San Jose Sharks Draft Preview

By Kevin Wey

After many years with selections early in the first round, then lottery picks, and also acquired first round picks, the Sharks will draft the lowest selection in each round in franchise history: 27th. The Sharks have picks this year in every round except for the seventh round, which is going to the New York Rangers as part of the Adam Graves transaction at last year’s NHL Entry Draft.

Since the NHL expanded with the addition of the Nashville Predators in 1998, the 27th pick of the Entry Draft has fallen in the first round. That year’s 27th pick was Scott Gomez by the New Jersey Devils, a franchise that General Manager Dean Lombardi says the Sharks have emulated for the past few years. The Devils had the 27th pick again in 1999 and selected Finnish goalie Ari Ahonen. The 27th pick of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft was forward Martin Samuelsson, who signed with the Boston Bruins (the club that drafted him) this past week. Last year’s 27th pick belonged to the Philadelphia Flyers, which they used to select defenseman Jeff Woywitka. The other “27’s” since the Sharks’ first Entry Draft in 1991 have been, in reverse order starting with 1997: Ben Clymer, Cory Sarich, Marc Moro, Rhett Warrener, Radim Bicanek, Boris Mironov and Steve Staois. All of those players were defensemen at one time, but Clymer now plays left wing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, while Steve Staios was drafted as a right wing by St. Louis.

So the 27th pick hasn’t done too bad since 1990, as that year’s 27th pick was Chris Taylor. (The 1989 27th pick, Mike Speer, didn’t fair as well as the others previously listed.) Can the Sharks Director of Amateur Scouting, Tim Burke, and crew continue the list of excellence with the 27th pick? Only time will tell, but considering the Sharks no longer rush players, own their AHL affiliate, and haven’t been afraid to use other minor pro leagues to help players develop, each prospect the Sharks take this year can be optimistic that they are going to one of the top franchises in the NHL. San Jose has a fairly large pay-roll, is in no financial difficulties, and is not up in arms about their arena’s age or their practice facility’s condition.

In order to discuss what the Sharks should look for in this Draft, one must first analyze the Sharks current roster conditions and also project how things will look in San Jose a few years from now. One must also forecast the Cleveland Barons’ future rosters, as a sound AHL franchise is key to developing prospects: A well-rounded Barons roster comprised of mostly Shark draft picks is inexpensive and can help build franchise chemistry and confidence. A good environment in the “A” can help the confidence of the Sharks’ prospects and allow those prospects that do graduate to the “big club” to have some chemistry in a way that the Detroit Red Wings had chemistry this past season. The Red Wings went to war for each other, as many of the veterans on the Red Wings had not won Stanley Cups despite their distinguished NHL careers. If you failed as a Red Wing, you weren’t just failing, you were letting down all of your distinguished teammates as well.

Here’s how the Sharks’ depth chart shakes out going into the 2002 NHL Entry Draft:

Goaltending: A position of strength for the Sharks. Evgeni Nabokov, the NHL Rookie of the Year at last year’s NHL Awards Banquet, beating out the offensive whiz Brad Richards, turns 27 in July. Nabokov, who hails from Kazakhstan and was drafted by the Sharks in the 8th round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, has provided the Sharks with excellent goaltending the past two season at a real bang-for-your buck price at less than $600,000! Nabokov is a restricted free agent this summer, and will likely cash in, but his partner in San Jose, Miikka Kiprusoff, who turns 26 in October, makes even less than Nabokov and he is not a free agent this summer. Last season Garth Snow, the back-up goalie for the New York Islanders, made nearly as much as Nabokov and Kiprusoff combined according the NHLPA’s website. The Sharks’ third goalie, 25-year old Vesa Toskala, is another sound goaltending product of the Sharks’ system, or perhaps Warren Strelow’s system.

