San Jose Euro Update Part II: Czechs, Finns, and Slovaks, oh my!

By Kevin Wey

Although the Sharks’ three German prospects continue to take the lead of all of the Sharks’ European prospects, Czechs Angel Nikolov and Robert Jindrich, Finns Tero Määttä and Pasi Saarinen, and Slovak Michal Macho round out the Sharks’ Euro investment.

Defenseman Tero Määttä has the highest profile, as the two-time Finnish World Junior Championship team member was the Sharks’ first selection in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (2nd round, 41st overall). After being loaned to Assät for six games, along with a three-game suspension earned from an illegal hit against Kärpät on Oct. 22, Määttä returned to Espoo, the club with which Määttä played his two previous seasons in the Finnish Elite League. During his time with Assät, Määttä saw his ice-time increase, and was eventually paired with Jarkko Glad on the team’s first line.

After returning to Espoo, and the Finnish Elite League’s break for the Karjala Cup tournament, Määttä found himself once again with on Espoo’s fourth line with Tommi Pelkonen, who will be representing Finland at the World Junior Championships in Halifax and Sydney. After seven games Määttä moved up to pair with Rami Alanko on the third line, where he has played since.

In previous seasons Määttä’s offensive prowess has been questioned, but he did put up decent numbers. This season Määttä has a lone assist. The 6’1” 214 pound defenseman does have 63 penalty minutes in his 25 games, 25 of which came on a single penalty for the illegal hit against Kärpät. (A unique aspect of Finnish hockey)

Määttä’s training camp with San Jose wasn’t half bad though, and it may serve as a precursor to a move to North American (read Cleveland) next season. The Finn would definitely be an upgrade over Robert Mulick, and Määttä does not have the attitude problem that Finnish-flop Teemu Riihijarvi had. (Riihijarvi is currently enjoying his best season so far though) At this point, a future for Määttä in the NHL is cloudy, but intense work in Cleveland, there is still hope for Määttä, but, the Finn, who turns 21 on Jan. 2, faces and uphill struggle against fellow prospects Christian Ehrhoff, Jim Fahey, and Doug Murray, along with younger Shark-defensemen Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, and Jeff Jillson. (And of course established vets Mike Rathje and Dan McGillis, both of whom should be around for a while, especially Rathje.) In fact, Jesse Fibiger and David Cloutier are probably both superior for the time being. (Especially Fibiger)

Another defenseman playing in Finland is Czech Angel Nikolov, one of JYP’s top 4 defensemen. Nikolov had been playing on JYP’s top line with Petri Virolainen as his partner, but Nikolov and Virolainen have been moved to the second line. Since the Karjala Cup break, Nikolov has played in nine games, earning three assists. In JYP’s game against SaiPa on Nov. 21 Nikolov was named the “First Star of the Game” and won the “Expert Play” Award, an award given out at each Finnish Elite League game. However, in JYP’s Dec. 5 match-up against Jokerit, HF Finnish writer Pekka Lampinen says, “Nikolov’s own stupidity got him injured when he was ducking a hit.” Although Lampinen wasn’t certain of the nature of the injury, Lampinen does expect Nikolov to be back in action soon. Nikolov may only miss three games because of the Finnish Elite League’s break for the Baltica Cup, part of an four tournament “season” between Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic. (Slovakia has also been playing in the tournaments, but not for points.) The physical two-way defenseman with a booming shot has one goal and six assists in 25 games for JYP, along with 36 penalty minutes. Although Nikolov could easily crack Cleveland, it is unlikely that he’ll ever be brought over to North America. Any roster spot the 27-year old Nikolov might earn in Cleveland, or possibly even San Jose, will likely be given to any of the prospect defenseman Määttä is also competing against.

The strong and gritty Pasi Saarinen rounds out the Sharks’ players playing in Finland. Saarinen, generally considered a physical defensive-defenseman, is still making a lot of boneheaded plays according to Lampinen. For HIFK’s first 10 games after the Karjala Cup Saarinen paired with youngster Hannu Pikkarainen, who will be in Canada playing for Finland at the WJC’s. In HIFK’s next four games leading up to the Baltica Cup break, Saarinen paired with Niklas Hedberg. Saarinen earned his second goal of the season in a 1-1 tie against Assät. For his efforts, Saarinen was named the “Second Star” of the game. Saarinen has cut back on his “stupid/selfish” penalties this season, as he only has 35 penalty minutes in 29 games. Saarinen has only missed two games this year due a suspension he earned in the first game of the season. After that, Saarinen has only received eight penalty minutes in 28 games. However, Saarinen’s –7 plus/minus helps confirm Lampinen’s assessment that Saarinen needs to cut down on poor decisions. (HIFK has few “minus” players)

Of some joy for all three Finnish clubs which have Shark players, Espoo is up to fourth in the league standings, challenging for second; JYP is fifth after a rather dismal 2001-02 season, and HIFK has moved up to sixth in the standings, but sixth through tenth is tight, and only the top eight make the play-offs.

The Sharks have a Macho man in Slovakia: Michal Macho that is. Macho is still playing right wing for Slovan Bratislava of the Slovakian Extraleague, the top league in Slovakia. In previous seasons Macho has played center for Martin of the Extraleague as well as the Slovakian WJC team. Macho had 12 goals and 8 assists in 40 games for Martin last season, but on the deeper Slovan team, Macho has seen his ice-time reduced to third and fourth line duty. Macho’s team has been busy though.

