Sharks CHL prospects season review

By Kevin Wey

The San Jose Sharks may not have quantity in the major junior ranks, as they only had six players in the CHL this season, but they did have quality, as each prospect made a major impact on their team, and some on their league.

Devin Setoguchi, the Sharks 2005 first round draft pick, finished seventh in WHL scoring and averaged over a point per game in the WHL playoffs. The 19-year-old was rewarded for his work with the Saskatoon Blades with a contract from San Jose on Apr. 8. Setoguchi made a push for a roster spot in September as an 18-year-old and is expected to make a bigger push in 2006-07.

Quebec Remparts defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic became one of the top scoring defensemen in the QMJHL and earned a spot at Team Canada’s World Junior Championship Selection Camp.

Kootenay goaltender Taylor Dakers took the reins in net for the Ice and established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the WHL after addressing a nagging hip problem. Dakers’ .926 save percentage tied for first in the WHL and his eight shutouts were also near the very top.

Ottawa defenseman Derek Joslin was the 67’s No. 1 defenseman in 2005-06 and increased his offensive production accordingly, but his two-way play earned him recognition from the OHL in being named to Team OHL in the Canada/Russia Challenge Series and to Team East in the OHL All-Star Game.

Brampton defenseman Michael Vernace rewrote some of the Battalion record book and finished second among all OHL defensemen in scoring with 72 points. He’s still in the running to be named to one of the OHL’s All-Star Teams.

Goaltender Jason Churchill faced a difficult season with the QMJHL expansion Saint John Sea Dogs, but the Team MVP was one of the team’s few bright spots in 2005-06. Churchill re-established himself as a No. 1 netminder in the QMJHL and made some necessary adjustments to his game that should carry him into pro hockey, as detailed below.

Jason Churchill, G Age: 20
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 185
Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Statistically, Saint John Sea Dogs goaltender Jason Churchill would appear to have had a mediocre season. Churchill led the QMJHL with losses with 44, had a 4.16 goals-against average, and his save percentage was less than 90 percent (.894), but the Sharks 2004 fourth round draft pick actually had an excellent season for the QMJHL expansion team.

Churchill led the QMJHL in saves with 2024 and was second in minutes played with 3,449. Acquired from the Halifax Mooseheads shortly after the QMJHL Expansion Draft, Churchill was the Sea Dogs No. 1 netminder all season. Playing for the expansion team gave Churchill the opportunity to reestablish himself after being usurped in Halifax last season by Jeremy Duchesne, a mid-season pick-up from Victoriaville.

“The fact that he played as much as he did, the fact that he got the rubber that he got, I think played in his favor,” Saint John general manager Bob LeBlanc told Hockey’s Future.

“He was looking for a year where he could get a lot of shots and work on his technique, and that certainly happened for him this year,” LeBlanc said. “I think at the end of the day, he’s a better goaltender today than he was when he got to us.”

The 6’3, 185-pound Churchill had already established himself as a big, athletic netminder who thrived with playing time, but he rounded out his game with the Sea Dogs.

“He was more of a flopper before, and I felt he was much more controlled at the end of the year, a lot less movement in goal, more technical, and I think you need that in the pros in order to succeed,” LeBlanc said.

Churchill has developed the professional work ethic to succeed as well.

“When he came in, he was working, but at the end of the year, it was really a mission that he had, wanting to improve all the time and putting in the extra effort on his own,” LeBlanc said.

Although LeBlanc praised Churchill for becoming a more technical goalie and taking his work ethic to the next level, he also said that Churchill needed to improve his focus over the course of the entire game.

With no years of major junior eligibility left and two years from his draft date, Churchill now has to wait and see whether San Jose will sign him or if he’ll become a free agent. LeBlanc hopes the Sea Dogs most valuable player gets the opportunity from San Jose.

“I still think that put with a good hockey club he could have made a big difference,” LeBlanc said. “In our case, he kept us in games, and we were very pleased with what he gave us. But give Jason Churchill a solid, older, steady team, one of the top contending clubs, I think he would have brought that team a long way into the playoffs or maybe even the Memorial Cup.”

