San Jose Sharks system continues to show improvement in mid-season Top 20 ranking

By Craig Fischer

Matt Nieto - Boston University

Photo: Following another productive season at Boston University, Matt Nieto has mad a strong first impression in his AHL debut with Worcester (courtesy of Michael Tureski/Icon SMI)

The San Jose Sharks prospect pool continues to get better and better. The 2012-13 season has been a strong one for development, and while there looks to be a gap in high-end skill after top prospect Tomas Hertl, a number of prospects have really played themselves into the limelight and have shown at times an ability to possibly fill that gap.

Big risers Chris Tierney and Nick Petrecki have each climbed up the rankings by 10 spots after starting the year in much different boats. Tierney, a relative newcomer to the Sharks' Top 20 list, has had a tremendous year in the OHL, and Petrecki, one of the longest 'projects' and perhaps biggest disappointments in recent Sharks memory, has finally started living up to his potential.

The rankings have a lot of new faces due in part to the departure of others. Tommy Wingels graduated to the pro level, Brandon Mashinter (NYR) was traded, and Christophe Lalancette and Sebastian Stalberg each struggled in their respective leagues at times and were forced off the list. The fallout can be seen more as a result of other prospects taking bigger strides than a total collapse.

San Jose has also been active in the free agent market. Daniil Tarasov, a known commodity having spent most of his season in Worcester, was among the additions to the mid-season rankings. Other coveted college signings Rylan Schwartz, Eriah Hayes, and Troy Grosenick did not make the list this time but will each have a chance to join the list down the road as they adjust to the pro level.

The mid-season rankings represent new beginnings, and for the first time in a long time, the San Jose prospect pool looks prosperous.

1. (1) Tomas Hertl, C, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 17th overall, 2012

Contrary to popular belief, Tomas Hertl is not a poor skater. Somewhere down the line he gained the reputation of being so, but it could not be further from the truth. He has an awkward stride, but it is purely an aesthetic issue. On a larger ice surface playing for Slavia Praha HC this season, Hertl has looked fantastic and his speed, power, and balance all look to be well above average.

Playing against men, Hertl's offensive repertoire continues to evolve. Not only did he lead his team in scoring (despite being the youngest player on the team), he was a true star around the league. The Czech youngster can be lethal from almost every area of the opposition's zone; He has tremendous board-work, a great shot in the slot, and quick enough hands in tight to score dirty goals. Hertl is showing tremendous scoring ability that perhaps was not as apparent last season.

Hertl is by no means a perfect prospect, and he still requires development. As good as he has been with the puck, there is room to grow, which is kind of scary when you think about the ceiling of this player. As the leader of this young Sharks group, he has the potential to be the face of the franchise in the future.

2. (3) Matt Nieto, RW/LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 47th overall, 2011

As a junior for Boston University Matt Nieto started the year off a little rocky, but ended the NCAA season as one of the hottest scorer's around the country. The player utilizes his explosive speed in all zones, and has the ability to maintain speed with the puck. The 5'11 forward plays bigger than his size, and there might be a few bumps along the way in his progression as a hockey player, but Matt Nieto projects as a very good top 6 forward.

Nieto scored 18 goals and tallied 19 assists (37 points) in 39 games–which was actually a decline from 2011-12 but in the latter half of the season he was a dominant force. Recently signed to an entry-level deal, Nieto has began playing for the Worcester Sharks, and has looked very good in the handful of games he has played with two goals, three assists through nine games. The Long Beach native, will likely spend next season tearing up the AHL and developing his pro game. Given his skill set, he might not be in a Worcester jersey for long.

3. (7) Matt Tennyson, D, 7.5C
Signed as a free agent in March, 2012

Matt Tennyson entered the year as the top defensive prospect in the system and remains there thanks to a terrific campaign in the AHL as well as a recent promotion the NHL. The 2012 free agent signing from Western Michigan University played like a grizzled veteran for Worcester most of the season, this despite only previously playing seven games in the AHL. The rookie led all Worcester defensemen in scoring with 27 points in 60 games (a 0.45 points per game pace) before he was recalled to San Jose, where he has added another two assists in his first three career NHL games. More impressively early on when Matt Irwin (averaged 0.43 points per game) was still on the club he was outshining the Sharks former defensive golden boy. In fact, going in to camp Tennyson and Irwin were neck and neck in points scored and their defensive skills were and are comparable. Considering Tennyson is three years younger and poised to only get better this is a terrific sign of the state of affairs within the Sharks organization in that their new crop looks even better than the last.

