San Jose Sharks Top Ten Prospects

By Mike Delfino

Another draft has been completed, and it was one that made formulating a top ten list quite for the Sharks difficult. However, after much deliberation, using many different sources and opinions, I have finally come up with a top ten that I am comfortable with.

While the player’s abilities is the key deciding factor, other factors such as experience at a certain level, how NHL-ready a player is, and intangibles (IE: height, weight, etc) take a part at times, particularly after the fifth selection where any of ten players could be anywhere from 6th through 15th.

Look for in depth player evaluations of all key Sharks prospects to come in the next week or so here at hockeysfuture.

1st: Jonathan Cheechoo-RW/LW

This was the only easy selection. Of all Sharks prospects Cheechoo is the most ready for the NHL, has successfully played at all levels of competition, and simply has the most talent at this point of his career than anyone else in the Sharks system.

Cheechoo played significant time at left wing last season for Cleveland of the AHL, which he may need to do again next season if he has a chance of cracking the Sharks lineup. While his natural position is right wing, he will have a tough time earning ice time with Teemu Selanne, Owen Nolan and Nik Sundstrom all entrenched in their spots on the right. However, with only Scott Thornton and Adam Graves with solid positions on the left (Marco Sturm also plays on the left, but is often at center), that could give Cheechoo an opportunity.

Cheechoo will start off like all Shark rookies start, being eased into the lineup and forced to earn every minute. However, if Cheechoo is going to be successful, it will not be as a fourth line grinder. While he is tough enough to grind it out on the fourth line, it is not his strength. He is a prototypical second or third line player, but with a team like San Jose where it is hard to tell the difference between the top three lines, Cheechoo could easily find himself playing significant minutes on the second or third lines quickly.

Another element that could play to Cheechoo’s advantage is contract holdouts that may give him an opportunity to play. Currently, Alex Korolyuk, Stephane Matteau, Sundstrom and Matt Bradley are not under contract. In fact, there is a chance that neither Korolyuk or Matteau will be back next season, with Matteau an unrestricted free agent, and Korolyuk’s situation uncertain. If Cheechoo inherits minutes because of contracts, it is imperative he takes advantage of it like Evgeni Nabokov did when Steve Shields was injured early in the 2000/01 season.

2nd: Marcel Goc-C

This was probably the most difficult decision as to whether to put him second or third. Many said he should be third after a weak 2001/02 season, others said that the skill he undoubtedly has deserves him to still hold onto this second spot. In the end his skill won out, earning him a narrowly won second place on the Sharks depth chart.

There is no doubt Goc struggled last season with Schwennigen of his German team, however Goc also showed that his skill is not lost after an impressive performance at the World Junior Championship. His season last year was partially expected, as it was predicted that teams would figure him out to a certain extent. In all likelihood, Goc will spend one more season in Germany. If he has the same struggles he did last season, there will be reason for concern, however, if he continues the improvement that he began to show the second half, Goc’s future with the Sharks organization will remain hopeful.

After his career in Germany is over, there is a good chance he could make his San Jose debut shortly thereafter. While the Sharks want to take their time with him, and he’ll likely spend at least some time in Cleveland, Goc could be ready to step into the San Jose lineup sometime in the year 2003 or 2004.

When he eventually does make his San Jose debut, he is very much of a second line center. He doesn’t appear to have the dynamic ability for the first line, or the toughness for the third or fourth lines. This could make for good timing for the Sharks as Vincent Damphousse’s career will be winding down, allowing Goc to step into that role.

3rd: Christian Ehrhoff-D

After selecting Goc second there was no doubt about putting Ehrhoff third after a very impressive season. Despite suffering a serious eye injury that threatened his career, he returned to play just as strong as ever, and made the German Olympic team, and the World Junior Championship where he played exceptionally in both. He was the youngest player in the Olympics, and led defensemen in scoring in his group during the WJC.

Selected in the fourth round in 2001, Ehrhoff opened eyes with his play last season. Many have already picked him as the mid-round steal of that draft, and there is an excellent chance he could see Cleveland this season. While the Sharks defense is well set, with or without Gary Suter who may retire, the Sharks likely wouldn’t hesitate to look at him as a possibility if injuries mount up.

He is a player who is very reliable in his own end, and is excellent at closing off angles. Many of the skills he naturally has will serve him very well at the professional level, now it’s just a matter of refinement.

With two potential All-Stars in Brad Stuart and Jeff Jillson, Ehrhoff will have an excellent opportunity to find his niche’ as the third defenseman on the Sharks. The Sharks have had a fair amount of success in the mid-rounds, but Ehrhoff could easily become the star of the bunch.

4th: Terro Maatta

Maatta’s stock has dropped since being drafted in the second round in 2000. He has yet to attend a Sharks training camp, and time in Cleveland has not even been a possibility yet. His play has been inconsistent at best, and although his military service has no doubt affected things, it is imperative that he turns it around this upcoming season.

