Defensemen lead the charge in San Jose Sharks minor league system

By Craig Fischer

Travis Oleksuk - Worcester Sharks

Photo: Center Travis Oleksuk is one of the Sharks' 2012 free agent signings that has struggled to make a consistent impact in his rookie season at the AHL level. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)


The Worcester Sharks and San Francisco Bulls probably did not benefit as a whole due to the lockout as much as other AHL and ECHL organizations, but the individual San Jose Sharks prospects on the teams have made tremendous strides so far in the 2012-13 season. Injuries have slowed down development, but generally the end of 2012 and the start of 2013 has shown great improvement in the Shark’s prospect pool thanks in part to these AHL and ECHL players.

The Sharks minor league players fairly represent the Sharks system as a whole; a strong stable of offensive-defensemen, gritty checkers with mild offensive talents, and strong goaltending. While there are certainly bright spots, the minor league group at large looks to be mostly role players, who could round out a lineup, and will likely fight for their stay in the NHL. Three defenders prominently stand out this season; Matt Irwin, Matt Tennyson, and Nick Petrecki could benefit from the lockout (and overseas injuries to Brent Burns and Jason Demers) and make an immediate impact at the NHL level as early as the start of the season.

AHL

Harri Sateri, G, 23

Sateri entered the2012-13 AHL season with moderate technical issues and looked very lost in the Sharks net. After beginning the year with a 0-4-1 record, things were at a low point, but the Finnish goaltending prospect, remained confident in his ability (he worked hard in many of those losses) and worked overtime with Sharks goaltending coach Corey Schwab to get his game back on track. Even when he loses, Sateri looks like a future star. The butterfly keeper has since gone 6-4-0, including an impressive month of December with a 2.11 goals against average and .938 save percentage. Sateri has been one of the hottest goaltenders in the entire AHL over the course of a month and a half.

Sharks fans may notice a similarity between Sateri and current Sharks starting goaltender Antti Niemi in the way they play. Their side to side butterfly game is very comparable, and they stack their pads confidently and are very proficient down low. Sateri scrambles with the best of them and is proving to be a very quick goaltender, and it shows in shootouts. Perhaps one reason why Niemi is on top of Sateri on the depth charts is because of Sateri’s weak glove hand. His left hand glove has been moderately exposed this season by the opposition, and it will need to be worked on for Sateri to continue his development. As it stands now, Sateri sits as the “1B” keeper in Worcester, with a slight edge given to the veteran Alex Stalock. Things could change over the course of the season but a platoon looks to have been established and will likely be maintained until the playoffs.

James Livingston, RW, 22

Livingston’s season so far can best be described as unnoticeable.  Even when he fights he is hard to find. The big winger has quieted his game since last year and focused strongly on the defensive side of things.  He is taking fewer shots (.53 fewer shots per game), averaging more penalties (.73 more per game), and is barely on track to match the 20 points he amassed last season. The fact that Livingston is so unnoticeable on the ice is both good and bad. It is good in that it means he is doing things right on the backcheck, but it is bad in that he is doing things wrong on the forecheck.

The Halifax native has not been terrible, in fact, he is one of Worcester’s most competent forwards in his own zone, but the fact that his offensive game has not developed in the least is worrying. Things are not improving either as in his last nine games, he has tallied one secondary assist.

Brodie Reid, RW. 23

Every season there are one or two fringe prospects that find magic and start to put everything together and rise up the ranks. Brodie Reid is one of those prospects. At the start of the year, coming off of a decent rookie campaign (25 points in 66 games) he failed to crack Hockey’s Future’s San Jose Sharks Top 20. In the 2012-13 season, Reid’s offensive game has flourished, scoring 18 points in 24 games (a .37 increase in his points per game) and a lot of it has to do with his hard work ethic and propensity to just slow the game down.

Brodie uses his size well and has improved his board play since last season. Speed is still somewhat of an issue for the 23-year-old and might hinder his chances at finding the NHL, but it is obvious he has worked on this aspect of his game when comparing this season to last.

Curt Gogol, LW, 21

The first half of the 2012-13 season has been a difficult one for Gogol. He has played most of the year banged up with an upper body injury and has missed time because of it. He was also recently carried off the ice on a stretcher from a blind side hit to the head (he is fine now). The missed time has made it difficult to develop certain facets of his game in his second season in the AHL, specifically his offensive awareness. While Gogol will likely never be considered a scoring winger, the injury he suffered in early December was a huge momentum killer to the progress he had made. He tallied two goals and an assist in the six games leading up to the injury and was a constant threat on the forecheck because of his scrappy play. Since returning in December he has not played with the same edge.

