Sharks European prospects season review

By Kevin Wey

The San Jose Sharks may only have had six prospects playing in Europe last season, but the two-year IIHF-NHL Player Transfer Agreement signed last August may just play into the Sharks’ favor.

Under the PTA, NHL clubs must may the IIHF a $200,000 developmental transfer fee for each European player signed by an NHL team — if that player is one of the first 45 transfer players signed by NHL clubs before the June 15 deadline. For players who are the 45th through 60th transfers signed, the fee increases to $225,000. The June 15 deadline is also approximately three months earlier than the previous mid-September signing deadline NHL teams had for transfer players.

The earlier signing deadline is not the only new aspect of the PTA. NHL clubs must now pay an additional fee if a transfer player skates in fewer than 30 NHL games. The PTA stipulates that NHL clubs must pay a $50,000 fee for all first round picks who play fewer than 30 games, $100,000 for second round players who player fewer than 30 games, and $150,000 for players drafted in the third round or later who do not meet the 30-game minimum.

The new PTA stipulations could greatly affect what San Jose does with each of its six prospects that played in Europe in 2005-06. German goaltender Patrick Ehelechner is already under contract by San Jose and could play in North America again, he starred for two seasons in the OHL with the Sudbury Wolves, so there is certainty he will eventually don a Worcester Sharks jersey in the future, if not a San Jose Sharks jersey.

Fellow German netminder Thomas Greiss is also a certainty after his impressive 2005-06 campaign. Greiss became the Cologne Sharks’ top netminder over the course of the season and worked his way onto the German national team for the Deutschland Cup, the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, and the 2006 Division I Group A World Championships, along with his less-surprising spot on Germany’s DI Group A World Junior Championships team. Now Germany’s top young netminder, Greiss is a certainty to sign with San Jose some day. The development of Greiss, along with that of fellow Sharks German players Christian Ehrhoff, Marcel Goc, and Dimitri Patzold, as well as Ehelechner, should help quiet the criticism San Jose has faced for drafting six Germans, including their first three picks in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

The new PTA puts the futures of Kai Hospelt, Alexander Hult, Tero Maatta, and Michal Macho into question. Hospelt, Hult and Macho are all late-round picks, and San Jose only has one more year to sign Macho before they lose his rights. Maatta is probably the closest of those four to NHL action, but the Finnish defenseman has signed a contract to play in the Swedish Elite League and may not be able to come to North America for the 2006-07 season even if the Sharks wanted. Like Macho, San Jose only has one more year to sign Maatta.

The 2005-06 seasons of each of San Jose’s six European prospects, as well as their futures within the Sharks organization, is detailed below.

Patrick Ehelechner, G (21)
Duisburg (DEL)
5th Rd, 139th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

After two seasons with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, including being named to the OHL Second All-Star Team in 2003-04, Patrick Ehelechner moved back to Germany for the 2005-06 season. Ehelechner signed a contract with the Sharks in late July, but both Ehelechner and the Sharks decided it would be best if the 21-year-old got the ice time he needed, part of the Sharks philosophy of making sure all of their young goaltenders are getting ice time.

“Wayne (Thomas) thought it would be better if we had more guys playing,” Sharks Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Burke told Hockey’s Future. “You don’t want to have people going and there’s no net for them.”

With Cleveland full with Nolan Schaefer and Dimitri Patzold, Ehelechner returned to Germany to play for the Eagles of Mannheim of the German Elite League (DEL), the German team that also holds the DEL rights to Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc. It was thought that Ehelechner would be Mannheim’s starter, but the Eagles signed veteran goalie Frederic Cloutier just before the start of the season, which limited Ehelechner to just one game in Mannheim’s first nine games.