Easily able to relate to Jeff Hackett, San Jose’s starting netminder their first two seasons, it is uncertain whether the Sharks will sign Churchill. Patrick Ehelechner or Thomas Greiss could come over from Germany, and the next player in the update is eligible to play minor pro hockey in the Sharks organization as a 20-year-old. If Churchill is signed, he will start the season in the ECHL.

Taylor Dakers, G Age: 19
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 170
Kootenay Ice (WHL)

Taylor Dakers took the reins for the Kootenay Ice in 2005-06 after two seasons as Jeff Glass‘ backup and proved to be a worthy successor, but it wasn’t without a hiccup.

Dakers was unable to play at Sharks rookie camp due to what seemed a minor hip injury, but the hip problem caused Dakers to miss Kootenay’s first 18 games. After one game as the backup and an unremarkable 13-save performance in his first game back, Nov. 6, Dakers’ stellar season began in earnest Nov. 10 when he made 27 saves in a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Hitmen.

Dakers was named the WHL Player of the Week Nov. 21 after making 83 saves on 85 shots in three games the previous week. After returning to the line-up Nov. 4, Dakers started 45 of Kootenay’s remaining 54 games and compiled a 30-15-1 record, winning one game in relief. The Sharks 2005 fifth round draft pick’s .926 save percentage tied him with Calgary’s Justin Pogge for first in the WHL, and his 2.11 goals-against average placed him fifth in the WHL. Dakers also placed third in the WHL with eight shutouts.

“As far as numbers are concerned, his numbers are very comparable to anybody in the last couple years in this league, as far as wins, save percentage, goals-against average, and shutouts,” Kootenay head coach Cory Clouston told Hockey’s Future.

Heading into 2005-06, the question around Dakers was whether he could make the move to being a No. 1 netminder in the NHL after playing sparsely behind Glass.

“Obviously, he had a strong season, but, as everybody knows, it’s the playoffs where you make or break not only your team, but yourself,” Clouston told Hockey’s Future before the WHL playoffs.

Dakers helped steal Kootenay a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1 against Kelowna, making 41 saves, and followed it up with a valiant 48-save effort in a 5-1 loss in Game 2, but Dakers was unable to step up his game and the Rockets melted the Ice in six games. Dakers finished the series with a .899 save percentage and a 3.65 goals against average as Kelowna outshot Kootenay in all six games.

With plenty of goaltenders in the Sharks system in 2006-07, it is likely that Dakers will return to Kootenay next season, where he’ll be expected to take his game to the next level and find success in the playoffs. The 6’2, 170-pound netminder primarily has to focus on his conditioning.

“I think he’s got to get a little bit stronger physically, working on flexibility, just making sure his hip doesn’t become a chronic problem where it’s always a concern,” Clouston said.

Suffering from a misalignment in his hips, Dakers had to seek chiropractic treatment and even took yoga classes to help strengthen and increase the flexibility of the hip. Although Dakers missed no further games after the initial 18, it still was a nagging problem.

“A couple times it’s bothered him off and on during the season, but not real severe,” Clouston said. “It’s something that over the course of the summer and the next couple years he’s really got to make sure he’s working to maintain his strength and flexibility.”

The athletic Dakers already has much of his game in order. Dakers is a technical netminder who tries to minimize unnecessary movements and uses his height to take away much of the net. The 19-year-old is also one of the best puckhandling goaltenders in the WHL and has worked at becoming more disciplined in using his puckhandling skills. The future is bright for Dakers.

“I think he can go as far as he wants to go,” Clouston said. “As long as he puts in the work and as long as he’s committed to improving every day, there shouldn’t be any reason why he can’t have a long career as a goaltender.”

Regardless of whether Dakers turns pro in 2006 or 2007, San Jose’s goaltending depth will likely force him to start in the ECHL.

Derek Joslin, D Age: 19
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 191
Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

A tenth round pick in the 2003 OHL Priority Selection, Derek Joslin has exceeded expectations and has established himself as one of the top two-way defensemen in the OHL.

After a respectable OHL rookie season in 2004-05, Joslin was Ottawa’s top defenseman in 2005-06. As was the case last season, Joslin played in every game of the 67’s season, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Joslin finished 14th in OHL defenseman scoring with 11 goals and 37 assists in 68 games, but this was not the indication of his emergence.