Maatta will be expected to at least attend training camp in a couple months. If he doesn’t, expect his stock to drop even further on this list. If he does, he may be playing for a spot in Cleveland, which could easily raise his stock. As his year progressed last season he gradually got better, but it still wasn’t what the Sharks would have hoped. What is cause for encouragement is his performance at the World Junior Championships though, where he was very sound in his own end, showing no signs of any struggles.

While the original plan was to have him debut in Cleveland this season, even if he does make his debut there this year, his progress will have to be considered a little bit slower than planned unless he can prove otherwise. At this point, he would have to be considered a solid fifth defenseman prospect. While there’s nothing wrong with that, he is probably capable of better. This season should answer a lot of questions.

5th: Mike Morris

While there is question as to whether he should have been selected in the first round, there is no question that Morris has abilities. When drafting players out of high school it can be impossible to tell exactly how a player will react to playing against competition that is bigger, faster and stronger. Morris, however, seems to have all the tools necessary to compete at any level.

While next year he’ll only be playing in his freshman year at Northeastern University, it should give at least a preliminary indication of his abilities at that level. He won’t be counted on to be a key member of that team, but it would be an excellent opportunity for him if he could step up and play on one of the top lines.

It’s far too early to tell what kind of a player Morris will be, but his first year of collegiate hockey could give some kind of early indication. What could also be a key test for him is the World Junior Championship tournament, which he is expected to be a candidate for. A strong performance there could answer a lot of questions, and can only raise his stock.

Barring amazing progress in his development, the earliest Morris would see San Jose would be 2006. Any time a team drafts a player out of high school, they know that they’re in it for the long haul, and that will likely be the case with Morris.

6th: Nolan Schaefer

Schaefer is another goalie that the Sharks have developed from an average-at-best prospect, to a solid goaltending prospect that many will be looking at as one of the best college goalies. Schaefer won the starting job at Providence much earlier than anyone expected, and last season started all but two games.

While his statistics weren’t quite what he would have hoped for, his play remained steady in front of a defense that did not give him much help. Next season he will have an opportunity to play for a team with more experience and hopefully fewer instances where he is hung out to dry.

Schaefer has a lot of ability, and has the poise and intelligence necessary to play in the NHL. Whether he will be able to step his game up another level to adjust to the faster play of professional hockey is the big question mark. This season, his biggest chore will be to improve his reaction times, and if anything, stop thinking so much. If he can learn to rely on his instincts better, his stock will rise.

Unfortunately for Schaefer, in many ways he only has room to move down on this list. Barring an absolutely awesome season, he doesn’t stand to move up this list a lot because it would be very difficult for him to surpass others being a goalie in his position. In addition, given the depth of the Sharks goaltending, it may be difficult for him to get minutes even in Cleveland. At this point, he is considered fourth on the depth chart, behind Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Vesa Toskala, with Dmitri Patzold not too terribly far behind. However, as things have been shown in the past, things often, and usually do, change quite quickly, so by this time next season, he could easily find himself the starting goalie in Cleveland.

7th: Jim FaheyM

It was difficult trying to decide whether to put Fahey sixth or seventh, but I put him at seventh based on the fact that his skills are a bit less refined for the style of the NHL than Schaefer’s. Fahey does, however, possess a ton of skill, and is possibly the best stick handler among all Sharks prospects.

In his senior year at Northeastern last season, Fahey was a Hobey Baker finalist, the award given to hockey’s MVP. In addition he was named the Hockey East Player of the Month for October. He led the nation in scoring among defensemen, and was fourth overall in the Hockey East, and was the captain of his team.

When you look at his style of play, it’s hard to find things you don’t like about it. He can play in any and all situations, and when he steps on the ice, you know what to expect. He works hard, never gives up on a play, and is definitely considered a “coachable” player who can adapt to different styles of opponents and defensive partners.

After hearing so many rave reviews about Fahey, a good question to ask would be why he isn’t first on this list. The problem is that Fahey has yet to show some of the skills necessary to be successful at the next level. If he has shown any weaknesses it has been against competition that is faster and stronger, not necessarily more skilled. The problem is that every player in the NHL fits that description. If he can adjust his play the Sharks will have found themselves another late round (8th round in 1998) steal. Fahey will likely have his chance to show whether he can perform or not this season in Cleveland.

8th: Dan Spang

By selecting Spang in the second round of the 2002 draft, there were more questions and concerns about what the Sharks were thinking. However, when one takes into consideration that Spang was the most recruited high school player in the nation last season, a certain amount of speculation must come to a screeching halt.

Despite playing in only six games last season, Spang’s stock rose in the eyes of the Central Scouting Service and many scouts throughout the NHL. In those six games he scored nine goals and eight assists, but more importantly showed a work ethic that showed that he wants to succeed. Sharks Director of Amatuer Scouting, Tim Burke, was convinced on draft day that had Spang played a full season, the Sharks would not have acquired him in the second round.

