The Junior Slump

By pbadmin

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.

This year, he has had chances that were created for him, and he is still failing to bury those chances. It is understandable that a young player will have trouble with finishing his chances like this, but none the less, it must be a concern.

Perhaps more frightening, is that he’s no longer creating those chances that he was his previous two years. He is often simply going through the motions, waiting for things to happen. If you wait for things to happen in the NHL, they won’t. He must start taking a more proactive role in the offense.

Fortunately, I do have a theory about Marleau’s struggles this year. During the second year for many rookies, they experience what’s often called the “sophomore slump.” Marleau did not experience such a year last year, as he continued to impress people throughout the NHL. My theory is that Marleau is simply experiencing his “sophomore slump” a year late.

Many of his problems this year have been typical of the problems of a second year player in the league. For example, having trouble getting into the zone and making things happen. Often times, a second year player takes these things for granted, and doesn’t work for the goals.

We’ll see next year whether I am right or not. Next year, he’ll have to start the year strong and prove that he is the player people expected him to be. If he doesn’t, it could destroy his confidence, and set the stage for more troubles.

Sturm, like Marleau, is on pace this year to have fewer goals and assists than he had last year, in Sturm’s case, a lot fewer. In 42 games this year, Sturm only has 6 goals and 9 assists, after scoring 16 goals and 22 assists in 77 games last year. I never predicted Sturm to be a huge offensive producer for the Sharks, but I did expect him to be a threat, something he hasn’t been this year.

Last year, even if he wasn’t scoring, he was at least a threat to score if given room or the chance to do something. This year, he has had opportunities to make his move on goal or to set up a chance, and he simply has not read the play to be able to do so. When he does have the shot on net, he has rarely gotten a decent shot off, usually getting partial wood on the shot, or missing all together.

Not only has his offensive production dropped from last year, more concerning is that his defensive prowess seems to have tailed off as well. His first two years in the league he was doing a very good job of finishing his checks, and at least bugging his opponent long enough to allow his teammates to retreat back into his zone.

An easy way to describe his season this year would be to simply cut last season’s production in half. He has been about half of the offensive threat, half of the defensive soundness, and half of the hitter/annoyer he was last year.

Unfortunately in the case of Sturm, I do not have the same theory of a delayed sophomore slump for Sturm as I do for Marleau. Sturm simply has not gotten the job done and has looked like a different player at times. He has at times shown that he’s the same player he was last year, but not on a consistent basis.

Last year, San Jose fans were abuzz about the new kid in town-Alexander Korolyuk and comparisons to the beloved Theo Fleury were immediately made. The comparisons to Fleury were simply not accurate, and now that it appears that he will not meet the class of Fleury, he has disappointed some.

This is where the positives start in this report. Korolyuk has already equaled his goal production of last year, in 15 fewer games, and is only 4 assists shy. Korolyuk, like the rest of the Sharks team, has been inconsistent, but what has remained a constant, is he has always remained a threat to score.

Despite the troubles he has had, he has always managed to squeeze through a small hole in the defense, put on an amazing move, sometimes score, sometimes fall, or put the puck wide of the net. There are times when he tries too hard, making too many moves on the goalie, loosing his footing. This does, however, often result in penalties against the opposing team, as he has become one of the better dive artists in the league.

When Korolyuk reaches his prime in a few years, what you’re going to see out of him is around the 30 goal, 30 assist mark, not the 50 goals that some had hoped out of him. It is easy to group Korolyuk as part of the troubles the Sharks have had this year, but it is not deserved.

Brad Stuart has had what you could best describe as a typical year for a rookie, 20-year-old defenseman in the NHL. I break down his season into 3 approx. 15 game segments.

The first 15 games, he was one of the top rookies in the NHL. For some time, he was leading the league in rookie scoring, and was among the leaders in scoring among all NHL defensemen. He was holding his own defensively, and while he made his share of mistakes (all expected), none were criminally horrible.

In his second set of 15 games, he struggled in his consistency, and never showed the same skills that he showed in his first 15 games. At times, he did make some of those criminal mistakes, and some games, showed that he should not have been in the NHL.

During his last set of 15 games (last 10 games to be more accurate), he has remained inconsistent, but has also shown many of the skills that he showed in his first 15 games. While he’s struggling through a 13 game point drought, he has at least created chances, and is forcing players to pay attention to him. He’s showing again why he deserves to be in the NHL. At times, he has arguably been the Sharks best defenseman, which although during some games, isn’t saying much.

All in all I am pleased with Stuart’s development thus far. While he hasn’t set the world on fire the entire season, he is showing that he has a ton of skill, and very well could live up to the expectations that many have of him. Even during some of his bad games, his opposition has referred to him as “the next great defenseman in the NHL.”

While it may not have been the best year thus far for the Sharks young players, also take into account that Marleau is just 4 months removed from being a teenager, and Sturm is only 21 years old. At 23, Korolyuk is the oldest of the group, with Stuart also only 20 years old.

With players so young, it is impossible, not to mention unfair, to call them a bust. In the case of Marleau and Sturm, next year will be an important one for them. Next year should give us an indication of what kind of player they’ll be. As of now, Marleau is nothing more than a 3rd line player with skill, and Sturm about the same, maybe 4th line. However, when was the last time you saw a 3rd line with that kind of speed?

Bad years happen, it’s part of sports. What’s going to be important is how they respond. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if all of these players suddenly came alive at any point this year. If they don’t, than what they do during the off-season will be vital to their futures.