The first the Shark goalies are rather certain, and Toskala has, at the least, NHL back-up capabilities. Displacing Nabokov or Kiprusoff could be difficult. If Toskala is traded, hopefully he will fetch more than Jeff Norton. After these three, Nolan Schaefer looks to have the most potential. Schaefer will play one more season with Providence, where he has logged major minutes since he arrived to begin his collegiate career. Marc Kielkucki, signed as a free agent out of the Air Force academy, is the Sharks only large goaltending prospect, and he also has potential, but will likely be in the ECHL again next season while Seamus Kotyk will back-up Toskala in net in Cleveland. It is doubtful that Kotyk will be a part of the Sharks’ organization for a while. German goalie Dimitri Pätzold rounds out the field, although he could easily surpass Kielkucki and Kotyk in the future. Pätzold is one of the top young goalies in Germany, and could potentially represent Germany in the 2006 Olympics in Italy. For now, he has the First Division World Junior Championship gold medal to keep him company, as Germany won that tournament this past season.

The Sharks are not in need of any goaltenders in this draft, but a goalie from Europe, or one just entering college may be what the “Draft Doctor” ordered for the Sharks, which will allow this goalie to develop for four seasons without the Sharks having to make any decision regarding this prospect. Current Shark prospects Doug Murray and Tom Cavanaugh fall under this type of prospect, and Murray has done quite well with Cornell in his three seasons after being drafted out of the New York Apple Core of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

Defense: If any position can compete with goaltending on the Sharks’ depth chart, it might be defense, especially concerning prospects. Gary Suter may be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and may not return, but he is the only UFA. The 33-year old Bryan Marchment is under contract for this coming season, but it’s hard to know how many seasons Marchment has left, especially in San Jose with so many prospect defensemen knocking on the tank’s glass. Marcus Ragnarsson (31 in August), Scott Hannan (23), Brad Stuart (23 in November), and Shawn Heins (28) are all restricted free agents. Ragnarsson probably has five years left, while Shawn Heins’ status is uncertain, but Stuart and Hannan will likely be part of the Sharks landscape for many years a la Mike Rathje, who turned 28 in May. Jeff Jillson is another Shark who has many years of NHL play to look forward to.

Behind these established Sharks are prospects like Christian Ehrhoff, Tero Määttä, Jim Fahey, and Doug Murray. Ehrhoff is already a regular on the German national team at age 19, put up big numbers at the WJC’s, and was the youngest player in the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Fahey and Murray were both among the 10 Hobey Baker Award finalists, and Fahey will likely join the Cleveland Barons next season, but if the Sharks have trouble getting some of the other defensemen signed, Fahey may get a shot sooner rather than later. Murray has one season left at Cornell, and hopefully he will be a Hobey Baker finalist again next season. Tero Määttä may still be a couple seasons away from North America, but after he completes his military service in Finland, hopefully he will progress quickly.

Other prospects like Jesse Fibiger, Rob Davison, Matt Carkner, and Robert Mulick will be hard pressed to ever make the NHL. Mulick’s 3-year entry-level contract expired at the end of this season, and it is unlikely that he will be re-signed. Davison will be entering the 3rd year of his entry-level contract, and the hard-working defenseman will have to have a good season in Cleveland for the Sharks to consider re-signing him, especially since Ehrhoff, Murray, and Määttä could all be expected to come over for the 03-04 season. Steve Bancroft, who had a cup of coffee with the Sharks this past season, is a seasoned AHL/IHL vet who provides leadership, and it’s quite possible that a player like Fibiger could become an AHL/IHL regular despite the rules restricting the number of “veterans” a team can have on its roster. Brandon Smith is another such player, who gives the Sharks emergency back-up, but gives Cleveland a veteran defenseman to help relieve some of the pressure on the prospect defensemen, the quality of which will likely go up in Cleveland in the next few seasons.

In Europe, the Sharks have Angel Nikolov, Robert Jindrich, and Pasi Saarinen. Nikolov would be a top defenseman in Cleveland without much trouble, and could give Shawn Heins a run for his money if he were brought over from Finland (Nikolov is of Czech heritage though). Jindrich already had a stint in North America and now plays for Timra in Sweden. Jindrich nearly made the Sharks in 1998, which would bode well for Nikolov’s chances to become a 7th or 8th defenseman for San Jose this season if he were to play in North America this coming season. The physical Saarinen has signed with HIFK Helsinki after playing for Jokerit, the Finnish Elite League champions this past season. Saarinen is also already of AHL caliber.

