The inaugural season of the Worcester Sharks’ has so far been an up-and-down one, with losses often followed by wins, and vice versa. The team has worked themselves into a mediocre 14-13-1-5 record as they head towards the season’s midpoint.
This is a team with a solid work ethic that has done many things well. They have consistently had one of the league’s most effective power plays, and have proven in many of their games that they can be much better than their record suggests. The biggest problem facing this team has been putting it all together on a consistent basis.
“Not everyone has been on the same page every night,” said Sharks’ head coach Roy Sommer. “When we have been, we’ve been pretty good. We play real well, and then the next night- I don’t know if we’re feeling good about ourselves, or we forget to put our work helmets on- and the next night we lose.”
The Atlantic Division is by far the tightest in the AHL, with the records of all seven teams so close that a single weekend can drastically change the standings. For this reason, the Sharks are very much alive in the fight for a playoff spot, and a stretch of solid play could be the difference maker for this team.
“We’ve had a lot of tight games,” said Sharks’ forward Tom Cavanagh. “I think we would have liked to have been on the other side, but hopefully we can continue to get better and start winning some more games.”
The Sharks have plenty of experience in the net with Nolan Schaefer and Dmitri Patzold, as well as promising young rookie Thomas Greiss. Schaefer and Patzold made the majority of starts at the beginning of the season, but as the season has progressed, Greiss has seen more time in the net, as well. Schaefer’s record is currently at 5-7-2 with a 2.71 GAA, while Patzold is at 4-3-3 with a 3.87 GAA. It’s been a matter of balance between finding playing time for all three goaltenders and hoping that one of them will go on a hot streak for the team, something that hasn’t happened to date.
“I think it’s been alright, but I don’t think it’s been great” Coach Sommer said of his team’s goaltending. “If you look at their numbers, they’re not great, but hopefully one of them is going to step up. We’re in a situation where we’ve got to play all three of them. Our goaltending in the last ten games has been strong – they struggled at the start, but it seems to be getting better.”
The 20-year-old Greiss is not only in his rookie season but is also playing his first season in North America. He’s had nine starts since the beginning of the season, most of them coming in the month of December, and currently has a 5-4-0 record with a .907 save percentage and 2.87 GAA. The big story for Greiss is his adjustment to the North American game, something that will no doubt continue to improve with regular play. The December 30th game against Portland marked his third win in a row, two of which were decided in overtime.
“The rink is much smaller, the pace is faster,” Greiss said of the differences between playing in the AHL and playing in Germany. “The shots are closer, so the angles are a little bit different- a lot of guys just shoot cleaner, and at different angles, some of it’s surprising for me.”
When asked what he wanted to do to improve his game this season, the rookie laughed and said,” Stop the puck.”
The Sharks brought in a number of veterans this season to round out their roster and to provide leadership to the younger players. Scott Ferguson, Justin Kurtz and Brennan Evans are among the new faces on the blueline, as well as Patrick Traverse, who joined the team after a swap with the Hamilton Bulldogs in December. Brad Staubitz and Garret Stafford played the 2005-06 season in Cleveland, while Dan Spang is the only rookie defenseman.
“I think our D has been alright,” said Coach Sommer. “I think they could be better, but again, look at our last ten games and what we’ve given up as far as goals against- they’re starting to get it and to play better.”
After letting in an average of three goals a game in October, that number jumped to nearly four per game in November. Since the beginning of December, however, that number has dropped closer to two goals allowed per game, a drastic change for this team.
Rookie Dan Spang got a taste of the pros with an eight game stretch in Cleveland following the close of his college career last season. It was a brief debut, but enough of a gauge on the speed of the game and the size and skill of the players to help him prepare over the summer. Spang scored his first professional goal in his first game of the season in Providence, with Spang totaling 15 points and 10 penalty minutes in the 25 games that he’s played. There are plenty of differences between college and the pros to make for a tough adjustment, but Spang appears to have a solid grasp of what he’s up against.
“They’re a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and smarter,” he said on the difference between defending pro and college players. “If you get in tight to them, they’re going to roll off you, so you just play good positioning. It’s more just trying to think and play guys smarter, use patience, and when you get the opportunity, you’ve got to make plays and get the puck away from them.”
