Kentucky Update-Forwards

By Mike Delfino

It’s hard to imagine that a team with 11 players 25 years or younger would be in search of young players to fill voids, but San Jose, like every team, is in a constant search to fill future voids in their roster. As early as next year, the Sharks may be in need of help particularly at the forward positions, and they may look to the current roster in Kentucky for that help. This article is the first of three that will start with the forwards.

Roy Sommer, the head coach of the Kentucky Thoroughblades, the Sharks primary affiliate, has done a great job of molding young players into future NHL players. Some players he has developed this year were considered career minor leaguers until this year. Now those players are now seen as possible role players in the near future.

One such player is center Eric Landry, who before this year had bounced around between Hamilton and St. John of the AHL, with a few brief stints with the Calgary Flames. During the summer of 1999, the Sharks signed Eric Landry with the intention of sending him to Kentucky, as he was expected to provide a lift with the departures Steve Guolla and Herbert Vasiljevs.

Landry has provided more than anyone expected, and if not for the fact that San Jose has been healthy at the forward positions, he would almost certainly have been called into action with San Jose. Landry is 2nd on the team in goals (32) and points (61) and is 5th on the team in PIMS (145).

There were many fans predicting a horrible year without top scorers Vasiljevs and Guolla, but Landry, along with Mike Craig have more than filled those voids. In terms of all around effectiveness, one could make the case that these two have done a better job than the others did. While Guolla and Vasiljevs certainly did an excellent job of scoring for the T-Blades, other aspects of their game were more suspect. That has not been the case for Craig or Landry.

The area of Landry’s game that may get him in the NHL is that despite his offensive production, his first concern is to cover his defensive zone first, then rush up ice once his zone is cleared of danger. It is common for him to intercept a pass in his own zone, and then slide it up ice to one of his wings, move the puck up ice himself, or simply clear the puck. The phrase “And Landry with the puck again” seems common during his shifts, as he makes the first pass, then is back in the action again on the other end of the ice.

While not overly fast blueline to blueline, he is very quick on his skates, and knows how to get to places on the ice. He can position himself in front of the net well, not by taking hits, but by avoiding them. Unfortunately, while his quickness will be effective in his own zone, it won’t be so effective on the attack in the NHL. NHL players will simply pin him down, not letting him position himself like he can in the AHL.

During training camp this season, Landry was one of the most impressive players, rookies and veterans alike. However, the numbers game got caught up and they had to send him down. In preseason games, he was consistently making himself seen on the ice, doing many of the things he’s currently doing in Kentucky.

Another thing that makes Landry attractive is that he’s played all three forward positions throughout his career. If Ron Sutter doesn’t return, look for Landry possibly as the 4th line center next year. The two players have similar defensive abilities, with Landry an edge in offensive production, but Sutter having an edge in faceoffs and shorthanded effectiveness.

San Jose loves the underdog, which is why Mark Smith will be the next loved player in San Jose. Listed at 5’10” 190lbs, Smith was drafted in the 9th round in 1997 as a minor league role player at best. Instead, he has become far more than a role player, quickly becoming one of the Sharks top prospects.

He has been good in all areas of his game. Once again, he is the iron-man frontrunner for the T-Blades, as he was last year. He tied last year for the team lead in games played, and is leading again this year. He is 4th on the team in goals (20), 3rd in assists (40), and is 3rd on the team in points (60). Smith is also a great source of leadership on and off the ice, combined with a style of play that will make you shift in your seat watching him.

Smith is very good at faceoffs, and will do what it takes to get his job done. While not a big player, he knows how to use his body to get himself in position. Smith has proven that while he may be moved, he won’t be stopped. When he’s about to be checked off the puck, he has the awareness to get the puck out of trouble. It’s as though he thinks that if he can’t have it, no one can, often being the one to recover the puck. Although that’s something I wouldn’t expect him to be able to do at the NHL level.

While on the attack, he is very good at directing his teammates, and is very quick on rebounds. He likes to wander next to the goal (not necessarily in front), screening the goalie when necessary and swooping in to pickup loose pucks. You often wonder where he came from, because he does a very good job of making himself unaccounted for.