No NHL franchise can have too many good prospect defensemen, as long as they don’t all have similar styles. Considering the Sharks’ future concerning offensive defensemen is not entirely certain, it is possible the Sharks may take a defenseman in the early rounds to fulfill this need. Don’t be surprised if another defenseman is also taken later.

Center: The Sharks future at center isn’t certain either. Patrick Marleau has the ability to be a perennial NHL All-Star, but it’s hard to know if, or when, he will become a true number one center. If Marleau only becomes a second line center, then the Sharks have a need for a first line center, but that’s something that can almost never be counted on with any selection in the draft. Currently, Vincent Damphousse and Patrick Marleau can be thought of as centers 1a and 1b, but Damphousse is 34 years old heading into this season, and on the downside of his career. Marleau’s continued success may not lie in his hands though, as his right wing, Teemu Selanne, is an unrestricted free agent. Selanne and Marleau teamed up to put up some big numbers from the end of January on through the play-offs. Going into the Olympics, during, and after the Olympics, Selanne appeared to be more like the Selanne of old, with blazing speed down the alleys, but with some added defensive responsibility.

Mike Ricci may be the best 3rd line center in the NHL, but he turns 31 in October, and it’s hard to know how long a warrior like Ricci can last, especially one that was never particularly fast. The man who may take Ricci’s spot someday is Mark Smith, but Smith’s playing time decreased down the stretch as Matt Bradley firmly established himself in the line-up, which moved the versatile Todd Harvey to center on the fourth line. Another center who may end up the Sharks third line center someday is Marcel Goc, although Goc had a rather disappointing season in Germany this past year. There is still a reasonable chance that Goc and fellow German Marco Sturm may team up on the Sharks’ 3rd line five years from now, possibly with Matt Bradley as the right wing.

The rest of the Sharks’ centers aren’t of such a high profile. Ryan Kraft was the AHL Rookie of the Year in 2001, but he turns 27 in November. It’s unlikely that Kraft will ever crack the Sharks on a regular basis, but he could face a very successful career in Europe in the future. Chad Wiseman could end up a depth center for the Sharks someday, as could Graig Mischler, although Mischler will be a defensive center if he ever cracks the NHL. It is more likely that Mischler will serve as a scoring center in the AHL or various European leagues for most of his career. Andy Lundbohm faces a make-or-break season in Cleveland this next year, especially regarding his future with the Sharks. However, it is unlikely that he will ever be more than a third line center at the AHL level, and his style of play wouldn’t translate to the same level of success that Ryan Kraft would likely have in Europe. Joel Prpic only provides Cleveland with a veteran presence, and is unlikely to figure in the Sharks’ long-term plans.

Slovakian center Michal Macho is a prospect who should not be ignored, as he is establishing himself as a good two-way center who is good on draws. Macho probably has no worse of odds than Chad Wiseman, but bringing Macho over from the Slovakian Extraleague to toil in Cleveland for more than a couple years would be a doomed expectation: Finnish winger Hannes Hyvönen is at the “NHL or Europe” point after one year in North America for the Sharks.

Last but not least is Tom Cavanaugh, who still has three more seasons to go with Harvard after a stellar freshman season. The odds are good that Cavanaugh will at least be a second line AHL center in the future, but anything beyond that would be difficult to forecast at this time.

The Sharks have a fair number of centers in the fins (as opposed to wings), but the number of which could become more than 3rd line NHL centers is probably restricted to Patrick Marleau alone. Yes, Marco Sturm can play center, but he says he prefers wing now, and considering the Sharks have Marcel Goc, a young German center…the Sharks will probably have Sturm mentor Goc as much as possible. The offensive upsides of both German players are somewhat limited/questionable, especially if the Sharks consider their current third line the standard. One only need to peruse the rosters of Stanley Cup teams to realize where players like Marco Sturm really fall in the thick of things: elite 3rd line players, just like the third liners the Sharks currently employ.

