Sharks training camp battles

By Kevin Wey

Sixteen months since the San Jose lost to the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Sharks are set to don their new Reebok jerseys and skate once again in preseason action. Much has changed since the 2004 playoffs. To no surprise, the face of the Sharks has changed since the loss to Calgary.

First and foremost, one of San Jose’s “Big Four” defensemen has left the team and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. The departure of Mike Rathje creates a big hole and sends a ripple through the defensive corps. No Shark save Scott Hannan played more minutes than him. The Sharks have another opening at defense in the subtraction of Jason Marshall, San Jose’s sixth defenseman. The subtraction of Rathje and Marshall leaves two spots open for prospects, as Tom Preissing and Rob Davison should be locks to make the team as long they perform as they did in 2003-04.

At forward, two familiar faces will not be returning to the Sharks. Vincent Damphousse chose to retire earlier this month, and long-time Shark Mike Ricci had seen his ice time decreased with San Jose in 2003-04 and decided to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Stretch drive addition Curtis Brown signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2004.

The Sharks have seen recent subtractions at forward as well though, as Alexander Korolyuk decided to remain in Russia for family reasons and play for Chekhov Vityaz. The speedy Russian had become a staple on San Jose’s second line with Nils Ekman and Alyn McCauley, and his absence creates a significant opportunity for other players and prospects.

With all of these subtractions, San Jose enters training camp with two spots at defense and four spots at forward realistically up for grabs. The candidates for promotion featured no faces from outside the Sharks organization until Sept. 12, when the Sharks signed Group III unrestricted free agent Josh Langfeld to a one-year contract. Langfeld had played the last four seasons in the Ottawa Senators organization and does have a decent shot at cracking San Jose’s line-up. The terms of his contract have not been released, but Langfeld specifically did not re-sign with Ottawa because he was seeking a one-way contract, raising the likelihood that he has such a contract with San Jose. Langfeld finds himself battling with a few Sharks prospects for a spot in the locker room at the HP Pavilion.

Four Prime Candidates for Forward Spots

The front runner for promotion is Milan Michalek, although promotion may be a misnomer in the Czech’s case. Michalek cracked San Jose’s line-up as an 18-year-old in 2003, but question marks arose in his second NHL game when he tore his ACL. The then 19-year-old returned to action ahead of schedule, in January, and was assigned to the Cleveland Barons. After four impressive games Michalek was due for recall, but then tore his ACL again. The subsequent surgery resulted in a staff infection which knocked Michalek out for the entirety of the 2004-05 season. Despite having seen very limited action the past two years, Michalek has picked up where he left off. The 6’2 220-pound winger impressed at the Pacific Division Prospects Tournament and now looks like a prime candidate to play on San Jose’s second line. Appearing to be 100 percent healthy, this now comes as no surprise, as the 20-year-old has a strong stride, excellent passing, and a strong shot, as well as strong two-way awareness and size. Michalek is less winning a spot as reclaiming his spot.

Both Marcel Goc and Ryane Clowe looked primed to make the Sharks roster for the 2004-05 season, but the lockout dictated otherwise and both played another season for Cleveland. Goc, who performed well in five playoff games with the Sharks in 2004, finished second in Barons scoring despite fighting through a wrist injury. Now 22 years old, Goc was Cleveland’s top forward prospect entering the 2003-04 season. Although Clowe is not quite as smooth as Goc, the 6’2 215-pound winger has good hands and excels along the boards, in the corners, and in front of the net. Willing to play a physical game and finish his checks, Clowe looks likely to start on San Jose’s fourth line in 2004-05. Having developed some chemistry with Goc, the German could serve as Clowe’s center to start the season.

Michalek, Goc, Clowe, and Langfeld have the inside tracks to spots with the Sharks starting opening night.

Prime for Recall: Forward

If injuries befall the team up front, the Sharks have a few prime candidates for recall. Pat Rissmiller played four games for San Jose in 2003-04 and has once again earned a contract with the team. Signed as a free agent out of training camp in 2002, the 27-year-old looks primed to be the Barons first line center in 2005-06.