That is not to take anything away from Irwin either who is playing admirably at the NHL level. The smooth skating and rapid firing Tennyson projects to be a bit of an easier second pairing defenseman, but while the offense is there, there needs to be improvement on the defensive side of things. In fact, the reason Irwin probably made the team out of camp was because he was deemed just a bit more defensively reliable. Considering for all intents and purposes this is Tennyson's first pro season, and already he is playing games in the NHL, this looks to be a very good defenseman in the making.

4. (2) Freddie Hamilton, C, 7.5C
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2010

Freddie Hamilton's first season in the AHL was not as seamless as Tennyson's. It was not bad by any account, he has put up 24 points in the 2012-13 season; it just was not sparkling. The defensive minded center was as advertised for most of the year on the backcheck but there were definite struggles with the puck. In fact the transition between shutting down amateurs to pros was not hard for the 21-year-old, and he could probably sufficiently handle those duties at the NHL level, but his offensive game seems very unpolished despite recent flashy seasons in the OHL.

Hamilton's fall in the rankings should be taken lightly and are more a result of the dominance of Nieto and Tennyson than Hamilton's inadequacies. This is a player with a great skill set, who has not adapted his full game yet after just 74 AHL games, and has the tools to become an everyday NHL forward. The skills have not translated yet, but the book is nowhere near closed. Hamilton's first pro year showed some signs of aptitude, but a pessimist might consider the lack of offensive ability at the pro level as the early warning signs that this is not a natural scorer, nor a scoring line center down the road.

5. (15) Chris Tierney, C, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 55th overall, 2012

Chris Tierney is a terrific shutdown centerman. In fact, he is arguably better in that regard than even Hamilton when you compare their body of work at the OHL level. Under the tutelage of the Hunter brothers in London this prowess and defensive reliability have been known since Tierney's second year in the league–that is nothing new. This season however, a hot streak in the middle of this season provided a glimpse of the raw untapped potential that lay on side two, of this two-way center's game. Tierney's shot still needs some work but improvements have been made and are a big reason why he is doing so much better in his limited opportunities. He set career highs in in goals (18), assists (39) and points (57, good enough for 49th in the league) all while primarily being used as a shadow to shutdown the other team's best.

The soft spoken playmaker has been a big part of the London Knight's success this season (during the team's 24 game win streak many of the teams pieces were either competing in the WJC like captain Scott Harrington (PIT) or injured like Max Domi) and like he has in years past, so far in the 2013 playoffs he has elevated his game (he is third on the team in points heading into the Western Conference Finals) and been of the main reasons the Knights march on. At one point projections were capped out at a top-nine forward or a player like Jay McClement, but if Tierney's on-ice production coupled with his improved skillet are any indication of his potential, that bar becomes considerably raised.

6. (9) Konrad Abeltshauser, D, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2010

In his fourth year in the QMJHL playing for the Halifax Mooseheads the big bodied German defenseman racked up 54 points, which was good for fifth amongst defensemen (though injuries plagued him for most of the second half, or else he likely would have been in the top three). He was used in every situation and was the number-one ranked Moosehead's best defenseman.

There are a number of distinct variables at play as to how good Konrad Abeltshauser actually is. The star effect, the fact he is an overager in the 'Q' and just how injured he was during the regular season, all make it difficult to gauge where this player actually is. Playing on the ice with two premiere prospects in Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon has a way of skewing the data and requires more of qualitative look at the situation. Abeltshauser is a towering defensemen who skates well for his size, and has vastly improved his defensive play and uses his stick wisely. His breakout passes are quite good, and he carries the puck well but will not dazzle. Even if the offense does not translate without stars in his midst, Abeltshauser still provides enough in other areas of the ice to make him a valuable prospect in any organization. He is realistically a bottom pairing defenseman in the NHL, with top three or four potential.

7. (10) Dylan DeMelo, D, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2011

DeMelo had a very good year in the OHL for the Mississauga Steelheads. He amassed a career high 50 points (good enough for seventh amongst league defensemen) and did so by scoring 15 goals, which is five more goals than he had in his previous three seasons combined. As a puck-moving defenseman he is good, in fact his shot has developed quite nicely since he was drafted in the sixth round of 2011, but as a defender he continues to leave a lot to be desired. Playing in all situations as his team's top defender, DeMelo is adequate on his own end at the OHL level. Given his struggles down low there are concerns when you project him out to the pro level . This looks to be a problem that increased strength and mass could solve, and as he continues to develop he will grow into this but it is problem nonetheless.