Center is a position at which San Jose should focus some, but again, it will be very difficult for the Sharks to select anybody who will be a surefire second line NHL center someday. That doesn’t mean they can’t start trying this year though. Building through the draft helps keep salaries lower, as discussed when discussing the Sharks’ goaltending situation this past season. (Top three goalies for $1.5 million dollars according to the NHLPA’s website)

Right Wing: A position of some strength for the Sharks, although Owen Nolan is the only right wing currently of NHL caliber who is under contract for next season. Teemu Selanne is an unrestricted free agent, but GM Dean Lombardi says the two sides have spoken to each other about negotiations. Niklas Sundstrom is a restricted free agent, as are Todd Harvey and Matt Bradley. So is Hannes Hyvönen, who has signed a contract with Hameenlina in Finland, meaning the only way Hyvönen will be playing in North America next season is if he has a one-way NHL contract. Coach Darryl Sutter, who re-signed with the Sharks on Wednesday, June 19 (along with assistant coaches Rich Preston and Lorne Mollekan), said to various media sources earlier in the season that Hyvönen was the only player who came up from Cleveland who was already at the NHL level and needed no adjustment. Alex Korolyuk is also a restricted free agent, but it is questionable as to whether he will resign or not.

Other right wings include Miroslav Zalesak, Adam Colagiacomo, and Adam Nittel, all of whom played for Cleveland this past season. Colagiacomo’s and Nittel’s entry-level contracts (3-years) have both expired and it is doubtful that either of these two players will be re-signed, with the Sharks instead likely to favor Niko Dimitrakos, who completed his four years at Maine, and Willie Levesque, who completed his four years at Northeastern as a teammate to Jim Fahey. Zalesak is entering his third season under contract to the Sharks, but if one considers the difficulty with which Alexander Korolyuk has had consistently cracking the Sharks’ line-up, it’s difficult to fathom Zalesak having much success. Zalesak is a decent prospect, but he likely does not truly fit into the Sharks’ organization long-term.

The Sharks also have a top prospect in Jon DiSalvitore, who has one more season left at Providence college before he signs with San Jose and plays in Cleveland. Ryan Clowe, who plays for the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL is another decent prospect who has favorable odds of being signed for duty with Cleveland after the 02-03 season as a 3rd or 4th line player in the AHL to start out. DiSalvitore will likely challenge for a spot, which is the same level at which expectations should be placed on Dimitrakos.

If the Sharks can re-sign everybody, right wing looks set for the next few seasons, although Nolan and Selanne are getting older. Beyond that, DiSalvitore and Dimitrakos may have futures with the Sharks, and Ryan Clowe less so, meaning that the Sharks could take some more right wings of all different types, but especially of the scoring nature, as Bradley, Harvey, and Hyvönen could easily have the physical Sc3 and below right wings spot (Harvey can play all three forward positions though) covered.

Left Wing: Left wing has some question marks for the Sharks. Marco Sturm often plays on the first line with Damphousse and Nolan, but is Sturm really a first line player, particularly on a Stanley Cup winning team? The 34-year old Adam Graves came on as the season progressed, but Graves is still 34 years old and probably does not have many seasons left in him. Scott Thornton is a late-bloomer, and the Sharks are hopeful the 31-year old has some more season left in him that equal this past season, but Thornton is no spring chicken, and the Sharks must contemplate who his replacement will be in three to five years time. Stephane Matteau is an unrestricted free agent, and the 32-year old will probably not be re-signed to allow players like Matt Bradley to play instead.

Jonathan Cheechoo has made the switch to left wing in response to the absence of left wing prospects on the Sharks. As Ross McKeon reports in The Hockey News, if Cheechoo works hard this summer, he will warrant a real look by the Sharks, but Cheechoo did suffer a major concussion this season, and he will face an uphill struggle to crack the Sharks’ line-up again: defenseman Jeff Jillson can attest to this difficulty after this past season. Tomas Plihal is next on the prospect depth chart, and the young Czech, who helped the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League win the Memorial Cup in his rookie season, may be on the Barons this coming season. This is possible because Plihal was drafted out of the Czech Republic, not major juniors, which requires all players who do not turn 20 by December 31, 2002 to play in either the NHL or major junior, but in no other league.