“First we’ve got to score more goals- we scored lots of goals at the start of the season, that’s when we were winning games.”
It sounds simple, but Sharks’ forward Lukas Kaspar was onto something when he talked about what his team needed to turn their season in the right direction. While the Sharks’ defense and goaltending have shown improvement, it is their offense that has lagged behind as of late. Veteran forward Mathieu Darche currently leads the team and is among the top ten scorers in the league. But, while there are a number of skilled forwards on the team, they have not been producing enough.
Currently at 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) in his 32 games this season, Kaspar was quick to point out his frustration with his own performance.
“They just haven’t been going in,” he said. “I’m the perfect example, the last goal I scored was 15 games ago or something like that, and I have chances, but I just can’t score. A little bit of luck, that’s what I need.”
“We need to play harder, like all 60 minutes, not just first or second or third period,” added AHL veteran Tomas Plihal. “We have a lot of opportunities, but we are not lucky. We have chances, but we just cannot score now.”
Plihal’s production has fallen since last season, and the 23-year-old center is currently at 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 26 games.
The Sharks lost some firepower when rookie Joe Pavelski was recalled to the big club back in November. According to Coach Sommer, Pavelski more than earned the recall, but that doesn’t mean his presence won’t be missed in the Worcester lineup.
“You’re trying to replace a number one center and it’s tough, but you’ve just got to try other things, and hopefully someone comes through for you.”
Pavelski had been averaging more than a point per game and nearly 25 minutes per game, but his absence has afforded others the opportunity to step in and get more ice time than if he had still been in the lineup. Riley Armstrong has nearly doubled his point total of 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) in 64 games during the 2005-06 season to 16 points (12 goals, 4 assists) in the 33 games he’s played this season. Craig Valette had already met last season’s 12 point (9 points, 3 assists) total in 31 games before he was injured. Valette will miss an extended period after having surgery on his right pinky finger this week.
Mike Iggulden, in his second pro season, is also in the running to improve on his 2005-06 season totals. Though injury sidelined him for a short stretch, in 26 games, he has 20 points (11 goals, 9 assists). On returning with his first pro season on the books, Iggulden said the biggest difference for him has been the expectations.
“Your rookie season you’re really not pressured to do too much, but after you have a pretty good rookie season you come in and there’s a lot of pressure for you to perform the next year.”
Tom Cavanagh is at 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in his 32 games since the start of the season. He is another player that is seeing improvement in his second pro season. The experience he gained as a rookie has also helped his confidence this season.
“I think you’re a little more comfortable,” he said. “You’re used to the schedule, and what it takes to be successful at this level. I think I’ve got a lot of things to work on –skating is something you can always work on, and my shot- a lot of little things. I’m just trying to improve all the time, and hopefully with that will come some more scoring.”
A shoulder injury made for a disappointing end to the 2005-06 season for Ashton Rome, who went unsigned by the Boston Bruins but was quickly snatched up by the San Jose Sharks in the 2006 draft. Rome had a solid junior career in the WHL, and while he has not yet made an impact on the AHL scoreboard, the rookie is adjusting to the pro game and has made strides since the beginning of the season. He has 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists) and 23 penalty minutes in 27 games this season. Perhaps the biggest thing that put him behind was the time spent recovering from injury, which interfered with his off-season training.
“My whole summer was I was basically laid up on the couch, I didn’t get a chance to do any weight work this summer, so I didn’t get to get in shape the way I wanted to,” said Rome. “I needed to get back into hockey shape- I didn’t skate all summer- so it was pretty tough to try to come in and play in a different league with a bunch of good players, but I think I’m adjusting a little better now.”
This team has what it takes to become a force in their division, but they will need consistent play down the stretch, and more importantly, they need to find ways to win games. While the improvements in the net and on defense are an important part of the equation, it is time for some of the forwards to take it up a notch or two. Many of this season’s games have been decided by a single goal, which makes those losses just that much more frustrating. To their credit, the players seem to have a good handle on what needs to be done. The only thing left to do is apply it to their game.
“We’re experiencing lots of highs and lows,” explained Coach Sommer. “I’d like to see some consistent games where we put some wins together and get some confidence winning that way.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.