On Oct. 8, Mannheim loaned Ehelechner to the Foxes of Duisburg. Ehelechner made his first start for Duisburg on Oct. 14, and then proceeded to start 13 of the Foxes next 15 games. From mid-October until late November, Ehelechner played solid in net and earned two shutouts during the month and a half stretch. However, after Ehelechner gave up four goals on 14 shots against Berlin Nov. 14, fellow Fox netminder Christian Rohde began to win back the top spot in Duisburg.

On Jan. 15 it appeared that Ehelechner might regain the top spot again, as Rohde went down to injury midway through the team’s game against the Hannover Scorpions. The very next game, on Jan. 17, Ehelechner injured his ankle and his left shoulder in a collision against the Frankfurt Lions. Ehelechner did not play again until Feb. 3 (a 29-save, 2-1 shootout victory over Ingolstadt), Duisburg’s last game before the three-week Olympic break.

“The White Tiger” started three of Duisburg’s five games after the Olympic break, but Rohde was called upon to play every minute of the Relegation Round against the Kassel Huskies, whom the Foxes beat to maintain their place in the DEL in 2006-07.

In 26 games with Duisburg, Ehelechner compiled a 7-10-3 record with a .898 save percentage and a 3.62 goals-against average.

Depending upon how things shake out in net in the Sharks organization over the summer, Ehelechner could return to North America in 2006-07. Regardless, Burke was encouraged by Ehelechner’s 2005-06 season.

“He had a real good month and a half, so he showed he can do it in that top league,” Burke said.

The Sharks also like Ehelechner’s crease movement.

“He’s a big, long type of goalie, and he can really get spread out,” Burke said of Ehelechner. “He’s able to get to the post with his legs and he’s got some real good flexibility.”

However, the 6’2, 184-pound netminder must improve his strength.

“I think he needs to get a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker on his body,” Burke said.

With Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov both re-signed by the Sharks, it’s likely those two will maintain their positions in San Jose. Patzold is slated to play for Worcester in the AHL in 2006-07, his fourth season with the team’s AHL affiliate. Whether Nolan Schaefer is re-signed will determine whether Ehelechner becomes Patzold’s backup, unless the next player is brought over first.

Thomas Greiss, G (20)
Cologne (DEL)
3rd Rd, 94th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Thomas Greiss established himself as San Jose’s top goaltending prospect in 2005-06, and, like Ehelechner, is a strong candidate for promotion to the American Hockey League in 2006-07.

Greiss started the 2005-06 season as Oliver Jonas’ backup on the Cologne Sharks, but Greiss’ first game of the season set the tone. The 19-year-old made 26 saves in a 3-1 win over Frankfurt Sept. 15 and then saved all seven shots in relief for Jonas Sept. 22. With Jonas down injured a few games, Greiss got his chance, and proceeded to dominate the DEL. Greiss started 11 of Cologne’s next 14 games and went 9-2 in that period, with one loss being a 34-save, 1-0 defeat to Frankfurt. His impressive stretch earned him a spot on the German national team for the Deutschland Cup, a four-team tournament featuring Germany, Switzerland, USA and Canada. The Fussen native outdueled a Team USA, comprised mostly of Americans playing in Europe, in the first game of the tournament, making 19 saves on 21 shots. Greiss was also called upon to start against Team Canada in the final game of the tournament, a 4-1 loss to a team primarily comprised of Canadians playing in Europe.

After Greiss returned, Jonas was given another shot to retake the helm in Cologne, but Greiss took the helm for Team Germany at the Division I Group A World Junior Championships.

Germany won the tournament in Bled, Slovenia, thanks in part to Greiss winning all four of his starts, including shutout victories over Ukraine and Slovenia. Although it wasn’t the elite World Junior Championship pool, the fact that Greiss dominated the inferior competition, as expected, was a positive sign. He finished the tournament with a .978 save percentage and a 0.50 goals-against average.