The Sharks have two other left-wing prospects with legitimate shots at the NHL, although neither will ever be more than 4th liners if they do. One of these players is super pest Eric Laplante, who has played the past two seasons in the AHL and has one year left on his 3-year entry level contract. Laplante’s potential is that of the Ryan VandenBussche nature. Laplante is one of the few prospects the Sharks that are not in the NHL that has this level of grit and aggressiveness. Laplante must put up a little bit more offense in Cleveland this year, but there is the possibility that he will be with the Sharks for more than just this season. Lynn Loyns, an undrafted free agent pick up by the Sharks, is a speedy, tenacious winger who compares to Mark Smith in many ways, although Smith is definitely the better prospect. Loyns could end up the lesser version of Mark Smith at left wing, which could make Loyns a depth player in the future. Loyns style of play is conducive to the style Darryl Sutter likes in his players.

The Sharks have two remaining left wing prospects, both of who have much to prove. Mark Concannon, a third round pick in 1999, had two difficult seasons with Lowell after he was drafted, thanks in large part to injuries. This past season Concannon played in every game and came on stronger towards the end of the season. If Concannon can put together a good senior year at Lowell, he may just salvage a contract with the Sharks after all, but he’ll be hard pressed to start out anywhere other than the ECHL. The final left wing prospect is Michal Pinc, who, after a good season in the QMJHL, returned to the Czech Republic in an attempt to make Litvinov of the Czech Extraleague, the top league in the Czech Republic. Pinc failed to make this team and was assigned to Chomutov of the 1st League, where he had some injuries, but became a healthy scratch towards the end of the season and into the play-offs. Pinc must first become a regular at the 1st League level before he can think about playing in the Extraleague, and then returning to North America at the AHL level or higher is another “ballgame.”

The Sharks are potentially in decent shape at left wing, since Marco Sturm plays all three forwards positions, so does Todd Harvey, and Niklas Sundstrom can play both wings. Add to that Cheechoo and Plihal, and to a lesser degree Laplante and Loyns, things could work out for the Sharks, but nothing should be taken as certainty. In all likely hood, unless Sundstrom switches back to left wing in the future, the Sharks don’t have a true number one left wing in the fins. Sundstrom has more playmaking and offensive creativity than Sturm, who definitely has his pluses, but Sundstrom helps make the 3rd line function more than Sturm makes any line he’s on for the Sharks function. The Sharks should definitely consider a couple left wings in this draft, probably one scoring and then one physical left wing. Graves has a couple years left most likely, and Thornton probably has a few, but some replacements must be groomed beyond Jonathan Cheechoo, who is not likely to ever be a first line left wing. (Although, the same was said about Luc Robitaille many years ago.) If Plihal can develop as a good two-way left wing at the NHL level, that’d definitely be helpful in the future.

San Jose is a team that has many good prospects who should at least make impacts at the AHL level and buy the Sharks time with Cleveland in continuing to restock the Barons hoping that Roy Sommer and crew can develop a one or two each year into an NHL player. Hyvönen has shown he’s ready, but will San Jose grant him his wish? Vesa Toskala appears worthy, and so does Jonathan Cheechoo. Ryan Kraft could probably help some of the lesser teams in the NHL right now, but his odds of cracking San Jose are very low. Given how players like Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, Scott Hannan, Matt Bradley, and Mark Smith have recently worked their way up the ranks after being drafted by the Sharks, there’s no reason the Sharks should not remain confident that some of their prospects will make the NHL level. Mark Smith made the jump as a low-round pick, so the futures of prospect forwards like Plihal, DiSalvitore, and Dimitrakos should prove interesting. Ehrhoff, Määttä, Fahey, and Murray all look to have good shots, as do Toskala and Schaefer in net. For now, players like Jillson, Hyvönen, Cheechoo, and Toskala will battle to make their fall, winter, and spring home in the Silicon Valley.