Tommy Wingels, C, 24

Unable to play for Worcester during the lockout because he was not on the clear day roster, Tommy Wingels traveled overseas to play with Kookoo in the Mestis, the second highest hockey league in Finland. Wingels was a force on all sides of the puck, racking up two suspensions resulting from hard rather than dirty plays, big hits, eight goals, and 14 assists all in 18 games. The up-and-coming Sharks centerman, looks to be in terrific shape heading into camp, and carries a bit more of an edge than he did in his previous cup of coffee with the big team. The trip overseas only lasted until Christmas, but it looks like Wingels vastly improved over a span where many of his NHL compatriots did not. While a third or fourth line opportunity looks written in stone early on, Tommy Wingels could find himself on the line of one one of the more talented offensive Sharks and carry over some of the scoring prowess he displayed in Finland.

Freddie Hamilton, C, 21

Hamilton’s first year in the AHL has gone surprisingly well. He is not lighting up the scoresheet with 14 points in 38 games, but he has not looked out of place in the slightest. In fact, he is probably one of the most poised Sharks prospects on the team—and he is for sure the only Sharks prospect who has not missed a game at the minor league level. He has been dubbed as a bit of a shutdown center playing on the teams penalty-killing unit and while he is not as skilled in that regard as a Chris Tierney, he is very adept. The most surprising, and often overlooked part of Hamilton’s game (because of the lack of offensive production) is his passing ability. During games, he reads the flow of the play tremendously well, and can make very difficult passes look easy. Wherever he plays, Hamilton seems to rack up the assists, and given his ability, it is not too far out of the realm of possibility that Hamilton could one day lead the Worcester Sharks in this category and continue this tradition. For now, Hamilton will need to endure the rigors of the AHL season, and learn to deal with the growing pains of becoming a professional athlete. The offense will come, but he needs to continue to be accountable (as he has been) away from the puck.

Travis Oleksuk, C, 23

Big things were expected of Travis Oleksuk, a Sharks 2012 free agent signing, but in his first AHL season, the growing pains of professional development have been long and hard. Dubbed as an offensively skilled center, with a true gift for playmaking, Oleksuk has not lived up to the bill in the slightest. Scoring 5 points in 27 games is not terrible for an AHL rookie, but the fact that he has looked so lost on the ice is disappointing, especially given that he is not a “young” rookie at 23 years old and thought to be further along than some of the other Sharks centermen.

It is not even a case of learning to adjust to the professional game either, as he looks worse in January than he did in late October. Confidence is a huge issue as Oleksuk’s game has started to change in order to help the Worcester team win.

Sebastian Stalberg, C, 22

Another 2012 free agent signing, Sebastian Stalberg started the year (his second stint with Worcester) as one of the hottest Sharks at the minor league level. He racked up a solid four goals and two assists in seven games played, and looked to be one of the few early bright spots in a tough start to the season while the team went 2-4-1 over that stretch. While Stalberg was contributing offensively the team needed to impose change.

Since then, the team has gone 17-11-3, and one of the disappointing factors that has resulted from the changes is that Stalberg’s offense has all but dried up. It is never a good organizational sign when a player only excels offensively when the team struggles. He has amassed a mere four points in that stretch (26 games due to injuries) and looked nothing like he did at the start of the season (or the glimmers of promise he had shown last season). Stalberg still shows promise at times, but part of his problem is simply that he forces so many high risk plays and he will need to rediscover the game he had earlier in the season.

Matt Tennyson, D, 22

Matt Tennyson, or Tenner as he is known around the rink, is money in the bank for the Sharks organization. The offensively gifted defenseman impresses fans and scouts alike almost every night he plays. His defensive game has improved (although it still needs to get better), his shot looks harder and more accurate, and he carries the puck like a ten year veteran; not bad for an AHL rookie.

As good as things have gone it should be noted that the offense dried up a bit in December after an impressive first two months of hockey. There are games when he is the main reason for either victory or loss. While the team leader in defensive assists (14) and points (17, tied with Sena Acolatse) is incredibly exciting to watch and stands a good chance to temporarily make the San Jose club out of camp, he still has a lot to work on.

Taylor Doherty, D, 21

The hulking 6'7 Taylor Doherty started the year off solid, if unnoticeable, and then suffered an injury. He returned for the month of November, and again was a very solid defender. Injured again, this time with a sliced Achilles that has forced him to miss 15 games, Doherty’s season is the epitome of bad luck. Not only has Doherty been unable to concentrate on improving his skating, a part of his game he was trying to improve, due to his recent injury, but he has likely dropped a rung or two on the organizational depth chart because of the exceptional play of Sena Acolatse and Nick Petrecki (Dylan DeMelo and Konrad Abeltshauser of the CHL have also made considerable progress).