The 18-year-old Joslin was selected to play for Team OHL in the Canada/Russia Challenge Series and also played for Team East in the OHL All-Star Game. Receiving recognition from the OHL, Joslin will enter the 2006-07 season with a legitimate shot to skate in World Junior Championship camps for Team Canada.

“I’m hoping that they’ll recognize how good he was and when it comes time to pick that World Junior team next year that he’d be invited to the camp,” Ottawa 67’s head coach Brian Kilrea told Hockey’s Future. “I know there’s a lot of good defensemen around, but I’d like to see him get a chance to go there, because I think he’d surprise them.”

An excellent skater, Joslin continued to use his skating skills and defensive awareness to kill penalties in 2005-06, but he also had an expanded role on the power play. Although Joslin only had one power play goal, he did contribute 24 assists with the man advantage, as many assists as he had total in 2004-05. The reasons for Joslin’s increase in offense did not mystify Kilrea.

“I think he just got to be a little bit quicker with his puck movement, a little bit stronger when it came to clearing the net, and he just became better at shooting the puck,” Kilrea said. “So, all in all, it’s just what you’d expect and hope for in a hockey player, improvement at every level.”

Joslin is expected to further increase his offensive production next season, and the OHL playoffs may be a forecast of what is to come. Although Ottawa was bounced by Peterborough in six games, Joslin had a goal and five assists, averaging a point per game. A testament to Joslin’s increased role on the Ottawa power play, all six of his playoff points came on the power play.

Kilrea expects Joslin to improve on more than just offensive production.

“I think next year he’ll probably come in and be a little more physical,” Kilrea said. “As you get stronger, as you get older, you get more confident, and I think that’s the area he’ll be improved on.”

At 6’1, 191 pounds, Joslin could afford to increase his strength to become a dominant OHL defenseman and later a solid pro, but the first step in Joslin’s professional career actually came sooner rather than later, as he played for Cleveland in a 3-1 victory over Manitoba Apr. 13.

An ’87, Joslin is not eligible to turn pro in 2005-06 and skate in the AHL for the Worcester Sharks. However, Joslin’s late-season recall by Cleveland after the 67’s were eliminated from the OHL playoffs bodes well for the 2005 fifth round draft pick. He won’t step directly into the NHL in 2007-08, but Joslin should eventually become a fourth or fifth defenseman in the NHL who plays a solid two-way game. Given the exceptional depth San Jose has at defense in its system, Joslin faces an uphill battle to crack the Sharks future roster, but the talent is there.

Devin Setoguchi, RW Age: 19
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 190
Saskatoon Blades (WHL)

The San Jose Sharks traded the 12th, 49th, and 207th overall picks to the Atlanta Thrashers for the eighth overall pick at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft to, once again, get their man. The surprise pick this year was Devin Setoguchi, but, as has been the case with most first-day picks the Sharks have traded up to select, the Saskatoon Blade right winger has proven to be worth it.

Setoguchi scored 36 goals and 37 assists in 65 games, placing him seventh in WHL scoring with 83 points and earning him Saskatoon Team MVP honors and a place on the WHL Eastern Conference’s Second All-Star Team. The third-year Blade was also named the WHL Player of the week Nov. 14 after scoring four goals and five assists in four games the previous week. Setoguchi was selected to play for Team WHL in the Canada/Russia Challenge Series later in November, where he scored two goals and one assist in Saskatoon.

Despite being swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the second round of the WHL playoffs, Setoguchi put up a respectable eight goals and four assists in 10 games. Setoguchi was tied with Medicine Hat forward Daine Todd in WHL playoff goal scoring when eliminated Apr. 12 and tied Chad Klassen in Saskatoon playoff scoring with 12 points.

A scoring machine known for his speed, heavy shot, and offensive awareness, Setoguchi is not a one-way player.

“Defensively, we use him here in penalty-killing situations because he’s an intelligent player,” Saskatoon head coach Lorne Molleken told Hockey’s Future. “He reads the play extremely well, and that’s one of the things that also makes him special offensively.”