Greiss’ performance for Team Germany at the DI Group A World Junior Championships and his continuing performance in the DEL then earned him a spot on Team Germany for the 2006 Winter Olympics. Because he was named to the Olympic team, Greiss also played for Team Germany at the DEL All-Star Game, a game between the German Olympic teams (sans its NHL players) and a collection of DEL All-Stars. In Italy, Greiss played behind Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig and German national team regular Robert Mueller, but he still earned the draw against Team Canada. At 20 years of age, Greiss was the youngest goaltender in the tournament, and he held his own against Canada, making 35 saves on 40 shots to a far superior opponent.

After his return from Turin, Greiss started five of Cologne’s final six games, and finished the season with a 15-7-1 record, a DEL third-best save percentage of .926, and a DEL sixth-best goals-against average of 2.46.

Establishing himself as Germany’s top young goalie, Greiss proceeded to start every game for Cologne in the DEL playoffs. Greiss and the Cologne Sharks swept the Nurnburg Ice Tigers in four games, highlighted by a 30-save shutout victory Mar. 17. The Metro Stars eliminated Cologne in the five-game semi-final series, but Greiss still finished with a 6-3-0 playoff record, a .899 save percentage and a 3.04 goals against average.

Greiss’ season did not end with the DEL playoffs, though. Germany again tabbed Greiss for the Division I Group A World Championships. Germany gave Greiss starts against Israel and Hungary, two easier teams, while Mueller received starts against Japan, Great Britain, and Germany’s primary rival in the tournament, France. The 20-year-old save 15 shots for an 11-2 victory over Israel and 12 saves in a 6-2 victory over Hungary. Germany won the tournament and will again be promoted to the elite pool in 2007, winning all five games, thanks in part to three shutouts by Mueller.

After a tremendous breakout season in the DEL, the Sharks are encouraged by their 2004 third round pick.

“If you’re in the top German league and you’re one of the top statistical goalies, you’ve got to be pretty good, because the league is not bad,” Burke said.

Part of the reason for Greiss’ success is his positioning and awareness.

“He’s got a patient blocking style, he uses his chest with his hands, he understands the game,” Burke said of Greiss. “I think he’s got a good combo style, he’s got a degree of calmness to him.”

The 6’2, 195-pound Greiss also has excellent strength, especially his legs.

“He’s able to move explosively, quietly, because of his legs, and he’s there and set earlier,” Burke said. “He doesn’t have to rely on just reflexes or guesswork.”

Greiss has proven himself in the DEL, the time to come to North America appears to be now. Burke said Greiss needs, “North American type games, shots from everywhere in small rinks, low-angle wraps, all kinds of small-rink type shots.”

The Sharks shocked all by when they drafted Greiss out of German juniors. But Greiss now appears to be the goalie most likely to follow in the footsteps of Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Vesa Toskala. San Jose will have no qualms paying the transfer fees to get Greiss to North America, be it 2006-07 or later.

Kai Hospelt, C/W (20)
Cologne (DEL)
7th Rd, 216th overall, NHL Entry Draft

Greiss wasn’t the only Sharks prospect on the Cologne in 2005-06, 2003 seventh round pick Kai Hospelt was a regular in the Cologne line-up and had his best DEL season yet after a troublesome 2004-05.

In 2004-05, Hospelt’s season was limited by an ACL tear that kept him out of action to begin the season and a shoulder injury that knocked him out of action in March. Hospelt may only have skated on the fourth line most of the season, but he still had three two-point games in 2005-06, including back-to-back two-point games Jan. 6 and Jan 10. Healthy for most of the season, Hospelt’s luck ran out when he suffered a broken finger in early February, but fortunately for Hospelt, the Olympic break allowed him to make it back to the Cologne line-up for their last regular season game.

Playing 47 games, Hospelt set DEL career highs of five goals and five assists. Hospelt skated for most of the playoffs on a line with Mike Souza and Moritz Mueller and scored a goal and an assist in nine playoff games, maintaining his scoring pace from the regular season.

Although the fourth liner has yet to become one of Cologne’s top forwards, the Sharks are still encouraged.