The London, Ontario native plays with a bit of an edge and has great leadership qualities. It will be interesting to see where he will end up playing next year given the logjam of talented young defensive prospects in San Jose's system, but with the Steelheads out of the playoffs, DeMelo has suited up in eight AHL games with Worcester with two assists.

8. (18) Nick Petrecki, D, 6.5B
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2007

It has been a long while since Nick Petrecki deserved to be this high up on the rankings. The climb is well deserved, but the jury is still out as to whether he will live up to all of his potential at the NHL level. The stay-at-home defenseman has always had the raw tools to excel but has never been able to put things together; this is why at the start of the 2012-13 season minds were blown. Petrecki was a beast on the ice in Worcester, and until he got injured, he was the AHL Sharks best man in his own end. His physicality when motivated is unmatched, but that has always been his problem.

With an invite to the Sharks shortened camp, Petrecki looked sensational, and stuck around with the team long enough to make his NHL debut. Many of the Sharks coaches including NHL defensive legend Larry Robinson were enthralled with Petrecki's power and the possibility of the bone-crushing play he could bring to the Shark's blue line. Unfortunately with the surplus of talent back there, Petrecki could not stick, and has since been riddled with nagging injuries and has not been the same as he was at the start of the year. If he re-signs with the Sharks he will be a strong candidate to make the big club, especially now that Douglas Murray, who plays a similar style game to Petrecki, has been traded.

9. (8) Taylor Doherty, D, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2009

Doherty's second full season in the AHL was riddled with injuries allowing him to only dress for half the season. In a year where there was a roster spot up for grabs heading into the shortened NHL year, it was a big blow for the gigantic stay-at-home defender who at the start of the season was probably more in line for that shot than most realize – his stock probably fell a bit too thanks to the much improved play of Nick Petrecki – and all of this despite having a decent campaign when he did play.

Doherty's game is still quite one dimensional (despite a slight jolt in production), and while his skating has improved since last season, there is still a wide gap between him and the rest of the defenseman on this list in that regard. Much of that is to do with Doherty's long legs and frame though, which is arguably the most interesting part of his game. The potential for clogging up lanes and completely covering defensive assignments is there. He has shown that skill en force, but unless he can continue to improve his mobility, backwards skating, and balance he could find himself snowballing down the list as some of the defensive prospects start making their mark at the pro level.

10. (19) Sena Acolatse, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent in March, 2011

Sena Acolatse, started the year on fire on both sides of the ice scoring 16 points in 24 games and contributing stalwart defensive coverage, but after a few injuries including a broken jaw at the end of December, his production severely dried up. March and April have been particularly challenging for the young rearguard, but given his above average hockey sense, strong offensive skill set, good skating, physical play, and versatility there should not be a lot of cause for concern right now.

A veritable 'Mr. Everything,' who scores, fights, and DJ's for the team after games, Acolatse has serious NHL potential, and his two-way game is probably more complete than the two offensively challenged defenders ahead of him in the rankings. Defense is a bit of a question (as has been the case with a number of recent graduated defensive prospects in the Sharks system), but Acolatse is young, and with the likely promotions of Tennyson and Petrecki, he is going to be one of Worcester's main guys heading into the 2013-14 season on the back end and will have lots of time to develop that side of his game.

11. (NR) Dan O'Regan, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, 2012

Interestingly enough, it was not fellow Sharks prospect Matt Nieto that would lead the Boston Terriers in scoring during the 2012-13 season, it would be freshman Dan O'Regan with 38 points in 39 games. He was actually the first rookie Terrier to lead the team in scoring since Tony Amonte. Sometimes playing on different lines, the undersized O'Regan (5'10) was often overshadowed by the more highly touted Nieto, and while O'Regan's game is probably more suited to the college level than Nieto's, consider this, O'Regan was a big time player for the Terriers amassing eight powerplay goals (two more than Nieto), four game-winning goals (two more than Nieto), and a game-tying goal (Nieto had zero). When the Terriers needed a big goal, O'Regan was often the one to supply it.