Grant Stevenson and Shane Joseph were teammates at Minnesota State University-Mankato and were one of the most dynamic duos in college hockey during the 2002-03 seasons. They were reunited at the end of the 2003-04 season when the Barons signed Joseph to a tryout contract, as the Sharks had signed Stevenson after his sophomore year with the Mavericks. After a solid finish to 2003-04, the duo, often paired with Nick Bootland, did not put up the expected numbers in 2004-05. The 5’11 170-pound Stevenson has an adequate NHL skill set and finishes his checks and plays with some scrappiness. Joseph is every bit as talented as Stevenson offensively and is willing to venture into traffic, although Joseph does not often initiate physical play. At 5’9 170 pounds, Joseph may be small in stature, but he is incredibly strong. Both Joseph and Stevenson turn 24 in October, and both could be recalled to San Jose if injuries strike because both have at least one season of AHL hockey under their belts and they are more mature players than the Sharks talented prospects only starting their first AHL season.

Two of those talented major junior prospects are Josh Hennessy and Lukas Kaspar. Hennessy is a 20-year-old center who was one of the QMJHL’s offensive performers the past three seasons for the Quebec Remparts. Captain of the Remparts last season, Hennessy should start 2005-06 as Cleveland’s second line center. The rookie pro has excellent speed, skating, and acceleration mixed with a good set of hands. The Sharks hope to improve Hennessy’s commitment to defense while in Cleveland.

Kaspar turns 20 in late September and is slated to play for Cleveland in 2005-06. Selected in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Kaspar was one of the older players selected in that draft and was also taken out of the Czech Republic, not the Ottawa 67’s, the OHL team that the Czech played for in 2005-06. Teamed with his friend Jakub Petruzalek in Ottawa, Kaspar had a good rookie season in the OHL and finished with 24 points in 25 postseason games, including Ottawa’s four games at the Memorial Cup. The 6’2 200-pound winger has the requisite size to play in the NHL and is willing to play a physical game. However, Kaspar’s strength lies in his cannon of a shot and his strong playmaking abilities. Kaspar has an outside chance of playing for San Jose in 2005-06. If the San Jose organization gets past Kaspar on the depth chart, it’ll be a very long season.

The Battle at Defense

The departure of Rathje and Marshall opens up two spots on defense on San Jose’s roster. Two of the candidates already have NHL experience. Christian Ehrhoff played 41 games for the Sharks in 2003-04 and scored a goal and added 11 assists. Highly talented offensively, Ehrhoff skated in the Young Stars Game at the 2004 NHL All-Star Weekend and played for PlanetUSA in the 2005 AHL All-Star Game. Ehrhoff led Cleveland in defenseman scoring in 2004-05 with 12 goals and 23 assists in 79 games and led all AHL defensemen in shots with 237. The 23-year-old German is a good skater with good speed and a hard point shot, but he lacks intensity in one-on-one battles along the boards, in the corners, and in front of the net. At 6’2 200 pounds, Ehrhoff has the frame to be adequate defensively in the NHL and provide the Sharks with needed offense from the blue line, but San Jose will have to decide if they go with Ehrhoff’s high potential or another defenseman’s sounder overall game.

Despite playing only 43 games in 2003-04, defenseman Jim Fahey still took home the Sharks Rookie of the Year award after scoring a goal and adding 19 assists. Fahey seemed to have a spot nailed down entering 2004-05, but incoming rookie Tom Preissing shined in training camp and played all of 2003-04 with the Sharks, relegating Fahey to only 15 games of NHL action in 2003-04.

A defenseman with a more rounded game is 25-year-old Garrett Stafford. Stafford was signed as a free agent by Cleveland entering the 2003-04 season and the University of New Hampshire product went on to become an AHL All-Rookie Team member and a member of the AHL Second All-Star Team. Stafford’s offensive production suffered in 2004-05 with both Ehrhoff and Fahey in Cleveland eating minutes, but Stafford still demonstrated his solid puckmoving abilities, smooth skating, and strong defensive play. The 6’0 190-pound Stafford is very steady and does play with a physical edge, but normally disciplined.