“In his role, we thought he did a nice job there,” Burke said.

A major scorer at the German junior level, the Sharks are impressed that Hospelt can play in other roles, because he’s a “solid two-way centerman, he’s got thick legs, makes plays, and is very responsible,” according to Burke.

The odds are likely that Hospelt will come to North America in 2006, but only for a short while.

“We want to bring him to training camp this year,” Burke said. “Bring him to training camp, work with him, let him go back for another year and then make a decision next year.”

Hospelt will play for Cologne again in 2006-07, but under a new coach, Doug Mason, as German coaching legend Hans Zach has left the team. The switch may be to the benefit of young players such as Hospelt, as Cologne general manager Rodion Pauels said in a press release that Mason and assistant coach Clayton Beddoes planned on building the club around younger players in roster, just in time for Hospelt to impress San Jose before they make their decision in 2007.

If Hospelt were signed for the 2007-08 season, the Sharks would have to pay $350,000 in transfer fees, as Hospelt would not play 30 NHL games in his rookie pro season in North America. The Sharks might be willing to give Hospelt a chance if he impresses in training camp and has a good 2006-07 season in the DEL.

Alexander Hult, C (21)
HK Dmitrov (RHL)
8th Rd, 236th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

One prospect whose odds look very long at this point is Alexander Hult. Drafted out of the HV 71 organization in 2003, Hult has since bounced around in Sweden, then to Norway, back to Sweden, and then to Russia.

Hult was drafted after averaging just over a point per game for HV 71’s J20 Superelite team in 2002-03. The Swedish center played for Team Sweden in the 2004 World Junior Championships, but he bounced around in Sweden in 2003-04. He played three games for HV 71 in the Swedish Elite League, was loaned to Djurgardens (where he played eight Elite League games and 11 J20 games, scoring 16 points in 11 games in juniors) and also played games for Oskarshamm and Tranas in the Allsvenskan League, Sweden’s second-highest professional league. The 20-year-old Hult signed with Almtuna of the Allsvenskan League for 2004-05, but mid-season he left to play for Comet of the Norwegian Elite League. With two goals and seven assists in 18 games for Comet in the regular season, on a team full of Swedes, Hult put up decent numbers. Hult’s two goals and three assists in the Qualifying Series helped keep Comet in the Elite League in 2005-06, in which they made the playoffs.

While Comet found some success in 2005-06, Hult again had mixed results. Hult had nowhere to play until mid-October, when he played five games for Mora in Swedish J20’s before he turned 21 in November. Trying to impress and earn a contract with a pro team, Hult’s five games with Mora ended with a bang Oct. 23. The big center had a big night, two goals and one assist in a 6-1 victory over Almtuna, but the final mark Hult made on a J20 scoresheet was the 25 minutes in penalties he received for a fight against Viktor Helander with 1:53 remaining in the game.

In mid-November he received a tryout from HC Dmitrov of the Russian Upper League, and Hult managed to put up four goals and six assists in 24 games in Russian’s second-highest league. Dmitrov finished sixth in the West Division, but was eliminated in four games by Sputnik in a best-of-five series, and Hult failed to tally.

However, there is a possibility that Hult could play in North America in 2006-07, albeit only at training camp.

“We might bring him into training camp for a look to see, we’re still talking about that right now.” Burke said. “Either that or it’s game over pretty soon.”

At 6’2, 215 pounds, Hult has the size and the style to succeed in North America, which was what the Sharks saw in him when they drafted the Swede.

“He played with an edge and shot the puck,” Burke said of Hult. “He played in traffic, he was a hard-nosed kid. He was a different kind of player over there, more of a North American style player that was in a lot of traffic.”

Hult’s skating was somewhat questionable when he was drafted, but Burke thought, “He made up for average skating with grit and heart.”

Skating in Russia this season, it is possible that Hult’s skating improved, but playing European hockey does not automatically make one a better, more effective skater.