Setoguchi regularly shows a good effort defensively, and even makes big hits from time to time, but Molleken knows he must teach young forwards to play defense intelligently and uses an example that most players are eager to emulate.

“The player that I use as an example with these young guys is Mario Lemieux,” Molleken said. “Mario, to me, is one of the smartest players who ever played the game, because, defensively, he did not waste very much energy, he was always in the right spot, the puck always seemed to get to him and then he used his energy to create offense.

“So, when we’re talking to our players, and Devin in particular, we use him as an example.”

Setoguchi worked on using his linemates, Carolina Hurricanes prospect Joe Barnes and the undrafted Aaron Bader, more effectively and also made an effort to improve his defensive game in 2005-06, which Molleken said is “going to be very, very important for him going to the next level.”

The next level may come sooner rather than later for Setoguchi, as San Jose signed the 19-year-old to a three-year entry-level contract Apr. 8. Setoguchi impressed at Sharks camp last September and could challenge to play on San Jose’s fourth line to start the 2006-07 NHL season.

“He’s certainly got the talent to play at that level,” Molleken said. “Whether he’s ready to play there or not as far as maturity or whatever, that’s something they’ll decide.”

However, the Sharks could also return Setoguchi to Saskatoon for one more season of major juniors, where he’d concentrate on dominating the WHL and earning a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior Championship team, a team which did not select the Taber, Alberta, native for the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver. The Blades can only hope Setoguchi returns for one more year.

“He’s one of the best players in our league this year, and certainly I think he would take his game to a new level coming back to juniors,” Molleken said of Setoguchi. “I guess throughout the summer, training camp, and in exhibition, that will tell a lot of the story, whether he returns or plays at the National Hockey League level.”

While Setoguchi may start the 2006-07 season on San Jose’s third or fourth line, long term he will become a top six forward for the Sharks using his speed, shot, and offensive awareness to score goals for San Jose, a team which already has received an infusion of offense from Joe Thornton. After such an impressive 2005-06 season, the specter of Setoguchi one day joining Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo on the first line is not too far-fetched.

Michael Vernace, D Age: 19
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 208
Brampton Battalion (OHL)

A ninth round pick in the 2002 OHL Priority Selection and a seventh round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Michael Vernace has continued to exceed expectations and has set new Brampton Battalion records along the way.

Skating on the power play with Wojtek Wolski after he returned from a nine-game stint with the Colorado Avalanche to begin the season and Luch Aquino after he returned from the NY Islanders system, Vernace scored five power-play goals and added a whopping 50 power-play assists, setting a Brampton Battalion record for power-play helpers. Vernace’s 10 goals and 62 assists in 68 games placed him second in OHL defenseman scoring with 72 points, breaking Robert Klesla’s Battalion record of 54 points by a defenseman.

Vernace’s playoff scoring started well with a goal and five assists in the Battalion’s first six playoff games, but after a loss to Brampton in Game 1 in the OHL Quarterfinals, the Barrie Colts outscored Brampton 24 to 6 in for straight wins to eliminate Vernace and the Battalion. Mirroring his team’s success in the final four games of the season, Vernace scored no points and was a -8.

Despite ending the season on a sour note, Vernace is still considered one of the top defensemen in the OHL.

“Michael Vernace is a tremendous hockey player and he played for a good team,” Kilrea said. “Michael is very good with the puck, he plays on Brampton’s power play. I voted for him as one of the top defensemen in the league.”

While it would be easy to attribute Vernace’s offensive success on the power play to Wolski and Aquino, Vernace played a vital role.

“There’s no doubt the players he had on the power play around him really helped the situation, but at the same point, it was his skills that made the power play successful as well,” Brampton head coach Stan Butler told with Hockey’s Future.

An average skater, Vernace’s stick skills, patience with the puck, and offense awareness make him the offensive threat that he is.

“The strength of his game is when the puck is on his stick and the presence he has with it, and that’s the part of his game that’s going to make or break him,” Butler said. “I think there’s no doubt when the puck is on his stick, he’s a very talented player.”

Vernace’s defensive awareness has been questioned though, and he was not selected to play for Team OHL in the Canada/Russia Challenge Series or the OHL All-Star Game. The first step towards becoming a better defensive player may be in the 6’0, 208-pound defenseman developing additional leg strength.

