Euro Sharks Prospect Update

By Kevin Wey

Germany may be home to the Sharks’ highest-profile European prospects, but a few prospects in other European nations could pay dividends as well.

The non-German European prospect with the highest profile is Finnish defenseman Tero Määttä. Määttä, the Sharks’ first pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (but in the second round 41st overall), made the trip to San Jose for the first time to participate in the Sharks’ training camp in September. The two time member of the Finnish World Junior Championship team made a splash when he sent veteran minor-league center Ryan Kraft through the glass. Määttä also surprised some onlookers with his propensity to join the offensive play in intrasquad scrimmages. Scouting reports of Määttä don’t mention comparisons to Latvia’s Sandis Ozolinsh, and Hockey’s Future Finnish correspondent Pekka Lampinen says that puckhandling and passing have been weaknesses of Määttä so far this season. Määttä’s offensive experimentation at Logitech has not carried over to production in the Finnish Elite League, as the 22-year old defenseman had tallied no points entering the Finnish Elite League’s break for the Karjala Cup held in Helsinki.

Määttä returned to Finland from San Jose in time for the Espoo Blues’ second game of the season versus JYP, a 2-4 loss. The Blues put Määttä on their fourth line (European teams often dress 22 players, four full lines and two goalies) each of the five games he played with the team from Sept. 19 through October 1. The only real highlight involving Määttä was when he was ejected in the 2nd period of a game versus SaiPa, Määttä’s second game of the season. The Vantaa native continued with 12 penalty minutes until his Oct. 1 game against Ilves, in which he picked up a double-minor in a skirmish with former Panther-prospect David Nemirovsky.

For the rest of October Espoo loaned Määttä fellow Finnish Elite League team Ässät, where Määttä was able to get more ice-time. In his six games with Ässät, Määttä played on the following lines in order: 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st. Jarko Glad teamed with Määttä in his two games on the first line, as a starter. Mika Rontti teamed with Määttä for the first two games, then Timo Ahmaoja paired with Määttä in his next two games with Ässät. Game one through four were relatively uneventful, although from Oct. 10 through Oct. 19 Ässät went on a three-game winning-streak.

Ässät’s Oct. 22 meeting with Kärpät wasn’t only a 5-1 loss, it marked the loss of Määttä for three games, as he was suspended three games for an illegal hit in the Kärpät game, giving him a 25-minute penalty, along with a minor penalty earlier in the game. Ässät lost its three games without Määttä by a combined score of 9-3, as the team’s offense fizzled.

Määttä was to return to his former club, the Espoo Blues, on Nov. 1, but Lampinen says that Määttä wishes to remain with Ässät, where he will receive more ice-time. Espoo and Ässät had the Karjala Cup Break to reach an agreement regarding an extension of Määttä’s loan to Ässät, but nothing has been announced as of Nov. 11. (The Karjala Cup took place between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10 among Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Russia. No Shark prospects were involved in the touranment, although former Sharks Michal Sykora, Jan Caloun, and Michal Bros reprsented the Czech Republic and Ville Peltonen represented Finland, which won the tournament.)

Finnish military service requirements have prevented Määttä from concentrating solely on hockey in previous seasons, but Määttä has fulfilled those requirements, and the 02-03 season marks an important opportunity for Määttä to progress and improve upon some of his weaknesses. Quickness, speed, and shot power are all areas in which Finnish hockey observers tend to agree that Määttä needs work on if he is to have success in the Finnish Elite League or the NHL. Lampinen also notes that Määttä’s passing and stickhandling are sub-par at the Finnish Elite League level.

Määttä’s status as a second-round pick means there are some expectations of success among many Shark fans, and in most hockey publications (including Hockey’s Future) Määttä is ranked among the top 10 Shark prospects. Määttä’s stock fall out of the top 10 quickly, as many prospects behind Määttä on most lists are off to great starts in 2002-03, most coming off solid seasons last year as well.

