8), and Cody Ferriero (5’11) all currently playing in the NCAA will have a difficult climb ahead of them. Realistically, if any of the three continue their development at the professional level after college, they will be shifted to the wing. That being said, as centers, playing for Boston University, Harvard, and Northeastern, respectively, they all have tremendous speed, adequate vision, and above average offensive awareness (Ferriero in particular) and will likely all have solid college careers. The real question is if these “project players” have the drive, evasiveness, and ability to bulk up for a faster and harder professional game. Ferriero, the older of the three looks well on his way in that regard. O’Regan’s defensive abilities have been called out in the past, but starting the new season, O’Regan seems to have won the confidence of his coaches as he has been a regular on the penalty kill and vastly improved in that regard.  With two goals and two assists in his first four games, O'Regan appears to be well on his way to becoming another solid two-way centerman for the Sharks.

Sean Kuraly, the other NCAA middleman, is built like a prototypical centerman. At 6’2 and 200 pounds, the freshman at Miami University continues to climb the organizational ladder. After a brilliant 2012 US National Junior Evaluation Camp where he tied for the lead with four goals and six points, things looked really good for Kuraly. He even shot up 14 spots in the most recent Hockey's Future Top 20 rankings to the fifth spot in the Sharks list. Early on, the gifted two-way forward has been quiet in his first few games in the NCAA. This is not to shut the door on him or negate his terrific year last year, but rather speak to the reality that prospects are going to go through growing pains as they navigate their path to the NHL and Kuraly is no exception. Look for former fifth-round pick to make headlines in Russia this year at the World Juniors but a brilliant NCAA season might be too much to ask for in his first year. Prospects, even the high risers, encounter bumps along the way and nothing is set in stone; opportunities in the Sharks organization have to be earned and that is a difficult task.

Chris Tierney, the 2012 second-round pick of the Sharks, is a terrific shutdown forward and continues to do so for the London Knights this year in the OHL. The offensive numbers are not that prolific, but the excellent penalty-killer is a big reason why the Knights defense is one of the best in the league. His showing against Plymouth on October 12th, that featured Plymouth’s eight failed power play attempts (1/9) was truly a sight to see and a showcase of Tierney’s defensive contributions on the blue line for London.

The Worcester Sharks feature four center prospects and once again all play a terrific two-way game. While the lockout has given the baby Sharks a solid team on paper, the inclusion of extra players who might contend for an NHL roster spot in the lineup might actually have an adverse effect on a player like Marek Viedensky. He looks to be a healthy scratch on most nights going forward, which is a tough break in a year where it was thought the defensively-sound Viedensky could have an offensive breakout.

As it stands now, the team in Worcester is having a difficult time actually finding the back of the net, but the recent free-agent signing Sebastian Stalberg is one player who has not struggled in that regard. The excellent playmaker leads the team with four goals through six games and has been somewhat of a surprise having totaled  over a quarter of the Sharks goals. His solid two-way game coupled with his early season success could allow Stalberg to break out and come out of nowhere to actually contend for a roster spot when a CBA is agreed upon in the NHL.

Tommy Wingels, the player thought by many to be the front-runner for a coveted spot on the Sharks opening day roster, has run into some trouble overseas in the Mestis league, Finland's second-tier pro league. Wingels was suspended for three games after delivering a brutal, concussion-causing hit, but outside of the hit, he is playing incredibly well and showing a new confidence within himself that is showing on the score sheet. The two-way forward is a hard forechecker and still looks like he will contend for a job in San Jose when NHL hockey resumes, but Stalberg and company will certainly make things more difficult.

While some players have seen confidence booms, others have witnessed confidence busts. Travis Oleksuk, another 2012 free agent signing of the Sharks, came out of UMD as a very offensively-skilled player, trailing only Hobey Baker winner Jack Connolly in team scoring. The professional game is proving difficult, and he is not playing with the confidence he had in the NCAA to the point where last season’s Oleksuk and this season’s Oleksuk seem like two very different players. He will need to utilize his speed and unbelievable passing skills to start making opportunities for himself and his teammates. As the rookie adjusts to the size and speed of the AHL, he will likely be given more and more opportunities given his skill-set and the need for offense for the AHL Sharks team. Confidence is the only thing holding Oleksuk back.