“I think what Michael’s got to do is just get stronger,” Butler said. “If he just gets stronger, especially in the lower body, that will help him with his success at the next level.”

With power play efficiency at a premium in the new NHL, the underdog defenseman may still find a niche in the NHL even without a great deal of defensive improvement.

“If the game keeps being called the way it is now, whether it’s designated hitters in baseball or power play specialist defensemen, you’re going to need those guys to be successful.”

Vernace, who turns 20 in May, will likely be signed by San Jose and assigned to Worcester for the 2006-07 season, as their AHL affiliate will be in desperate need of a puckmoving defenseman. Long term, Vernace faces an uphill battle to become a San Jose Shark. Christian Ehrhoff and Matt Carle appear to be San Jose’s future puckmoving defensemen, and Tom Preissing has become a strong contributor offensively in 2005-06. Vernace will have to displace one of these three to earn a spot in San Jose, which may be an impossible task, but that’s not to say one of 29 NHL teams might not take interest.

Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, D Age: 19
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 194
Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

San Jose Sharks 2005 second round draft pick Marc-Eduoard Vlasic entered the 2005-06 season known as an 18-year-old who skates very well, with excellent hockey sense, and who can help shut down opposing teams’ top lines. The 6’1, 194-pound blueliner can also lay out heavy hits. This season, Vlasic proved to be one of the defensemen that opposing teams needed to try and shut down, especially considering he had the QMJHL’s top scorer to feed the puck to.

Vlasic had a modest five goals and 25 assists in 70 games with the Quebec Remparts in 2004-05, but his production skyrocketed to 16 goals and 57 assists in 66 games in 2005-06, thanks in part to skating with Nashville Predators prospect Alexander Radulov. The QMJHL playoffs have not seen Vlasic’s production trail off. After nine games, Vlasic has three goals, including two game-winners, and 10 assists, eight of which have come on the power play.

The Radulov wave helped rise the scoring boats of a number of Remparts, and Vlasic was no exception. However, Vlasic’s two-way ability stands on its own as well.

The 18-year-old was one of 12 major junior defensemen chosen to skate at Team Canada’s World Junior Championship Selection Camp in December. Although Vlasic was not selected to play for Team Canada at Vancouver, as one of six ’87s chosen to skate at the camp, Vlasic has an inside track toward playing for Team Canada at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden.

An alternate captain with the Remparts this season, Vlasic could become the team captain in 2006-07 if Simon Courcelles and Atlanta Thrashers prospect Jordan LaVallee both turn pro as 20-year-olds. With Radulov moving on to pro hockey next season, likely directly to Nashville, Vlasic will be depended upon to keep Quebec successful through his defensive play, as the team will not likely be able to rely on its offense as much as it has in 2005-06. However, with Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Michal Sersen moving to Wilkes-Barre next season, Vlasic will also be relied upon as the No. 1 offensive defenseman, making him the undisputed No. 1 defenseman for the Remparts next season.

In some regards, Vlasic is similar to San Jose Sharks prospect and Hobey Baker winner Carle. Both are excellent skaters, both are roughly the same size, both can play a physical game, and both have excellent hockey sense. Carle may be the Sharks future power play quarterback, something not expected of Vlasic, but Vlasic has the potential to become a solid third or fourth defenseman for the Sharks, and the first defenseman that San Jose has drafted out of the QMJHL to play for Team Teal.

Recently turning 19, Vlasic will play one more season of QMJHL hockey before the Sharks depth at defense forces him to Worcester in 2007-08 for development in the AHL. However, it is only a matter of time before Vlasic is patrolling an NHL blue line.

San Jose Sharks CHL Prospect Player Stats 2005-06
Derek Joslin OttawaOHL
Devin SetoguchiSaskatoonWHL
Michael Vernace BramptonOHL
Marc-Eduoard VlasicQuebecQMJHL

* = Playoff stats
Vlasic’s playoff stats are as of April 13, 2006

San Jose Sharks CHL Prospect Goalie Stats 2005-06
Jason Churchill TeamQMJHL
Taylor Dakers KootenayWHL

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