While five veteran defensemen are already locks to earn spots on the Sharks roster out of training camp, five others are vying for the final two spots, while yet others further fortify San Jose’s deep defensive depth chart.
Leading San Jose’s blueline heading into the 2003-04 season are Mike Rathje, Kyle McLaren, Brad Stuart, and Scott Hannan. These four will be called upon to support second-year Shark Jim Fahey and the rookies that look to crack San Jose’s blueline. Fahey, in turn, is looked upon as the Sharks offensive threat from the blueline after compiling 20 points in 43 games last season. With Stuart healthy after suffering a severe concussion late last season, expectations are high for San Jose’s young veterans to perform.
Christian Ehrhoff leads the list of challengers at defense after having proven his mettle in the German Elite League the past three seasons after playing primarily in the Oberliga for Duisberg as a 17-year-old. With good skating, speed and puckmoving capabilities, along with one of the DEL’s hardest slaps shots, makes the 21-year-old Ehrhoff a potential power play weapon. Ehrhoff’s size and defensive awareness, and again his skating, makes him an asset in the defensive zone as well.
Three-year AHL vet Rob Davison enters this season as a legitimate threat as San Jose’s sixth or seventh defenseman after finishing with a strong showing with Team Teal in the final month of the season. Although lacking in speed and quickness, the 23-year-old Davison compensates with a penchant for physical play and strong defensive awareness. Known for his work ethic, Davison is also willing to stick up for himself and teammates by dropping the gloves, something San Jose lacked much of last season.
Coming out of college as a Hobey Baker finalist, Tom Preissing joins the Sharks as a free agent acquisition from last April. A perennial WCHA All-Academic team member, as well as a NCAA First Team All-Star, Preissing brings strong skating, good speed and solid awareness in all zones to the table. At 6’0″ 195 pounds, Preissing is undersized as NHL defensemen go, and may be hard pressed to beat out Ehrhoff, his primary competition if San Jose opts to add another puckmoving defenseman to their lineup.
If San Jose decides to go with defensive defenseman Davison as their sixth defenseman, then Jesse Fibiger and Matt Carkner find themselves as the favorites to become the seventh defensemen. Fibiger ended the season with the Sharks, but received sporadic shifts. The 25-year-old Fibiger has good size at 6’3″ 220 pounds, but also possesses smooth skating skills which the British Columbia native has used to be a steadying force for the Cleveland Barons the past two seasons.
Had it not been for an ACL injury to Carkner, Davison and Fibiger may not have gotten their chances with San Jose last season. Having rehabbed his knee, the 6’4″ 230-pound Carkner could add his physical play, character, and fighting ability to the Sharks lineup. While Carkner has physicality and size over Fibiger, he does not have Fibiger’s skating ability, meaning the Barons assistant captain is still a longshot to crack San Jose lineup this season.
The 23-year-old Doug Murray enters 2003-04 at the top of San Jose’s list of farmhands. A Hobey Baker finalist in 2002, Murray helped lead Cornell to the Frozen Four last season adding his immense physical presence and solid shot. Still needing to fine tune his skating, the 6’3″ 240 pound Swede looks to be a major force in the AHL this season for the Barons and has a significantly higher upside than Davison, Carkner or Fibiger.
San Jose’s only player with AHL experience in the Los Angeles Kings’ prospect tournament, David Cloutier looks to return to Cleveland after a decent rookie AHL season compiling 10 goals and 17 assists appearing in all 80 games. The 6’1″ 200-pound QMJHL product turns 22 in December and will work on rounding out his game and further improving his offensive production.
Robert Mulick looks to play for the Sharks AHL-affiliate for a fifth season after missing most of the 2003-04 season with a shoulder injury. Not known for his offense, 6’2″ 205-pound Mulick does add leadership and a defensive presence to the Barons lineup. Turning 24 in October, the aging Mulick does not figure to crack San Jose’s lineup ever.
Back to Juniors:
Signed as a free agent last season, the 19-year-old Josh Gorges put up impressive numbers for the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets. With 59 points in 54 games, as well as 20 points in 19 WHL playoff games, Gorges will be looked upon to further improve his production as the Rockets attempt to defend their title. At 6’0″ 180 pounds, Gorges needs to add more muscle before he invariably plays for the Cleveland Barons in 2004-05.
Sarna Sting defenseman Tyler Hanchuck heads up San Jose’s list of tryout players this season after signing a tryout contract with San Jose. Unable to come to terms with the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him with the 79th overall pick of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, the 21-year-old free agent has a good chance of earning a contract and playing for the Barons this season as the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman. At 6’4″ 225 pounds, Hanchuck has good size which he uses to effectively clear the crease. An aggressive defenseman physically, Hanchuck takes few risks offensively, opting for the safe play.
Joining Hanchuck is Tri-Cities Americans defenseman Clayton Stoner. Failing to become a roster regular until after Christmas, Stoner was passed by in the 2003 Draft, but hopes to impress the Sharks with his physical stay-at-home style. Like Davison, the 18-year-old blueliner is 6’3″ 220 pounds, sound defensively and possesses a good shot, but also needs to improve his skating. Ineligible to play in the AHL for another two seasons, Stoner could join Josh Gorges as a signed major junior player when he returns to Tri-Cities after camp.
Present at the Sharks mid-summer developmental camp, Finnish defenseman Tero Määttä absent from the Sharks training camp this year, playing instead with the Espoo Blues of the Finnish Elite League. Whether Määttä plays in North America next season will depend largely on how much the 6’1″ 215 pound blueliner can improve his skating skills as well as his puck movement. While the ECHL is always an option, it is hard to say whether a player who has played for years in the Finnish Elite League would accept assignment in the ECHL. This problem may solve itself however, as the NHL may find itself in a protracted labor dispute next season, giving Määttä yet another season to develop in Finland.
Unrestricted free agent veteran defenseman John Jakopin has been signed by the New York Rangers. Jakopin played 12 games to begin 2002-03, was re-assigned to Cleveland and suffered two concussions, limiting his AHL action.