Freddie Hamilton is the epitome of hard work. He got better in each of his OHL seasons, eventually amassing an 86 point season. It is no surprise that, in his first year in the AHL as a 20-year-old, he does not look out of place in the least. He can line up at any position up front, adds a bit of a scoring dimension to a Sharks squad that so desperately needs it in Worcester, and of course plays a solid two-way game.  The thing about Hamilton’s game is that it is not flashy, he does not do anything to jump out at you, but he just does everything right. While he probably will not win any Willie Marshall Awards as the AHL goal-scoring leader in the next season or two, he stands to become one of the better shutdown forwards at least in the AHL this season, a skill that tends to translate well at to the NHL.

Right Wing

Right wing is a big concern for the Sharks. Some of the aforementioned players might be able to slot over to the right side, and given the depth at center this is a likely possibility in order to fill an organizational void at a higher level. To a degree this is already happening in Worcester, but outside of newly-drafted speedy QMJHL sophomore Christophe Lalancette who has an outside chance of becoming a top-nine forward, there looks to only depth  players amongst these prospects.

James Livingston, Brodie Reid, and Max Gaede are able to provide better than average defensive coverage and have been pigeon-holed in the power-forward mold due to their mature bodies. In all likelihood a gigantic offensive transformation will need to occur for any to make noise in letting management know they have earned an opportunity to be called up for an extended period of time. Livingston and Reid did manage 20 and 25 points respectively in their first taste of professional hockey with Worcester, but early on in the AHL season Livingston has sparsely played and Reid is injured. Given the current logjam at the forward position, opportunities might be scarce.

If there were ever an outlier in the Sharks system, it would be Chris Crane. Crane led the Ohio State Buckeyes team in scoring last season with 14 goals and 10 assists over 35 games, but he played horrendously without the puck. He is something of a defensive liability and his four step acceleration is hampering his game even at the collegiate level. That said, his hands around the crease are top level, especially when he bulls his way to the front of the net. Crane is so unlike most of the forwards in the Sharks system, that anything could be possible in his development. Certainly a prospect to watch, he will finish off his collegiate career with the 2013-14 season and it will be interesting to see if he can translate his game at the professional level.

Defense

Defensemen take a long time to fully develop, and even at the NHL level, there can be years of growth and experience required for a player to really come into their own. At this juncture there does not seem to be anyone at the defensive position that could really crack the lineup barring significant injury to the San Jose defensive corps in the near future. However, the fact that there really is not a dire organizational need to supplement the defensive ranks at this very instant bodes well for the organization. In fact, the development time frame of two to three years might be perfect, as the team could decide to go in a different direction with the graybeards on the blue line in Dan Boyle (signed through 2013-14), Brad Stuart (2014-15), and Douglas Murray (2012-13) when they come off the books.

The system features a little bit of everything, including strong stay-at-home defensemen, mobile puck-movers, power-play quarterbacks, cannon shots from the point, and do-it-all rearguards. The group has good size, averaging 201.6 pounds and 6’2 in height. There is not one definite horse that looks destined for the big show, but there is however some seriously under-appreciated talent in the Sharks defensive pipeline.

Matt Tennyson, a 2012 free agent signing, might be the most complete defensive prospect San Jose has in the system. The Pleasanton, California native struggles a little bit on the fly with defensive positioning and it is showing a bit early on in Worcester. That said, he has very solid puck skills and is not afraid to blast his wicked shot, combining for an offensive game that might project to be good enough to counteract any defensive shortcomings he has in his game.

Taylor Doherty, a second-round pick in 2009, is a towering 6'7 defenseman who projects as a force to be reckoned with and premiere shutdown defender. That he "projects" as a force is the key word; as a rookie in the AHL last year, Doherty struggled mightily in both zones. While currently injured, Doherty looked a little bit better to start the season in Worcester. His skating still seemed like a weak point to his game and often left him late to make a play, but his defensive positioning has improved enough for concern not to set in immediately. Doherty is a project, but his potential is as massive as his body.