Lynn Loyns typifies this potential to pass Määttä, as the tenacious, speedy, forechecking winger scored two goals against the Los Angeles Kings Nov. 5. Loyns appears to be cementing his spot on the Sharks’ roster, while Jeff Jillson and Jonathan Cheechoo may returning to Gund Arena in Cleveland sooner rather than later. Recent comments by Darryl Sutter certainly seem to confirm this in regards to Jillson.

Even if Määttä does have a disappointing season in Finland this year, it seems likely/logical that the Sharks will have Määttä play in Cleveland for two or three seasons and monitor his progress there. With the Sharks depth at defense on the prospect depth-chart, it is not imperative that Määttä become a future fifth or sixth defenseman in the NHL. Doug Murray, despite his big numbers in college hockey, is a prospect that serves as an interesting comparison, as Murray’s future with the Sharks, if he makes the NHL, is also probably as a fifth or sixth defenseman.

Some college hockey observers for Hockey’s Future have noted in previous correspondences that Murray’s offensive production is based largely on his awareness, and not so much skill, as was the case with Jim Fahey at Northeastern. Murray is more likely to end up like Scott Hannan than Brad Stuart. With Hannan’s stock rising, a comparison to Hannan is a compliment. At this point, Määttä is not on the up, unlike Hannan at the NHL level, or Murray at the collegiate level. But if Määttä stays in Europe and struggles to make an impact for a few seasons, he could easily fall off of the radar screen completely.In 98-99 Nikolov broke through with 5 goals and 12 assists in 51 games with Litvinov and backed that up with 6 goals and 15 assists the following season. The 2000-01 season saw Nikolov’s offensive production drop to 5 goals and 11 assists in 48 games, but Nikolov’s 85 penalty minutes that season were a career high. JYP of the Finnish Elite League took notice and signed the Czech defenseman to a three-year contract in the summer of 2001.

Last season with JYP, Nikolov probably had his best season to date with four goals and 16 assists in 53 games. These 20 points placed Nikolov 19th in defenseman scoring in the Finnish Elite League. While 19th alone may not sound impressive, the fact that Nikolov is a multi-dimensional defenseman is a positive. Nikolov, who turns 27 on Nov. 18, is a two-way defenseman with a physical edge who will drop the gloves once in a while. The Czech native of Most also has the size (6’3” 209 lb) to get it done.

JYP is currently in 8th place in the Finnish Elite League (the last play-off spot) after 18 games, but Nikolov’s results in the 16 games he’s played in have not been as impressive as last season. Nikolov currently stands at one goal, three assists, and 28 penalty minutes.

For the first six games of the season Nikolov paired with Jyri Marttinen on the second line. Nikolov did not play in a game against Lukko on Oct. 4 (reasons unconfirmed), and played on the 4th line the next game against SaiPa, the team of former Shark first round pick Teemu Riihijarvi. (Off to his best start ever playing on the third line) Since that game Nikolov has played every game, except one against Kärpät on Oct. 19, on the first line. Petri Virolainen became Nikolov’s new partner in the Kärpät game and the two have since been JYP’s first defensive pairing until Nikolov missed JYP’s most recent game against Ilves. (Reason unconfirmed) Nikolov was also conspicuously absent from the Czech Republic’s Karjala Cup roster, as Nikolov was on the Czech team’s roster for the April version of the Karjala Cup.

Despite the Sharks’ reversal of fortunes with Evgeni Nabokov in net, problems with the Sharks’ blue-line continue. Sutter is not entirely satisfied with Jillson, as quoted in an article by correspondant Victor Chi: “For what Jeff Jillson is giving us in terms of what we’re giving him, it’s not a very good payback,” Sutter said.

