Sharks update – Defensive Analysis

By Mike Delfino

For the last several years, the staple of the Sharks future has been with their defensive prowess. Even though names such as Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, and Jonathan Cheechoo give Shark fans reason for hope up front, there are many players that give reason for being ecstatic on defense.

This year saw the emergence of two players on defense with the Sharks. The first of course is Brad Stuart who was nothing short of incredible. While he had down times throughout the year like any rookie, his year as a whole was spectacular.

Throughout the year, Stuart made his presence known. His offensive abilities are proven by the fact that all season long, he only had two times when he was held scoreless 5 games or more in a row (7 and 13 game stretches). As the year progressed, it was clear that Stuart was becoming more and more comfortable with his role not only on defense, but also as part of the offense. Next year, expect to see further strides from Stuart, as he ventures a little further into the offensive zone.

Not only did he flourish on offense, but also on defense he made several plays that looked as though he was in the NHL for years. While he made his share of mistakes, he often neutralized them by making an incredible poke check, or just getting himself back into position. As the year progressed, he began to use his body to clear people from in front of his net, and didn’t allow players to have an open lane. Where earlier in the year he would hit a player without any follow-up, as the year progressed he learned to hit the player and maintain control of the puck in the process.

Many people point out that Gary Suter has helped Stuart’s development. There is no doubt that having a player with the experience of Suter only helps development. However, there were times this year that Stuart was so impressive, it was Stuart making Suter look good instead of the other way around.

The other player who began to emerge is Scott Hannan, who split time between Kentucky and San Jose. While he only played in 30 games during the regular season, in that brief time, Hannan showed that he belonged in the NHL. He performed exactly as advertised, a steady force on the blueline, who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
While he won’t do the flashy things of Brad Stuart, he will do the other things that win games. While Stuart has the ability to jump out and suddenly win a game for you every 10 games, Hannan will win a game for you, but over the course of those same 10 games.

Near the end of the year, Hannan admitted that he expects his offense to come along as he gets more experience, as this year he only registered one goal and two assists. In three to five years, don’t be shocked to see him score 10-15 goals and 25-30 assists.

The 2000/01 season will be Hannan’s year to shine with San Jose. While there may be other defensemen ready for spot duty, a defensive spot is his to lose for the season. As for any sophomore slump, Stuart is probably more likely to suffer one because Hannan plays a more solid game. He stays more composed, and plays positionally better than Stuart does. While Stuart will be the better player, don’t be surprised if Hannan is the better player next year if Stuart struggles and Hannan continues his steady play.

The last of the blue chip prospects for the Sharks is Jeff Jillson who recently announced his decision to spend at least one more year at Michigan. While there are certainly pluses and minuses to the decision, spending another year in college can only help his development. At Michigan he has a very good coach in Red Berenson, a former NHL player and a man who knows what it takes to succeed in the NHL. In addition, he’ll learn how to be more consistent, as the second part of the year resulted in a lapse in his offensive production.

When the Sharks drafted Jillson in 1999 with the 14th overall selection, many people were surprised the team took yet another defenseman. While it’s a general rule that you don’t draft out of need, drafting another blueliner seemed odd when there were other forward prospects available.

However, the Sharks have proved naysayers wrong, as he has done nothing but increase his stock. In last year’s CSB midseason report he was ranked 15th, and 11th for the final report. He went on to win the award for the best offensive defenseman, and received 10 of the 11 votes for first team All-CCHA honors.

Jillson and Hannan are of similar size, and both play their position in similar manners. The biggest difference is that Jillson has more offensive abilities than Hannan, but Hannan has better instincts.

We won’t know the full extent of Jillson’s ability until his development finally slows down, which hopefully won’t happen for a while. Don’t be a bit surprised if we don’t see his full ability until five years from now. He has the potential to be a #1 defenseman in the NHL, which could easily make him one of three on the Sharks.

A player who suddenly made himself a legit prospect is Robert Jindrich, who was a major player for the Kentucky Thoroughblades this year. Drafted in the 7th round in 1994, until this year he was considered to be nothing more than another player who couldn’t make it by everyone outside the Sharks organization.

Now his name is up there with the top defensemen in the AHL. With 2 goals and 21 assists, his offensive production was modest, but indicative of his play. He doesn’t have a very good shot, but is a very good passer. He uses the boards, and moves the puck up ice as good as anyone. No matter where the puck is in his zone, he always seems to manage to disrupt play one way or another. He is very good at seeing where opponents are, and reacting accordingly. It is not unusual at all to see him thread a pass from deep inside his zone to an awaiting player just inside center ice. Another very telling statistic is his +/- ranking of +24, the best on the team.

Don’t be surprised if Jindrich sees spot duty next year. While I wouldn’t rely on him game in game out, he can be effective for a 5 game stint here or there. One more year in Kentucky will teach him to read plays better. While he is able to nullify his mistakes now, it won’t be that easy at the NHL level.

Two other players who may establish themselves next year are Andy Sutton and Shawn Heins, but won’t likely be with the Sharks. With the expansion draft approaching, it would be safe to assume that one or both of these players will be exposed. And if both players are chosen instead of Yevgeni Nabokov, the Sharks will consider themselves lucky.

If nothing else, these two will get caught in the numbers game. With the Sharks’ defense already well established, along with several other young players waiting in the wing, they simply won’t get their chance with the Sharks.

In addition, the Sharks simply are not in need of young defensive help. They are however, in need of young goaltending prospects, as all of their current prospects at that position are still unknown quantities. Nabokov is one such player, who could possibly become a number one goaltender someday, who they could possibly lose to expansion. The simple fact of the matter is that they need Nabokov (or rather the potential of him) more than they need a 7th or 8th defenseman like Heins or Sutton.

Shawn Heins owns the hardest shot recorded in pro hockey (106 mph). However, it takes more than a hard shot to make it in the NHL. Heins has made vast improvements this year, but is not yet a legit NHL player, and at 26 years of age, time is a factor.

Heins obviously has a very hard shot, which is fairly accurate as well. In addition, his skating and ability to move the puck have improved. However, he still takes several inopportune penalties, chooses the wrong times for big hits, and simply doesn’t read plays well. Despite his size, players get around him as he often finds himself badly out of position to cut off a pass, or just to cut off the angle.

Like Heins, Andy Sutton is a large player at 6’6″ 250lbs, and to his credit, he knows how to use his size. He is also better than Heins at reading plays. However, at 25 years of age, he may not develop further. This year saw a stall in his development.

During the playoffs, Sutton was told to stay home for games and practices for breaking team rules. Exactly what he did is unknown, but he obviously did something to sour himself to the Sharks front office.

Both of these players could be attractive expansion bait to the Minnesota Wild or Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Sharks would rather lose both of them, then lose a more valuable goaltending prospect. The chances are that they won’t both be chosen, so don’t be surprised to see one, or both traded for a mid round draft choice.

Other players who may make an impact in the future could include Rob Davison who will probably begin his professional career next year in Kentucky, and Jim Fahey who will spend his junior season at Northeastern University.

Clearly, the Sharks are well set at their blueline for years to come. While there have been concerns at forward with the stalled development of some players, and while there is concern at goaltender, defense has remained a strength for the Sharks.