There are times when he reminds me of a pinball bouncing around in the machine. He’ll bounce from place to place, hit this, hit that, score a few points, and all of a sudden, despite your best efforts, is past you. You may have hit it a few times, but all of a sudden you see it sitting there, shining in the light, and having just beaten you.

A spot that could open up as early as next year may be filled by right wing Matt Bradley. However, if he is going to take the next step to the NHL, he must find consistency in his game. He has had what can only be described as a roller coaster year offensively. He has gone through many goal scoring droughts, including one which lasted 15 games, and (as of 3-25-00) is currently on a 9 game goal drought.

What is encouraging is that his defensive game has remained solid. It’s not unusual for a player to suffer defensively when his offensive production suffers, but that has not been the case. He has not been a liability on any of the units, getting time on the special teams and even strength alike.

I’m not sure I can describe why Bradley has struggled scoring this year. It seems that he is having trouble locating the puck, and getting into position for shots. He is still successful at the same rate as he was last year, but this year he simply isn’t getting the quality chances as he did last year.

Many people have asked me if his struggles could be attributed to Guolla and Vasiljevs leaving, but Bradley rarely played with those two, usually playing with Smith and various players on the left. This year, Bradley has played with a variety of linemates including Smith, Landry and Friedman.

Last year, Bradley came on strong near the end of the year, only to disappear during the playoffs. Hopefully this year, the opposite will happen. This year, he is finishing the year weak, but hopefully he’ll be strong come playoff time. Bradley could very easily be a key piece of Kentucky’s playoff picture if he can find consistency. If he does get hot, it would be easy to forget the 15 game goalless streak.

A final name worth mentioning is Ryan Kraft, who in only 11 games has scored 6 goals and 6 assists. Playing most of this season with the Richmond Renegades of the ECHL, Kraft was recently called up, and quickly earned himself a spot on the playoff roster. In his brief time, Kraft has made himself a key element of Kentucky’s offense.

An 8th round pick in 1995, Kraft has always been an offensive producer, but has had a reputation for being a risk on defense. That, in addition to being only 5’9” 185lbs, made the chances of Kraft making it to the NHL rather slim. However, Kraft has not been satisfied with that, and is doing everything possible to prove them wrong.

In 1998, the Sharks invited Kraft to training camp on a tryout basis, and he earned a spot in the ECHL. Coming to camp this year, he was expected to be in one of the first cuts, instead, he lasted well into the sets of cuts. Not only did he show that he deserved a spot at least in the ECHL, he showed that he belonged in camp.

In camp, he was successful against established NHL players in making his way to the net. In addition, he was making far more of an effort in his own end of the ice. However, not unlike San Jose, Kentucky has remained healthy at forward this year, and a spot for Kraft was not found. A problem is that Kraft is not a 3rd or 4th line player and the T-Blades were already established on their top two lines. It was best to get him experience on the top line in the ECHL, rather than forcing him on a 3rd line where he would not succeed. They finally found a spot for Kraft when they sent Adam Colagiacomo and Adam Nittel down, and Kraft has taken advantage of his chance.

If Ryan Kraft eventually makes it to the NHL, it will be the long way. It will be after a 4 year career at Minnesota State University, a couple years in the ECHL, and most likely another couple years in the AHL.

Next year, Jonathan Cheechoo stands to be a major factor with the Kentucky T-Blades. While there are other players who are still somewhat of unknowns, Cheechoo seems to be the Sharks strongest prospect to make the top two lines. In addition next year, Adam Colagiacomo MUST show that he has the skill necessary to compete in the NHL. He is a player with a ton of skill, but he needs to prove that he can put it together. This off-season will be an important one for both of those players.

It is easy to look at the T-Blades and say that the Sharks don’t have prospects at forward. This doesn’t take into consideration that they already have youngsters Patrick Marleau, Jeff Friesen and Marco Sturm already on the team though. If these players all develop into strong NHL players, the Sharks will have a very well rounded team to add on to the Sharks already phenomenal defensive prospects, and rounding out goaltenders.

No matter how you look at it, it is clear that the man at the helm in Kentucky, Roy Sommer, and his top assistant Nick Fotiu are doing a fine job developing talent, which they very well may someday coach at the NHL level.