Summer acquisition John Jakopin may have surpassed the Sharks Fitness Award winner, Shawn Heins, but neither have been particularly impressive. Heins skating still looks clunky, which hinders the contributions the hard shooting, physical defenseman could contribute with better skating. Jakopin, whose skating form hasn’t looked bad, is rather slow, and the NHL’s crackdown on obstruction hurts his effectiveness. Jakopin plays a physical game, and he’s a willing combatant in fisticuffs, but Jakopin is not playing a great deal, as he has averaged of 7:35 minutes per game after 10 games. Mike Rathje and Marcus Ragnarsson have been relied upon heavily, and Bryan Marchment and Scott Hannan have also seen increases in ice-time over last season. (Marchment by over 4 minutes per game)

Given the weaknesses of three of the Sharks’ top 7 defensemen (with Stuart unsigned) the specter of Nikolov in San Jose has some appeal. Nikolov’s offense is certainly superior to that of Jakopin, Nikolov skates better than Heins and is faster than Jakopin and does well in a league known for some slick skaters and a bigger ice-surface, and Nikolov’s defensive awareness is probably (at least) equal to Heins and Jakopin as well. Nikolov’s size and physicality is not as big as Jakopin and Heins, but neither Jakopin nor Heins will be confused with Mike Rathje, meaning their size is not a counterveiling advantage over their weaknesses. Nikolov’s shot power and ability to keep his shots low could make him an option on any power play below the NHL, and it’d be interesting to see how Nikolov would fare in a Shark training camp.

While Nikolov could actually serve as a potential option, he’s ineligible to play in North America this season without clearing waivers, and it’s likely he’ll play out his three-year contract with JYP without ever setting foot in San Jose. At the worst, Nikolov would be a useful Cleveland farm-hand for depth, but as a 27-year old, his years of professional experience in Europe could give him a shot at the NHL, especially against players like Heins and Jakopin. That said, youngsters Christian Ehrhoff and Jim Fahey will likely fill spots in San Jose in the near future, not San Jose’s Czech prospect playing in Finland.

It took fellow Czech defenseman Jaroslav Modry many years to cement his spot in the NHL, but now he’s leading the Kings in ice-time. Nikolov, while not as good as Modry currently, does have some similarities to Modry, most notably size, shot power, and defensive awareness. Nikolov may not move the puck as well as Modry, but he is slightly more physical. With work in San Jose, it’s hard to know what Nikolov’s potential could be.

Another over-age defenseman the Sharks have in Finland is Pasi Saarinen. The 5’11” Saarinen may not have Nikolov’s height, but the 195-pound defenseman is rather strong and very physical. Saarinen has 33 penalty minutes in 15 games this season, missing HIFK’s second and third games of the season because of a suspension on an illegal hit.

The physical Finn started the season on HIFK’s second pairing with Niklas Hedberg, who was later replaced by Hannu Pikkarainen. Pikkarainen and Saarinen have since been dropped to the third pairing for three of the last four games. In the pairing’s reprieve on the second line on Oct. 29 against Jokerit, Saarinen’s old team, number 77 (Saarinen) scored a goal with 20 seconds remaining in the game, giving HIFK a 3-0 shutout win.

The right-shooting defenseman put up great numbers (50-9-19-20) with Ilves during the 99-00 season, which prompted the Sharks to draft Saarinen with the 256th pick of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. (8th round) Saarinen’s offense dropped some in 00-01 with Jokerit, with six goals and nine assists in 52 games. The 01-02 season saw Saarinen fail to put up any points in 32 games with Jokerit, where Saarinen struggled to find ice-time and committed many selfish penalties.

Saarinen could certainly handle himself in the AHL, and his grit and physicality would certainly make him an attractive NHL possibility, as the Finn is superior to Cleveland defensemen Matt Carkner, Rob Davison, and Robert Mulick in skill-level. However, Saarinen’s lack of offensive output likely precludes him from consideration. Saarinen is not a low-skill defenseman though, and should not be glanced over by the Sharks or the Sharks’ fans, just like how Czech defenseman Robert Jindrich eventually got his shot in San Jose in 1998.

Jindrich nearly made the Sharks in 1998, battling with Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, and Shawn Heins for a spot. The 5’11” 195 pound Jindrich lost the battle and played two seasons with the Kentucky Thoroughblades as a consistent top-four defenseman.

