Centers and defensemen populate much of San Jose Sharks Top 20 ranking

By Craig Fischer

Tomas Hertl - San jose Sharks

Photo: The Sharks have two of their top forward prospects turning pro in 2013-14: Tomas Hertl (pictured) and Matt Nieto (courtesy of Rocky Widner/Getty Images)

The San Jose Sharks have notoriously been known as having one of the worst prospect pools in all of hockey. Yet season after season new faces from the farm make waves and the depth charts are refreshed and they remain in the hunt.

This season is no different as there are a number of prospects with the potential to crack the lineup and contribute immediately if opportunity presents itself.

If you do a little digging you will notice that the Sharks are in fact one of the better teams in the league in converting draft choices into NHL players. The Sharks had made 76 draft selections from to 2001 to 2010. Of those 76 players, 23 played in the NHL last season. That is just under one third of their draft choices. It is an impressive statistic when you consider the kind of players that are included in this group (Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Christian Ehrhoff) as well as their average drafting position.

They are not always the shiniest or the most noteworthy prospects to rise up the ranks, but they do rise up based on their fundamental skills and character. They become NHL players and some of them turn into significant players; and that is what a successful prospect pool should be graded on, not just the flash and highlight reel exposure so many fans get caught up in.

A lot of the team’s prospect success is the result of player development where the Sharks turn the unflashy bits of coal into diamonds that aid their perennial contention. This past off-season has been no different. While Nick Petrecki aged out of Hockey’s Future prospect status, many of his cohorts in Worcester have really improved steadily and now sit on the cusp of realizing their childhood dreams of playing in the NHL. And yet, most of the hockey world has no idea who these players are.

Pop Quiz: Haggleson, Clark, Tennyson, Hartberg, Nyren. Which of the five are actually Sharks prospects? Read on to find out!

San Jose has quietly built one of the better albeit underrated prospect pools in the league over the past few seasons through the draft and free agency. There are still organizational holes, especially the lack of legitimate elite level talent outside of Tomas Hertl, but they have many players who project to be full-time NHL players and a few have the potential to be big time players.

Do not be fooled by the rumors, this is a solid group of young men with legit potential in all positions on the ice. It might not be the best or the most talked about, but rest assured in a few seasons the average hockey fan will know about one third of the names on this list.

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

Tomas Hertl is perhaps the only known name in the entire prospect pool. He possesses an excellent all-around game, highlighted by his playmaking ability and strong compete level. Last year Hertl began the year as a first round talent and a lot of people underrated just how good of a player he could be. After an outstanding season playing against men in the Czech Extraliga, however, no one is sleeping on the Czech star. He is a blue chip prospect.

This is the year of the Hertl. Not only is it believed that Herl will break camp and start for the San Jose Sharks, but he is slated to start in a top-nine role, and he should play alongside at least some of the big Sharks players.

He scores, he hits, he stands up for teammates, he backchecks— he is as complete a player as you will see in this years NHL rookie class and he is a dark horse for this year’s Calder Trophy, especially if he finds chemistry with one of the Sharks more dynamic players.

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

Matt Nieto is a high-octane speedster with a strong-way game. After electing to end a very good collegiate career at Boston University, Nieto will begin his first full professional season with the Worcester Sharks in 2013-14. The jump to the AHL did not seem to phase the slightly undersized forward as he played well during an 11-game stint after signing his pro contract in the final month of last year's season. In that span he picked up two goals and four assists, and while the statistics are not gaudy, he had a ton of chances created by his own speed and the potential for great success is there.

Nieto's former Boston University teammate Alex Chiasson (DAL) broke onto the NHL scene last year with six goals and seven points in seven games. The two were both dominant, but considering the fact that Nieto’s game is more suited for the professional leagues, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that he is incredibly close to being NHL ready. There is a chance that Nieto could find his way into the NHL and actually have an impact—he is going to need to keep his legs moving and play smart fast hockey, but he is certainly one to watch this year.

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

It is hard to believe that Matt Tennyson has only played one full year of professional hockey. The way he skates, moves the puck, and sets up on defense is reminiscent of a fifteen year veteran. While he still makes the odd mistake on defense, he adapted his play to amazing lengths last season and became one of Worcester’s most reliable defensemen, all while chipping in offensively. 

During his brief stint with the big team, Tennyson showed he was ready for a bigger challenge. The only thing really standing in his way from becoming a full time NHL player is the logjam of offensive-defensemen with NHL contracts ahead of him. In the meantime, Tennyson will anchor the top pairing for Worcester and bide his time until his number is called. When it is though, he has immediate power play potential and projects to be a top-four defender on any team in the league.

4. (NR) Mirco Mueller , D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2013

A big, lanky defenseman with excellent positional understanding of the game, Mirco Mueller debuts on the rankings, perhaps surprisingly at the number four position. Most Hockey’s Future Top 20 lists this year feature a 2013 selection in their top three, but not this one. It is not a matter of Mueller not being a good pick with the 18th overall selection in the 2013 draft this past summer, because he is a great player and he projects very well, but rather that the San Jose pool is a lot deeper than people give it credit for.

Mueller has the capability of becoming a cornerstone piece for the Sharks for years to come—and while his offensive skill set is not as pronounced as one would hope for a player of his pedigree, he brings with him an exceptional understanding of the game and ability to use his body to defend. Very few players at the age of 18 can clear a crease, play one-on-one, and block shots the way Mueller can. A lot of it is positional work and just great coaching, but it is also partly to do with his effortless skating ability and constantly moving head. He plays the game the right way.

The Swiss native will continue developing at the WHL level with the Everett Silvertips, and he is still a few seasons away from even being considered NHL ready, but his frame and cognitive abilities surrounding the game are projectable and have scouts raving about the possibilities of what he could become. Realistically he is a top-four defender, but if he can find some offense (build up his shot and puck-carrying ability) over the next few years he has first pairing potential.

5. (4) Freddie Hamilton, C, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2010

Freddie Hamilton is walking a very thin line across the valley of potential. It is still very early in his career, but his offensive abilities were almost non-existent in year one of his professional career. On the flip side, his skills on the backcheck are exceptional. He has the skating and defensive prowess to be an NHL player today in a fourth line role on the merit of that skill alone.

More is hoped for from Hamilton though, and the organization feels like he is not just a checker and has more to deliver. Year two in Worcester will be pivotal for the centerman in establishing some form of offense. Look for Hamilton to begin the year playing a very simple, north-south brand of hockey in hopes of building up some confidence and potting away a few garbage goals to start the year off right. As it stands now he still holds top-nine potential based on his scoring pedigree from the OHL, but if that build is now obsolete, Hamilton might not be long for the top half of any forward grouping.

6. (5) Chris Tierney, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 55th overall, 2012

Tierney plays a very similar two-way inspired game to Hamilton, or at least the ghost of OHL past version. In fact the two arguably are of the same mold. Both are so close in terms of potential and skill set that the nod in the rankings was awarded based on professional experience; Hamilton is shutting down players in the AHL and has done what Tierney is doing.

While Hamilton faulted last year, Tierney really took off. Under the tutelage of the Hunter brothers in London, Tierney became a defensive specialist who was one of the key factors in the London Knights run to the Memorial Cup last year, however that role really made it difficult for the young centerman to establish any form of offense. Yet even with that challenge, he started to evolve into a dangerous scorer by the midway mark. He might not light any league on fire, but he is as clutch as they come.

With a few key pieces possibly moving on, