San Jose is known for giving undrafted collegiate players a shot. Tom Preissing turned his contract out of Colorado College into an NHL job in his first training camp in 2003-04. Patrick Rissmiller, out of the small college of Holy Cross, then part of the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference, turned a tryout contract into an NHL contract in 2002-03. Grant Stevenson left Minnesota State University-Mankato after his sophomore season and two years later he’s turned heads in his first NHL call-up. The Sharks offered his Mankato linemate Shane Joseph a contract in 2004. New Hampshire defenseman Garrett Stafford was passed up by two other NHL teams before settling in the San Jose organization and becoming an AHL Second-Team All-Star and an AHL All-Rookie Team member in 2003-04. But perhaps more inspiring than those players’ stories is Stafford’s UNH teammate Josh Prudden.
Prudden skated with Stafford at UNH for four years, becoming a solid two-way, second- and third-line center for the Wildcats in his final two seasons of college hockey. New Hampshire nearly won the NCAA Championship in Prudden’s final game, a 5-1 loss to the University of Minnesota. From that team, only St. Louis Blues forward Colin Hemingway has played in the NHL, a team on which Prudden finished tied for eighth in scoring. Like many of his teammates, Prudden had to start in the ECHL, the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies in his case. The hard-working pivot scored 18 goals and 34 assists in his rookie pro season and even earned a tryout at San Jose’s training camp.
He impressed, but the NHL lockout limited Prudden to an AHL contract from the Cleveland Barons in 2004-05. One of a few such forwards on the Barons roster in 2004-05, Prudden’s consistent two-way play earned him what most players dream of, an NHL contract. The Sharks signed the 25-year-old on Aug. 11, 2005 to a one-year contract, a reward for his hard work over the years.
Hockey’s Future caught up to Prudden on his 26th birthday, a 3-0 road loss to the Iowa Stars Jan. 10. Prudden is fighting to earn another contract from San Jose in 2006-07, as the team is moving its AHL affiliate to Worcester, Mass., next season, only 50 miles from the Andover, Mass., native’s home.
HF: Being from New England, tell me about your reaction to the news that the team will be moving to Worcester.
JP: I think it’s great. I mean, I love Cleveland, but the team moving to Worcester, I know everybody back in Massachusetts is really excited, I’ve got a lot of phone calls and e-mails about it. I’d say it’s probably a good thing.
HF: Tell me a bit about last season, you were put on an AHL contract.
JP: Yeah, I got invited to the rookie tournament in San Jose and I signed after that tournament ended. They signed me an American League contract and they signed me to an NHL contract this past summer.
HF: What was the feeling was when San Jose did finally offer you the NHL contract?
JP: I was real excited. It’s something you always dream about. Obviously I want to play in the NHL, but signing an NHL contract is a first step, very exciting.
HF: Did the Sharks reveal to you at all why they want you in the organization?
JP: I guess they liked the way I played. I guess I did pretty well in the rookie tournament and they liked what they saw and they think I have some potential and I fit into their system.
HF: Do you think playing with Garrett Stafford in New Hampshire helped open the door for you?
JP: Yeah, probably. It never hurts to have played with somebody that’s in the organization, they might take another look. Yeah, it probably did help.
HF: What do you feel are the strengths of your game?
JP: The strengths of my game are probably that I play well defensively, I’m a two-way player, I can be responsible in the defensive end, I’m smart out there I think, and I’m a good skater.
HF: What are some of the things you’re still working on so that some day you can play in the NHL?
JP: Well, I’m working on everything, but specifically my shot, trying to do things quicker, and trying to create more offense.
HF: You graduated from the ECHL, tell me about the difference in the level of play between the AHL and the ECHL.
JP: Well, obviously, it’s a lot quicker game. Everybody’s better, and that can be good and bad. Things happen quicker, but you get the puck and people are where they’re supposed to be and it makes the game easier. On the other hand, if you make a mistake, there’s a better chance it’s going to find it’s way back to your net.
HF: What do you feel were the biggest improvements you made last year?
JP: Well, I think my confidence level certainly went up after playing a season in the American League and knowing that I can play here and belong here, that’s probably the biggest improvement.
HF: Any particular players this year you feel you have a lot of chemistry with?
JP: Yeah, I like playing with Tomas Plihal and Shane Joseph, actually I really like playing with everybody that I’ve played with. Craig Valette, Riley Armstrong, me and Armstrong seem to know what each other are going to do, especially down low in the corners, and I think that’s one of the strengths of our game.
HF: Do you feel playing four years of college hockey helped you with a certain level of maturity when compared to junior players?
JP: Yeah, I’d say definitely. Obviously you’re more mature than a 19-year-old or 20-year-old coming out of juniors. On the other hand, you only play 30, 35 games in college, so it’s quite an adjustment to the 70 or 80-game season of professional hockey.
HF: What do you think is the difference between college hockey and the ECHL?
JP: I’d say it’s probably the same between the ECHL and the AHL. Probably the biggest difference though is the number of games you play. In college you practice all week and then you play Friday and Saturday. With pro you practice once or twice, then you play three games.
HF: Or if it’s December with the Barons, you play more games than most junior teams practice.
JP: Exactly (laughing).
HF: What are some of your favorite memories from playing for New Hampshire?
JP: I’ll always love playing in that arena, in front of probably the greatest fans in college hockey. Every single night the rink was packed and they were behind us all the way. Even on the road we usually had more fans than the home team. I met some great people there. I loved playing for Dick Umile. No regrets at all about going to UNH.
HF: I guess that’s the benefit of going to school where hockey is king.
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