Jindrich returned to Europe for the 01-02 season though, playing with Timra of the Swedish Elite League. The 168th pick of the 1995 NHL Entry Draft put in a somewhat mediocre season with the Swedish team though, as Timra finished last in the league with Detroit Red Wings’ prospect Henrik Zetterberg as the only real bright spot on the team. Timra is now without Zetterberg, who’s playing in Detroit, and also without Jindrich, who has been afflicted with an abdominal injury all season.

The smooth-skating Jindrich appeared in two games for Timra, but his effectiveness was compromised by the injury and Jindrich has yet to appear since the two games early in the season. At this point Jindrich can only hope to regain his health, but Hockey’s Future’s Czech Republic Editor Robert Neuheuser has said that Nikolov is superior to Jindrich, so a return by Jindrich to North America is definitely unlikely at this time. Timra fans can just hope that Jindrich returns to health and the form he showed in North America.

Slovakian forward Michal Macho, who is playing for Slovan Bratislava of the Slovakian Extra League, the highest league in Slovakia, is another prospect the Sharks have in Europe. Macho played the last two seasons for Martin in the Slovakian Extra League, after playing for Martin in the Slovakian 1. League as a 17-year old. The 20-year old, who turns 21 in January, had 12 goals and 8 assists in 40 games last season, but is behind that pace so far this season. After 22 games this season, Macho has 3 goals and 4 assists.

Hockey’s Future Slovakia Editor, Tomas Egry, says that Macho started the season on Slovan’s 3rd line with Jan Lipiansky and Michal Hudec, but has since slipped to the 4th line. Slovan Bratislava currently lies 3rd (out of 10 teams) in the Slovakian Extra League standings. Last season Martin failed to make the play-offs, and Macho finished 5th in scoring on the team. This season with Slovan, ice-time has been harder to find as Slovan has good depth at center, Macho’s traditional position.

This season Macho has been playing right wing, according to Egry and the Slovakian Extra League’s web-site. Egry also notes that while Macho was able to create many scoring chances while playing with Lipiansky (among the leading scorers on Slovan), that Macho’s ability to convert on these chances was low. (Not unlike Jeff Friesen, who has shown visible frustration with New Jersey this season.)

Macho, when playing on Slovakia’s Under-18 team and World Junior Championship team, has never been a leading scorer. He has however, been good in the face-off circle and responsible defensively. Despite low offensive production in international competition, Macho’s accomplishments in the Slovakian Extra League are reasonably impressive when Macho’s age is considered.

The Sharks’ 6th round pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft is in the first year of a four-year contract with Slovan Bratislava. There is a strong possibility that, like former Shark pick Michal Bros, Macho will not play in North America any time soon, and play out his four year contract with Slovan without ever coming to North American. Macho’s accomplishments up to this point tend to indicate that he could at least start out as a 3rd line center with Cleveland when brought over. Currently though, the Sharks have a few centers competing for a similar spot, including current Barons Graig Mischler and Pat Rissmiller, along with major junior players Tomas Plihal and Kris Newbury.

As time moves on, centers like Ryan Kraft and Jeff Nelson will likely move on, and a spot could easily be opened for Macho, perhaps even as a right wing as he is now with Slovan. While Määttä has had more fanfare, Macho’s accomplishments representing Slovakia and playing in the Slovakian Extra League are comparable to Määttä’s in Finland and with the Finnish national team at the World Junior Championships. Macho’s production with Slovan may end up less than that with Martin last season, but Macho’s with a top team now, where earning ice-time will be a challenge. Players of Macho’s age and experience in top European elite leagues are players to keep an eye on.

Slovakian players like Ziggy Palffy, Pavol Demitra and Zdeno Chara are now making impacts in the NHL, but young players plying their trade in Slovakia are still often ignored before they come to North America. Macho may be off of most people’s radar screen, but he was definitely worth the 6th round selection, and is not a name to forget.

San Jose may have taken only one player of European deceent in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Czech forward Jonas Fiedler, who plays for Plymouth of the OHL, but the Sharks are still stocked with plenty of European prospects who could contribute in North America with San Jose or Cleveland in the future.