Four defensemen for the Sharks – recent draft picks Lee Moffie, Joakim Ryan, Cliff Watson, and Isaac MacLeod – are playing NCAA hockey this season. All possess good hockey IQ and project to be solid offensive contributors for their college program, but whether that translates at the NHL level or not remains to be seen. All but Watson are terrific skaters, and it could be argued Moffie is one of the fastest in the entire Sharks system when going from end to end. Defensively, these four are behind the rest of their fellow prospects in the system, but it seems like more of a coaching and development issue that can be corrected over time than some sort of inherent trait or skill. Offensively gifted defensemen have been a staple within the Sharks organization for a number of years. Recent graduates like Demers and Justin Braun, both of whom have defensive deficiencies to their game, highlight that fact and make it a distinct possibility that any of these four start to make headway in the organization when they graduate to Worcester.

On a struggling Worcester team, Matt Irwin is head and shoulders above the rest of the defensive corps. You can see the experience he has had in the way he plays and the smart sophisticated way he controls the puck for rushes. He currently leads the Sharks' defensemen in points after finishing second overall on the team in that category last year. Irwin is quickly reaching his 25th birthday, but there are still holes in his game that might make it hard for him to be anything more than an AHL stud defenseman. He is solidly built at 6'2 and 210 pounds, but he plays a lot smaller and that fact is likely what is holding him back. The 2010 free agent signing in all likelihood will be the first name called if an injury occurs to the Sharks defense, when and if a season occurs, just based on his offensive abilities. If he wants to be more than just a power play specialist or an AHL call-up, however, he will need to really redefine how he approaches the game without the puck.

Sena Acolatse is yet another offensively charged blueliner, with ample power-play skills that could translate well to the NHL level.  Early on with the Worcester Sharks, he seems to have carried momentum from his rookie season. He is probably not any better offensively than the other prospects outside of his shot, and his hockey IQ is not particularly high as he makes quite a few risky and unnecessary plays with the puck. However ,what Acolatse has to do to really separate himself from the other offensive defensemen on the AHL Sharks is to unleash the ferocious beast that comes out on occasion during moments of passion. When this occurs, Acolatse is a physical force and a hard player to play against in his defensive zone. If Acolatse can hone that edge, he will certainly separate himself from the pack if only because he is providing something that is not always there with the other AHL defensive prospects.

Justin Sefton embarks on the 2012-13 season as one half of the top defensive pairing in Sudbury playing with Frank Corrado (VAN). Sefton is a terrific shutdown player at the OHL level and constantly plays against the opposition's best. He also plays on the power play, and even though he is more of a safeguard with an above average shot, his offensive game is slowly coming along. He has the physicality and size to be a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL if he can correct some of his skating issues. Doing so might even establish a more polished offensive game through rush opportunities from takeaways, but the 2011 third-round pick is going to need a number of years to develop before he is ready.

Nick Petrecki is the epitome of not rushing prospects and making each player earn the right to make to the big club. The former first-round pick has so much raw talent but just has not been able to put things together on a consistent basis. There are games where he has flashes of brilliance and it sparks the hope of fans and media that Petrecki has finally become the force that he was hoped to be when the Sharks drafted him in 2007. In his fourth season with the Worcester Sharks, Petrecki really needs to step up and lead by example. He has been given every opportunity to succeed but just has not been able to put his talents together and find any consistency. Things were on a constant decline for Petrecki before there was a mild upswing in the latter half of the year last season. He is no longer the best defensive prospect in the Sharks system as he was dubbed early on, but there is still hope he can finally live up to the hype or at the very least salvage a career in the NHL and pay dividends to the big club. He will never light up a scorecard, but given his good skating, physical edge, and his understanding of proper positioning, he still could make it to the NHL. To put things in perspective, of the 11 defensemen selected in that 2007 first round, only three – Karl Alzner (WAS), Ryan McDonagh (NYR), and Kevin Shattenkirk (STL) – can be considered NHL regulars. A handful more, including Brendan Smith (DET) and Jon Blum (NAS), are just starting to put their skill-sets together at the NHL level. Petrecki is still behind those players in terms of development, but it helps illustrate how long it actually takes for defensemen to evolve into NHL-caliber players. Some things take time, and Petrecki is just one of those things.