O'Regan's a gamer, and next season as the main piece on a Terriers team that will lose a number of its key players (including Nieto) he could potentially break out as a national star. He already lead all Hockey East rookies in scoring, and he has a very understated skillset as a great passer who is solid in the slot and carries the puck well. In fact, O'Regan's offensive ceiling might realistically be higher than anyone else on this list. Other facets of his game need work but there is a lot to be excited about. The question then becomes, can he meet his potential. Like with a lot of college players, the true test will be to see how his game translates to the pro level. Only time will tell, but do not be surprised if next year O'Regan climbs up the rankings.

12. (5) Sean Kuraly, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2011

After a very impressive showing at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp, Kuraly's play during the 2012-13 season seems to have fallen back to reality. He is still a big, fast, defensively reliable center, but his offensive game might not be as strong as was thought to be. Kuraly was a dynamic offensive player in the USHL, where he played with recent signing Daniil Tarasov, but those skills do not seem to have translated all that well to the college game, where Kuraly amassed a measly 12 points in 40 games (good for 12th on his team in scoring).

To be fair, Kuraly was used primarily in a checking role, but unless things change (the RedHawks will lose two seniors from their forward group next year, so things will open up a bit) he could get pigeonholed into this type of role (as he was for the United States during the WJC, where he looked very transparent) severely stunting his growth. Kuraly has potential to crack an NHL lineup, but he is likely a number of years of way, and will need to resurrect his playmaking ability next season for that to happen.

13. (12) Harri Sateri, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 106th overall, 2008

Sateri entered the year as the second goaltender on the Worcester Sharks behind incumbent and recently aged-out prospect Alex Stalock. While he has improved his position to be more of a “1B” status keeper, he never fully usurped the role from his predecessor. It did not help that once Stalock was promoted due to injury at the NHL level, that Sateri really never impressed as he did in December when he was the AHL's best goaltender.

Having to play a number of back-to-backs (including one back-to-back-to-back) in March probably did not help but it was a great test of where this player actually is in his development process. He looks good, but there are questions if he is starter material. Sateri's shown he is capable of handling a light starters role next season if Stalock becomes the Sharks everyday back-up, and at times has shown that he has an NHL quality skill set, but the fact remains that Sateri is widely inconsistent and his glove quickness is a glaring hole in his game. Next year will be a big season for the Finnish netminder, and if he can bottle what he had going for him around Christmas, he has the potential to be a not just a leader amongst AHL goalies, but good enough to be an average to above average starter in the NHL.

14. (NR) Daniil Tarasov, RW, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent in April, 2013

Heading into the new season when Daniil Tarasov signed with the San Francisco Bulls out of the USHL, there was a lot of hype regarding this player, and rightly so because he is an electric forward. Since joining the Worcester Sharks and officially signing with the big club, the speedy Russian has had a very good rookie campaign at the pro level. In 41 AHL games he has tallied 13 goals and 26 points, but what is really captivating about Tarasov is that he is one of the first truly dynamic offensive players to come into the Sharks AHL system in quite some time. When he has the puck on his stick, he has the ability to change the tide, he does not always rise to his ability though.

It should be noted that while Tarasov has impressed mightily, his talents are all very raw, and at times he is a defensive and team liability with his style of play, but the sheer fact the Sharks have players like this in their system now, is a huge bonus. If he continues to progress as he has, he will not only be a candidate to lead the Worcester Sharks in scoring, but he could actually be an NHL call-up for an offensively challenged Sharks squad in the near future.

15. (NR) Brodie Reid, RW, 6.0B
Signed as a free agent in April, 2011

At the start of the season Brodie Reid was considered one of the worst prospects in the system. Rightly so, there were a lot of holes to his game, particularly with his skating, and there still are, but the x-factor with Brodie Reid is his spectacular coachabiliity. Coaches marvel at how well he listens to instruction, and this high level ability allows Reid to overcome skill deficiencies by playing smart, strategic hockey. Before a reoccurring shoulder injury slowed him down Reid was one of the most impressive forwards for the Sharks early in the season at the AHL level amassing 21 points in 34 games which was on par with James Sheppard before he was called up to the big club. Comparison's between the two are pretty meager, but if Sheppard can make the NHL with his defensive inconsistencies, it is not far out of the realm of possibility that Reid could as well- and sooner than later, if he can continue to work on his skating.