“The myth is that skating is helped on big rinks,” Burke said. “It’s hurt. The game is a slower, possession game on big rinks. Everybody thinks you have to be a better skater to be on a big rink, and it’s nonsense.”

If any Sharks prospect is hurt by the PTA, it’s Hult. The Sharks would be hard-pressed to justify paying $350,000 in transfer fees to bring a player over who has not yet cracked one of the European elite leagues full time. Hult will have to take a major step forward in 2006-07 and impress in training camp, if he’s invited to camp. Skating in a league that’s highly visible wouldn’t hurt either.

Tero Maatta, D (24)
Espoo (Sm-Liiga)
2nd Rd, 41st overall, 2000 NHL Entry Draft

One prospect whom the Sharks have been able to view consistently, unlike Hult, is Tero Maatta. It’s been nearly six years since Maatta was the Sharks first pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Since then, he’s played six full seasons in the Sm-Liiga and become the Espoo Blues’ top defensive defenseman.

For the second straight season, Maatta played with Arto Laatikainen on Espoo’s top pairing and finished as one of Espoo’s plus players at +5, the fifth straight season Maatta had finished an Sm-Liiga season as a plus player. Maatta was able to establish a career-high five goals in 2005-06, in addition to the six assists he tallied in 54 games.

Having never scored over 16 points in any Sm-Liiga season, Maatta’s game is not scoring points, it’s a physical, defensive game.

The biggest strength of Maatta’s game is, well, he’s big. At 6’2, 235 pounds, according to his Sm-Liiga profile, Maatta was one of the biggest defensemen in the Sm-Liiga in 2005-06. At that size, Maatta can play a physical game, but not in an overly aggressive sense.

“He’s physical in the sense that his body is like a Marcus Ragnarsson,” Burke said of Maatta. “He’s got a real thick body.”

Burke further described Maatta as a “big body, physical, open-ice hitter.”

Espoo managed to beat JYP in the first round of the Sm-Liiga Playoffs, played between the seventh through 10th place teams in the SM-Liiga. Karpat beat Espoo in the quarterfinals in six games, and Maatta finished the playoffs scoreless in nine games. Receiving major minutes with Laatikainen on Espoo’s first pairing, both Maatta and Laatikainen’s plus/minus took a beating in the loses, with Maatta finishing at -7 and Laatikainen at -8.

A regular in the Sm-Liiga, Maatta certainly has the ability and the size to play in the AHL, but getting him over could be the problem. The 24-year-old recently signed a contract with Mora of the Swedish Elite League, and San Jose will only retain his rights for one more year. In addition, the transfer fee for Maatta would be a minimum of $300,000. As a former second round pick who has established himself as a top defenseman on a team in the Finnish Elite League, the Sharks would likely be more willing to pay the fee for Maatta than for Hult or Hospelt. Maatta is also more of a known quantity. The question is whether there are any loopholes in Maatta’s contract that would allow him to play in 2006-07. Otherwise, San Jose will only have a couple of months after next season to decide whether Maatta plays in the Shark organization or his rights are lost.

Not only does San Jose have to pay the IIHF, which then further redistributes it to the applicable federations and clubs, it also has to pay Maatta, which could be another sticking point.

“He’s probably making more money than he’d make in the American League, and sometimes Europeans only want to come when they think they’re ready to play in the NHL,” Burke said.

“Why would a European kid want to play in the American League for 45 grand when he can make 60 over there?”

Given San Jose’s depth at defense, there’s little chance that Maatta would crack the NHL club, so he’d be receiving an AHL paycheck. Unless he received a healthy signing bonus, Maatta might not be interested in transferring to an organization where he would surely play in the AHL and have little real hope of cracking the NHL line-up in 2006-07, especially considering Dan Spang will be in Worcester next season and would likely earn recall before Maatta.

There’s always the possibility of trading Maatta’s rights, though.