Spang is a speedy defenseman who gets to pucks very well, and knows the game far better than his age would make one think. I have heard speculation that he could be switched to the wing, but it is important to note that this is unsubstantiated by anyone with Boston University, his destination next season.

Particularly after missing essentially the entire 2001/02 season, the fact that it’s a high school player, and the fact that he will be entering a new level of competition, it is impossible to predict what kind of year he’ll have. If he can even have an acceptable season, that would have be considered thrilling after being out of the game for so long. Despite this, many have looked at Spang as a possible candidate for college’s Rookie of the Year, further proof that Spang isn’t a player that the Sharks chose out of thin air.

Spang’s prospects at a San Jose debut are very similar to Morris’. If Spang sticks with the defensive position, that is a position that generally takes longer to learn, but if he proves that he’s ready for NHL duty before his senior year is finished, the Sharks would not hesitate to consider him. That of course is still so far down the line, however, that it is really pointless to even speculate at this stage.

9th: Doug Murray

Murray has nowhere to go but up on this list. Murray was also a Hobey Baker finalist last season, in only his junior year. This season he’ll be a year older, with a year more experience, and will have a legitimate chance to win the award while playing for an improved Cornell University team.

Murray plays a style not much different than that of Fahey’s style. Murray is a bit stronger than Fahey, and will play the body more, however, Murray doesn’t have the stick handling or shooting ability that Fahey has.

What Murray does have are a lot of the intangibles. The term “hockey sense” is one that is very difficult to define, but is necessary to have. It’s a combination of knowing what’s happening on the ice, and how to successfully accomplish what you want to get done, along with a dozen other factors at times. Whatever it is, Murray has it. He always knows where the puck is, and is never fooled. He knows how to react and change his game in accordance with his opponents, and is smart enough not to get in over his head.

Unfortunately, there is a very basic element that may hold him back, his skill level. While hockey sense can take you far, there is a certain amount of skill one must inherently have to succeed at a higher level of hockey, and there is question as to whether Murray has it. Fortunately for him, he has a full season of college hockey left, and likely at least a season or two in the AHL to get himself ready.

10th: Tomas Plihal-C

Trying to pick the final player to include on the top ten was an incredibly difficult choice, as there were any one of half a dozen other players that could have made it on the list. In the end, Plihal got the nod based on the improvements he showed throughout his season at Kootenay of the WHL.

It seems like every draft the Sharks like to take a chance on a guy who’s not a typical San Jose player somewhere around the fifth round. Plihal was that guy in 2001, and so far that chance is working out well. He led all rookies in the WHL in scoring last season and was named Rookie of the Month in October. He also got great experience playing in the Memorial Cup Finals, playing excellent in key situations.

Plihal was drafted out of the Czech Republic, and made the first wise decision of his career by opting to play in the WHL rather than in his home country. This isn’t degrading the Czech Republic’s hockey system in any way, but Plihal’s development could only be best served by getting him used to the North American style to see if he could transfer his skills to the smaller rink. He proved that he could pass that first step in only a matter of months. While it took him about a month to get going, once he found his stride he was difficult to stop.

Plihal’s offensive ability has never been in question. Next season Plihal could lead the CHL in scoring and still remain tenth on this list or fall off all together. The biggest element that Plihal must improve is his defensive play. Last season he showed little defensive responsibility, although it is an element that started to show improvement.
The Sharks don’t have a lot of players in the Canadian Junior hockey system, but Plihal is an easy choice to top the list.

Honorable Mentions:

Jon DiSalvatore-RW: Plays with Schaefer at Providence, leading his team in all offensive categories. Very one-dimensional player at this point, however. Must round out his game and improve consistency.

Chad Wiseman
-C: Wiseman very quietly played his first professional season for Cleveland last season and finished third on the team in points. With Mike Craig going elsewhere next season, Wiseman will have a great chance to show his abilities more. If there is one guy that’s underrated, it would probably have to be him.

Miroslav Zalesak-RW: Cleveland will likely lose their top right wings, Craig to free agency, and Cheechoo to the Sharks. This will put that first line spot in Zalesak’s lap to either win or lose. Last season he finally started to show his abilities as the season winded to close in the final month. However, it was too little, too late. He could be a major player for Cleveland next season, or a major disappointment.

Dmitri Patzold-G: Despite not playing a lot of games last season, Patzold showed that he has abilities. He must show that he can play at that level on a consistent basis, however. He may get that chance at the World Junior Championship if he can win the minutes, assuming Germany makes the tournament. Will be watched with interest during camp.

Jonas Fiedler-RW:

Was a rookie in Plymouth of the OHL last season and improved a great deal as the season progressed. He will need to build off that improvement, and not take too many steps backward in the progress.

As can be clearly seen, the final several spots are far from secure. A good week can raise one’s stock several positions, or drop a player right off the list. The Sharks will have several players playing seasons that will answer a lot of questions about their abilities, and it will be very interesting to see how they respond.