When talking about valuable players for a team, most first think of star players. Clearly, Jaromir Jagr is a valuable player for the Penguins, as is Lindros to the Flyers, as is Marleau to the Sharks. Am I putting Patrick Marleau in the same class as the other two? Certainly not, but he is certainly an important piece of the puzzle to the future of the San Jose Sharks. A puzzle which so far this year, has not resulted the way the Sharks would hope.
This year started great for the Sharks team, but of late, the Sharks have floundered into mediocrity, going from one of the best in the league, to one of the worst. Even when the Sharks were winning during the first month of the season, however, it was veterans such as Owen Nolan and Vincent Damphousse who were performing.
One of the most touted young players in years, Patrick Marleau is now starting to be considered a bust by some San Jose fans, and even reporters who are jumping off the bandwagon. No one can debate that he has struggled far more than expected this year, but to call him a bust is incredibly premature.
In 46 games this year, he has recorded only 10 goals and 14 assists, slower than his pace of last year, when he scored 21 goals and 24 assists in 81 games. During his first two years in the league, he did an excellent job of creating chances for himself, often missing the net from there, but at least getting the chance.
“He’s our secret weapon. He’s played outstanding. Robert always gives a second effort.
If he does get beat, you know he’s going to the net and he finds a way to get a glove or stick or something on the puck and I think that he is underrated. He’s a big part of why we are where we are today”, Head Coach Roy Sommer
Kentucky’s 23 year old defenseman played his hockey in his hometown, Plzen, in the Czech League and for Beroun, Czech in Division 1. In 1996 Robert played for the Czech World Junior team at the World Jr. Championships in Boston, Massachusetts. Robert recalls, “It was a big challenge. This was the first big tournament for me, and the whole team, to represent our nation and show off our skills to impress the scouts. We won our group and then 8 or 9 players got the flu, including me. We lost the semi finals. It was bad luck.”
Jim Wiley, Director of Hockey Operations for Kentucky, said, “I think that Robert has had some opportunity to mature since his draft year of ’95. The Sharks’ have done a very, very good job in waiting until they felt it was the right time to get him over here. He’s played on top-notch teams in Czechoslovakia, which has given him a lot of years of good hockey experience.”
As many of the major developmental leagues reach their midway point in their seasons, the Sharks, like every other team, have prospects who have surprised and done well, and others who have struggled more than would be expected. This is a list of many of San Jose’s prospects, and their status. Next to their name is either a +, -, or = sign, signifying that they’ve either improved, declined or maintained their stock. Followed by vitals and statistical information. (stats as of 12-26-99 unless otherwise noted)
Eric Betournay = Center 4/30/81 6’1” 197lbs
Chicoutimi (QMJHL) 41GP 7G 18A 25PTS -13 32PIM
He may end out being a steal chosen in the 8th round, but still needs improvement. He simply doesn’t yet possess NHL skills, and needs to learn how to maintain control of the puck in traffic. He’s the type of player who needs strong players around him, or isn’t the most effective player. Playing on a weak Chicoutimi team is not helping.
Matt Bradley -/= Right Wing 6/13/78 6’2” 195lbs
Kentucky (AHL) 34GP 8G 9A 17PTS 44PIM +12
Not even one year ago, many considered goaltending as the one area where the Sharks seriously lacked prospects at. Now, several reports claim that the Sharks have the best depth of goaltending prospects in the NHL. While I believe that is exaggerated, the state of the Sharks goaltending has improved dramatically in the last year with the emergence of Johan Hedberg, Evgeni Nabokov, and Miikka Kiprusoff.
When it was announced that Nabokov would be moved to Cleveland of the IHL, many considered it as a sign they were unhappy with his play. I suggested that this was not the case at all, and that at the time, he remained the number one goalie in the Sharks system. I still contend that I was right then, whether he’s still the number one goalie now though, is in a little more question.
In terms of God given skill, Nabokov has plenty of it, in fact, he may have more than any goalie not in the NHL. That does not necessarily make him the best goalie though. Nabokov is a very athletic goalie, who often looks very much like Ed Belfour in net. He is capable of making any save that comes his way. There is one big difference though, Belfour is very good at knowing when to zig and when to zag, something Nabokov is still working on.
Perhaps more than any other team in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks will rely on youth to shoulder the load, and take them into, and hopefully far into, the playoffs. As with any team, there are key players on the Sharks who need to maintain their level of play. Players such as Vincent Damphousse who will be relied upon to maintain his scoring presence that he showed at the end of last year. Gary Suter who will be relied upon to lead the defensive core, and hopefully make a complete recovery from elbow problems last year. And of course, Mike Vernon who will be relied upon in goal along with Steve Shields, and most likely, be the main man come playoff time.
From there, the Sharks have a list of about 7 players long, who will take on just as important roles, all of whom under 25 years of age. Mike Rathje at 25 years old, Niklas Sundstrom at 24, Jeff Friesen and Alex Korolyuk both 23, Marco Sturm 21, Patrick Marleau 20, and Brad Stuart at only 19 years of age. You could throw Scott Hannan, 20, into the mix as well, as he’ll most likely be in the lineup before the season ends.