In the games he did play, Doherty was almost non-existent on the offensive side of things (two of his three points came in one game) and continues to only see merit in one portion of the game. It should be noted that this is Doherty’s second full season in the AHL, and while expectations are high (largely to do with his physical skillset) they need to be tempered with an understanding that this type of shut-down player the Sharks project Doherty to one day become can take years to develop.

Sena Acolatse, D, 22

Sena Acolatse is a workhorse. This season he has pretty much done everything for the Sharks, including taking over DJ duties for the team in the locker room. The second year defender, is one of a few welcome surprises on the Worcester Sharks blue line this season. Very few people predicted that Acolatse would be tied for the lead in defensive scoring amongst Sharks, especially with Matt Irwin and the budding Matt Tennyson making strides. A lot of it has to do with his breakout passing ability and willingness to pinch, but as the season progresses he is also making fewer and fewer mistakes. Acolatse has perhaps more importantly improved the defensive side of things as well. And a lot of this again, stems from the fact that he is pinching smart and has led to him playing very well in his own end for most of the season.

In typical Sharks prospect fashion, Acolatse looks to have been playing hurt for much of the season as well. While he has not come back from a broken jaw he suffered on the 29th of December, expect Acolatse back in the near future playing with a cage. Acolatse is a tough customer.

Nick Petrecki, D, 23

Before he was injured in early October, Sharks fans everywhere let out a sigh of relief, because it looked as though Nick Petrecki was finally living up to the hype of 2007, when he was taken 27th overall in the NHL Draft. The first round status had for many seasons perpetuated Petrecki as a clear frontrunner amongst the Sharks defensive prospects – a man amongst boys – but he could not find consistency in his game until the tail end of the last season.

The big burly shutdown defender on nights he plays could be considered the best Worcester player in his own zone, not wearing goalie pads. As a restricted free agent, Petrecki really needed a solid year to prove his value to the organization, and while the injuries hurt that, it is obvious that he has turned a corner. Once an inside joke on the futility of the Sharks drafting and development, Petrecki looks like he might have salvaged his career in the 11th hour. He is one of two defensive prospects to crack the Sharks' opening night roster out of training camp.

Matt Irwin, D, 25

Last year's offensive dynamo from the blue line, Matt Irwin, is not finding the scoresheet with the same conviction he had a season ago (14 points in 29 games compared to 42 in 71). The small drop in production is likely more to do with the development of Tennyson and Acolatse than Irwin’s play. Irwin still maintains an NHL quality offensive skillset and continues to work on the defensive side of his game, which still holds him back from becoming an NHL regular. To be fair, he is stronger in this area than players who have made it to the NHL level before him.  Despite taking a small step back offensively this year, Irwin will likely be one of a handful of Worcester players to compete for a roster spot in this upcoming shortened season. Like Petrecki, Irwin will open the NHL season in San Jose while Burns and Demers are out with injury.

ECHL

Thomas Heemskerk, G, 22

Currently on the 21-day Injury Reserve due to abdominal surgery, Thomas Heemskerk has at times played very well at the ECHL level. In fact, in mid-November he was named the Reebok Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the Week. The Bulls undisputed starter had improved his rebound control from earlier in October but still has trouble with his lateral game. It is an area of his game that will need to improve if he wishes to be promoted to the AHL. Heemskerk has earned an 11-12-1 record, .899 save percentage, and 3.26 goals against average so far this season.

With Heemskerk injured, backup Taylor Nelson has played exceptionally well in a handful of games. As there is in Worcester, there might be another goalie controversy in the midst when Heemskerk returns, which could stunt the development of Heemskerk who is already blocked at the AHL level by Stalock and Sateri.

Marek Viedensky, LW, 22

High hopes were had for the terrific penalty-kill specialist in the 2012-13 AHL season, but after two games of sub-par play, and a series of healthy scratches, Viedensky was demoted to San Francisco.  Early on it looked as though the young Slovak took the demotion to heart and wanted to prove to the brass that they made the wrong decision. Viedensky was an offensive force in his first eight games in San Francisco,  piling up six goals and seven assists for 13 points in that stretch. These were the offensive numbers the Sharks were hoping to see from the two-way forward.

As the season has worn on however, nagging injuries have slowed the left winger down considerably. With only 3 points since November, and an unenthusiastic forecheck, it seems likely  (barring some sort of drastic turnaround) that the Sharks and the 6’4 Slovak will part ways after his ELC runs out this summer.