Stafford’s chances are increased if the Sharks decide to bring his AHL partner Doug Murray up too. The 25-year-old Murray was a Hobey Baker finalist his junior year with Cornell and has improved his skating and conditioning with Cleveland the past two seasons. At 6’3 240 pounds, Murray is a skating linebacker who is an excellent open-ice hitter, but the Bromma, Sweden, native plays a fairly disciplined game. Murray will find himself battling with established Shark Rob Davison for a spot in San Jose’s top six. Murray has a cannon of a shot and proved useful on Cleveland’s power play. Davison has more NHL experience however, so the battle should be tight. Murray and Stafford demonstrated chemistry pairing together in Cleveland the past two years, and it’s possible San Jose could call upon both to fill the Sharks two open spots in 2005-06.

The battle at defense is a toss-up on paper, so these defensemen will decide who is to stay in San Jose with their performance in training camp and the exhibition season. Ehrhoff has the most upside, Fahey has the most NHL experience, Stafford has the steadiest game, and Murray can replace Rathje’s size and strength while adding another defenseman who can make solid open-ice hits.

Prime for Recall: Defense

Two more defensemen can be depended upon for action in San Jose this season if injuries strike the organization particularly hard. Cleveland captain Matt Carkner was fairly healthy last season at 73 games, and his game improved accordingly. The 6’3 225-pound Carkner plays a physical brand of defense and is willing to drop the gloves and could serve as an emergency recall if needed. Carkner has model character and an NHL recall would be a reward to this foot soldier.

On the other side of the spectrum is 21-year-old Josh Gorges, who was Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year last season with 4 goals and 8 assists. Gorges proved to be extremely steady defensively in his rookie AHL season and his offensive numbers increased the second of the season. The former Kelowna Rocket should serve as one of Cleveland’s top four defensemen in 2005-06, but his solid all-around game virtually ensures that he receives quality minutes at the end of close games. With the sheer number of good defensemen in the Sharks system, Gorges faces an uphill struggle to crack San Jose’s roster, but if necessary, Gorges can be counted on in an emergency as early as this season.

No Net Difference

No prospect goalies have a chance to crack San Jose’s roster out of training, as veterans Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala are certain to make the team unless they are injured. Should an injury strike, the No. 3 spot is fiercely contested. Both Nolan Schaefer and Dimitri Pätzold have a legitimate shot of playing in San Jose this season if needed. No team in the AHL had their goalies split time as evenly as the Cleveland Barons. Pätzold played 2418:04, Schaefer played 2417:35. Pätzold had the better statistics last year, but the 25-year-old Schaefer earned another contract from the Sharks and the decision-making time is nigh for Schaefer. Nabokov, Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff, San Jose’s first three drafted goalies to play for the team, all cracked the team when they were 24. Given Schaefer’s age, the Sharks may be inclined to give him an opportunity first and allow 22-year-old Pätzold to play major minutes in Cleveland. Should Pätzold play for San Jose in 2005-06, he will become the youngest goalie to ever play for San Jose in the regular season or the playoffs. Entering 2005-06, the youngest a goalie has been to play for the Sharks was Jeff Hackett for the team’s first game ever, October 4, 1991. Hackett was 23 years 4 months and 3 days old at the time. Pätzold will turn 23 on Feb. 3, 2006.

One thing that San Jose would like to see different in net is Patrick Ehelechner getting more ice time. Ehelechner could be a starter in the ECHL this season for either Fresno or Toledo, San Jose’s two ECHL affiliates. However, Ehelechner chose to return to Germany and play for the Eagles of Mannheim of the DEL. Mannheim happens to own the DEL rights to Marcel Goc, Christian Ehrhoff, Dimitri Pätzold and Ehelechner. It appeared as if Ehelechner was going to be Mannheim’s starting goalie in 2005-06, one of very few Germans to actually be their team’s No. 1 in the DEL, but then Mannheim joined the crowd and signed an experienced North American goalie in Frederic Chabot on Sept. 5. Chabot has played every minute of Mannheim’s first three games, leaving San Jose to question Ehelechner’s decision. Ehelechner did start in a pre-season game for Mannheim and saved 33 shots for a 2-2 tie against the Nürnberg Ice Tigers. The 21-year-old netminder signed an entry-level contract with the Sharks after the lockout ended and could potentially come back to North America if his playing time does not increase in Mannheim. Ehelechner was a star in the OHL the past two seasons and became the first European goalie to play in the OHL All-Star Game.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.