“There have been a number of teams that have talked about trying to acquire him,” Burke said of Maatta.

The addition of Maatta to Worcester would be huge for the AHL club in 2006-07, but it’s unlikely to happen. One potential option, if San Jose were to trade the Finn’s rights, would be to sign Maatta before the June 15 deadline for the sole purpose of later trading him to a different NHL team. It might even be possible for the Sharks to have such a potential trade orchestrated before the signing, sign Maatta to the terms the other team would prefer, and then trade him to that organization. This would require a great deal of trust in the other organization, certain that it would not back out.

Regardless, for Maatta to play in North America in 2006-07, he’ll have to be signed, be it with San Jose or traded to another NHL team, by June 15.

Michal Macho, C/RW (24)
Slovan Bratislava (Slv. Extraleague)
6th Rd, 183rd overall, 2000 NHL Entry Draft

Another European Shark prospect whose future is uncertain is Slovak center Michal Macho. Macho impressed the Sharks when he came to training camp in 2003, but the 24-year-old Slovakian center’s contract status may prevent him from coming over at all.

Macho signed a four-year contract prior to the 2002-03 season, but he signed an extension before the old one ended and has at least two more years under contract to Slovan Bratislava, which left the Sharks angry.

“I’m pissed,” Burke said of Macho’s contract situation. “I like the kid and he played well when he came over, and now we’re kind of locked out.”

The Sharks brought Macho to camp in 2003, where, “he raised a lot of eyebrows a couple years ago,” Burke said. The Sharks only have one year left until they lose Macho’s rights. Macho would be able to contribute in the AHL, but it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

Although Macho was able to raise eyebrows in San Jose, the Slovak hasn’t been able to impress Bratislava enough to earn him a position within the team’s top six forwards. Macho got off to a slow start offensively with Bratislava in 2005-06 and only scored four points in his first 24 games, which included a 12-game pointless streak from September 25 through October 23. However, November saw Macho score one goal and three assists in four games, a month in which the Slovakian Extraleague paused to allow the national team to play in the Deutschland Cup. An injury in early December and the Extraleague break for the Loto Cup, held in Slovakia, limited Macho to only four games in December. But he managed a goal and an assist, which kept him near the .50 point-per-game pace he had in November.

The first four games of January went well for Macho, as he had three goals in his first four games of the month, but after Zdeno Ciger re-joined the team in January and Russian forward Denis Afinogenov was added in February, Macho saw less time. Czech forward Radim Kucharczyk also returned to the team in late January and further reduced Macho’s ice time. In his final 15 games of the regular season, Macho tallied only a goal and an assist. Macho finished the regular season with 10 goals and five assists in 48 games, and he failed to tally in four playoffs games, as Bratislava was swept by Kosice in the first round.

If the Sharks were able to sign Macho, he has some desirable traits. The 6’0, 172-pound center is known for his hockey sense, his two-way play, and his skill on the draw. Even if the Sharks were able to sign him, they would have to be willing to pay the $200,000 transfer fee and the $150,000 fee they would have to pay for Macho not playing in 30 NHL games.

Even if the Sharks could bring Macho to training camp, now that the signing deadline is mid-June, instead of mid-September, NHL teams no longer have the opportunity to watch a European player in training camp and decide to sign players such as Macho to a pro contract for that same season.

“You’re going to see a lot of these European players just say over there, because you can’t get a free look at them,” Burke said.

What effect the new PTA and the NHL’s new CBA, which mandates that European prospects must be signed within two years of being drafted (just like players drafted out of major juniors), have on the number of Europeans taken in subsequent NHL Entry Drafts is yet to be seen. For now, the PTA could make it very difficult to justify bringing prospects such as Macho over to North America to skate in the AHL. NHL teams will need to be fairly certain their investment in these project European players will pay dividends before signing them to pro contracts.

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Eugene Belashchenko, Pekka Lampinen, and Johan Nilsson contributed to this article.