In Slovan’s six games leading up to its involvement in the IIHF’s Continental Cup, a multi-round tournament between clubs from as low on the hockey rung as Turkey up to Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League, Macho had three goals, including the game winner against Zlina on Nov. 12. Slovan dominated Group L in Third Round Action of the Continental Cup, defeating Hungary’s Dunaferr 6-2, Ukraine’s Sokol Kiev 6-2, and tying Austria’s VSV Villach 2-2. Macho scored the game-winning goal against Sokol Kiev, Macho’s only point of the tournament.

Slovan’s win of Group L qualified it for Group N, one of two groups in the Continental Cup Super Final, which will be played in Milan, Italy Jan. 10-12. Slovan will face off against the Milano Vipers of the Italian Campionato A league, Jokerit Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League, and Keramin Minsk of the Eastern European Hockey League. (Minsk, Belarus) Slovan’s schedule shows it has Extraleague games on Jan. 10 and 12: these will likely be rescheduled. (It’s doubtful the Continental Cup could be rescheduled for Slovan)

(For those interested, Group M contains HC Davos and HC Lugano of Switzerland, along with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Russian Elite League and the Belfast Giants of the English Super League.)

Since the Group L match-ups Nov. 22-24, Macho has no points, part of an eight-game scoreless streak. (Macho did not play Nov. 30 against Trencin; reason is unknown to author.) Slovakian Extraleague hockey had another pause, this time for the Baltica Cup in Moscow. Slovan has three games of Extraleague action before it heads of for Milan to play in the Continental Cup, hopefully Macho can put up some points between now and then. Historically, Macho has been a decent two-way center who is good on face-offs. However, at 5’11” 172 pounds, Macho could afford to bulk up a bit. Given San Jose’s depth at center as far as prospects are concerned, it is unlikely that Macho will be brought over any time soon, but that’s not to say the soon-to-be 21-year old (Jan. 17) won’t eventually be brought over. He’s not quite as old as Nikolov or the 25-year old Saarinen.

The 26-year old Robert Jindrich rounds out San Jose’s contingent of players playing in Europe. Jindrich, who played two seasons in the AHL for the Kentucky Thoroughblades after losing a battle between Stuart, Hannan, Shawn Heins, and himself for a spot in San Jose, is in his second season with Timra of the Swedish Elite League. Timra, which finished dead-last in the league last season, now finds itself in second place behind Vastra Frolunda. Timra’s resurgence has not been met by a resurgence by Jindrich, who left Timra fans a bit disappointed last season. Johan Nilsson of Swedish Elite Prospects and Hockey’s Future says that Jindrich has been a 5th defenseman this season, but is still not in top shape after missing all but three of Timra’s first 16 games due to an abdominal tear.

Jindrich’s return came after the Karjala Cup, where he started out on the second pairing with Kalle Koskinen, but eventually dropped to the fourth line with David Halvardsson for two games and then Daniel Cassestahl. Since Dec. 3, Jindrich has been on the third pairing, twice with Halvardsson, and the last two games before the Baltica Cup break with Casselstahl. In 16 games, Jindrich has not tallied a point yet, and he’s kept his penalty minutes low at 8. Nilsson says he expects Jindrich to return to his true for soon, and the Baltica Cup break should have helped Jindrich gain some time, as Nilsson considers Jindrich one of Timra’s more talented defensemen. This assessment wouldn’t surprise fans of the now-defunct Thoroughblades, as Jindrich’s two years consisted of both solid skating and stick skills, along with a knack of being at the right place at the right time. (Read good hockey awareness)

Although it’s doubtful that Jindrich will return to North America, the fact the Sharks still maintain his rights, does mean a return is always possible, and Cleveland fans certainly wouldn’t mind another veteran presence. That said, the pay in Sweden better than what he would likely receive in the AHL, and closer to his native Czech Republic, so, Shark fans will have to continue to follow Jindrich from afar.

Michal Pinc Update:
Although I have not compiled a detailed file for Pinc yet for this season, here’s a quick update. Pinc has been playing in the West Coast Hockey League this season, after failing to crack Litvinov of the Czech Extraleague last year, being assigned to Chomutov of the Czech 1. League, and eventually falling out of Chomutov’s line-up. Pinc, who was the Sharks’ fifth round pick (142nd overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, played two seasons in the QMJHL, tallying 35 goals, 89 assists, and 351 penalty minutes in 122 games between Hull and Rouyn-Noranda. (Pinc was traded to the Huskies midway through the 99-00 season)

This season, Pinc started out with the Idaho Steelheads, where he was waived Dec. 13 after appearing in 23 games, tallying four goals, five assists, and 31 penalty minutes. The cash-strapped Anchorage Aces claimed Pinc off of waivers on Dec. 16, from where the native-Czech was then traded to the Long Beach Ice Dogs for an undisclosed amount of cash. After three games with Long Beach, Pinc has one assists and two penalty minutes.
So, unless Pinc turns it around, the Sharks will not likely maintain his NHL rights much longer.

If Pinc fails to make it in the WCHL, which will be uniting with the ECHL next season to form a larger “AA” minor pro level, the new Atlantic Coast Hockey League could be one possibility, or the Czech 1 or 2 League would also remain as options. Other lesser European leagues, such as the Spanish Elite League, could also be an option.