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.
All in all, the Sharks are looking much more like a cohesive unit this year. The Sharks are famous for slow starts, look for that trend to end this year if they can maintain the momentum.
1: Johan Hedberg: Looking solid, but clearly AHL material for now. Given that he’s already 26, and will be fighting for time in Kentucky, don’t look for him to be anything more than a team’s 3rd goalie.
3: Bob Rouse: Actually looking pretty strong, better than last year. I’m hoping the Sharks can use him in a situation where he only plays perhaps every other or every 3rd game to keep him fresh. Although with smaller rosters now, not sure if that will be possible. May be odd man out if rookies earn a spot.
5: Jeff Norton: Looking better defensively than offensively which is opposite of what I expected. Haven’t really seen much on offense, but has made several very nice defensive plays.
8: Jarrod Skalde: Haven’t really seen much one way or another about him. Solid play on both ends, no big mistakes.
10: Marcus Ragnarson: A jammed ankle has slowed him a little bit, but has looked solid paired with Mike Rathje again. He’ll be back in time for when they count.
11: Owen Nolan: Miracle of miracles, I have not seen him go postal yet. When last year he was hitting posts and missing all together, he’s right on this year. Looking sharp around the net during practices. Haven’t seen him much in scrimmage or games yet though.
In the 1999 draft, the Sharks made further inroads towards building their defensive unit, which was already one of the envies of the league. By drafting Jeff Jillson with the 14th pick of the draft, the Sharks added a third prospect, all of whom could possibly pass as #1 dmen someday in the NHL. The other two players being Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan.
Jillson was the second defenseman taken in the 1999 draft, in addition to being the first player chosen out of college. The general opinion on Jillson is that he was pretty high on a lot of lists, but the teams that were picking ahead of the Sharks simply had their own players in mind. The fact that the Islanders had so many picks in the top 10, and that Jillson simply did not fit into their plans, probably was a factor in him being chosen as late as he was. A perfect example of how a trade between two teams can effect a third, who’s not even involved in any way, quite drastically.
Playing for the University of Michigan, Jillson earned a spot on the World Junior squad for Team USA and was selected to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Ever since, his stock has only risen. In the preliminary Central Scouting Bureau rankings, he was ranked 6th among all collegiate hockey players. By mid season, he was ranked 15th among North American skaters. By the time the CSB finished, he was ranked 11th. The Hockey News accurately ranked him to go 14th, but named him as a candidate to crack the top 10 picks.
Next year will be an interesting one for the Sharks’ primary affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Much of the core of Kentucky will be, or is already gone from last year’s team, which was just one game shy of playing in the Calder Cup Finals.
Names that are already gone include Andrei Zyuzin, Shawn Burr, and co-leading scorer Steve Guolla-all traded in the deal that brought Nik Sundstrom to San Jose. The team’s other leading scorer, Herbert Vasiljevs (Florida prospect) was also traded, to Atlanta, for Trevor Kidd. With their two main offensive threats gone, they then found themselves without one of their starting goalies, as Sean Gauthier will not return, as he is an Unrestricted Free Agent, and is looking for playing time somewhere else. To cap it off, Dan Boyle will likely find himself playing in Florida next year. He was one of the main guys on defense last year. Other names who may not be back include: Jarrett Deuling (possible), Mike Craig (possible), Steve Lingren (gone), Peter Allen (gone).