Perhaps it is fitting to discuss Dylan DeMelo and Konrad Abeltshauser after Petrecki, as both could very well turn out to fill the seat that had been reserved for Petrecki. DeMelo looks to have had a great offseason and the hard work is paying big dividends on the ice. He is quicker this season in Mississauga and is producing at just shy of a point-per-game pace. While some of the other point-hungry defensemen of the Shark system are lacking when it comes to the defensive side of things, DeMelo is incredibly well-rounded and is just as good playing a shutdown role as he is manning the power play. His play so far this season has earned him an invite to play for the OHL in the 2012 Subway Super Series where he will play alongside a very good stable of defensemen including Ryan Murphy (CAR), Slater Koekkoek (TBL), and Cody Ceci (OTT).

Abeltshauser is having an epic start to his season with the Halifax Mooseheads. The German-born defender leads all QMJHL defensemen in points and is tied for the league lead in assists. The 6'5 defender continues to play a solid two-way game. The gray cloud surrounding the defender is the fact that he has benefited from the skill of Nathan Mackinnon and Jonathan Drouin. Both players could go top 5 in this upcoming entry draft with Mackinnon an early favorite for the top pick, and there is no denying their talent. Statistically, it makes it even harder to gauge Abeltshauser's impact because he has been the beneficiary of eight primary assists and four secondary assists from the powerful duo. In some regards it tempers the hype, but when you watch the outlet passes Abeltshauser has the ability to make and how he can lead a rush, you start to realize that he is just another great player playing with great players. His defensive game has greatly improved early on this season, and if he can continue playing the game with more physicality, he has the potential to be a star.

Goaltending

Once a bright spot in the organization, the goaltending position in terms of prospects is starting to grow a bit suspect and is on the verge of being exposed. There is talent amongst these four netminders but the once mighty have fallen.

Harri Sateri looks to be the front-runner amongst Sharks goaltending prospects. Currently platooning in Worcester with 25-year-old Alex Stalock, the Finnish butterfly goalie is having huge technical issues with his play and has struggled out of the gate. With both players in a contract year, the hope is that Sateri might be able to correct these issues with goaltending coach Corey Schwab and really position himself to contend for a backup role for the big club in the coming years. At the very least, he could earn the starting job in Worcester. Fortunately for Sateri, Stalock is struggling even more and that starting position could be his by midseason if there is not a drastic turnaround by his comrade in net.

In San Francisco, Taylor Nelson and Thomas Heemskerk are not really making a case to be promoted from the ECHL to the AHL, let alone the NHL. After a huge stumble from both out of the gate at the start of the Bulls' inaugural season, Heemskerk looks to be outplaying the older Nelson and will likely officially nab the starters job in the coming weeks. There is a considerable drop off between these goaltenders and Sateri, though it should be noted Heemskerk’s calm demeanor and technically sound game might give him the edge in a season or two to actually usurp Sateri.

J.P. Anderson finds himself playing in the OHL for a fifth-consecutive season as an overager due to the enormous logjam of goaltenders within the Sharks system.  Early on, it was thought that Sarnia might employ a more defensive structure to try and make up for the loss of Nail Yakupov, but the team's similar uptempo style has not helped Anderson in the least. Statistically, he is having a pretty average opening month in the OHL with a 5-5-1 record so far, but in terms of play, he is actually playing quite solid. If it were not for his CHL eligibility, he probably could have started for the Bulls this year, and he realistically sits second on the Sharks prospect depth charts. It will be interesting to see how that decision to keep him in junior will affect his long-term growth.