While he lacks flash and obvious offensive pedigree, his blue collar tool kit and work ethic are going to carry him far. This is a player that strives to improve each and every day. If it seems a bit strange to see a "lunch bucket" player on this list, it is, but keep an eye on Brodie Reid, his nose for the net, and ability to score tough goals, is reminiscent of an old unheralded Sharks prospect by the name of Ryan Clowe.

16. (6) Travis Oleksuk, C, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent in March, 2012

Expectations were high for Travis Oleksuk coming into his first AHL campaign. He was one of the more shrewd college signings of 2012 and it was thought that he might even be able to compete for an NHL roster spot right out of the gate. Unfortunately, Oleksuk has not had a very good first year in the AHL thus far into the waning season. In 58 games, he has netted a mere three goals, and 10 assists. Some of it has to do with who is ahead of him on the depth chart, and his inability to get minutes, but more of it has to do with the fact that he just looks lost.

Still, Oleksuk possesses a very strong offensive skill set, and it should be pointed out that he has historically been a slow starter, as in his freshman year at the University Minnesota-Duluth he tallied just five assists for the entire season. By his senior season, he would have the second highest point total for the year in the NCAA. Just like with all prospects, the book is not closed on Oleksuk after his first pro season. He is a talented all-around forward and has at times shown glimmers of top-nine potential. He will most certainly improve upon his totals as he gets stronger, but his game may need to adapt for him to realistically make it to the next level.

17. (NR) Justin Sefton, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2011

Another newcomer to the list, Justin Sefton of the London Knights has shined this season as a rough and tough shutdown defenseman with moderate offensive upside. He was acquired by the Knights in a deadline move from Sudbury, and has proven to be integral during their playoff run with captain Scott Harrington on the shelf. His work along the boards and in front of his team's own net helped London sweep Saginaw by only allowing seven goals against.

He plays hard in his simplistic shut down role, and protects his teammates well which can never be understated. At nearly 230 pounds, he has NHL size (and it looks like his frame could potentially get even stronger) and he  clears the crease at the OHL level like a man versus tiny baby penguins.

18. (13) Cody Ferriero, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round. 127th overall, 2010

The knee looks good. After last season's tragic injury, Cody Ferriero returned to Northeastern University for his Junior season and picked up exactly where he left off. Ferriero tallied 26 points in 34 games, good for third on the team. He was a powerplay machine on occasion (he scored three in one game, four total) but for a large part his game remains inconsistent and his shot selection seems counter-intuitive at times. He will shoot a lot, but from low average areas, and while this is a great strategy to keep goalies on their toes, the conversion rates on these shots lower at higher levels.

He has tremendous ability with the puck, and he is one of those players that if he is at his best can score at an level, but the rest of his game requires work. While the knee looks good and Ferriero had reported no signs of discomfort for the entire season, he looks a tad bit slower than he has in recent memory. If he can be more consistent on the backcheck, he will be on the right track.

19. (20) Colin Blackwell, C/RW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 194th overall, 2011

Before an injury, Colin Blackwell was having a very good season playing for Harvard University. He managed to score 14 points in 21 games, which was a higher point-per-game rate than team leader Alexander Fallstrom (BOS). Only a sophmore, Blackwell managed to earn the trust of his coaches and was thrust into all situations and was relied upon for his scoring and tenacity away from the puck.

Improvements to his skating (he is very determined along the boards and his foot speed has vastly improved) as well as to his shot (he has a wicked shot) have helped the 5'10 spark plug climb the rankings. Despite these improvements Blackwell remains a long shot to crack the NHL, however his move to the right wing does create more opportunity for advancement given the Sharks overcrowded prospect pool at the center position. He is a very smart player and has shown an ability to play larger than his size.

20. (11) Lee Moffie, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 188th overall, 2010

The University of Michigan as a whole had a disappointing season, and Moffie was not an exception. Amassing his worst offensive totals (after prorating the numbers) in his college career as a senior, Lee Moffie scored 13 points in 40 games. The output stings considering Moffie's considered more of an offensive defenseman, and the numbers are not derivative of bad luck, his play just deteriorated for some reason and he just has not looked great this season.

He is still an above average skater and carries the puck into his oppositions zone well, but his lack of physicality and defensive awareness this far into his development are somewhat alarming. These are weaknesses that were apparent in 2010 when he was selected in the seventh round by the Sharks. There is still hope for success, and he still has a number of plus tools (though less accurate this season, his shot is quite impressive) but his poor senior season might have jeopardized his future in an organization that is overcrowded at defense.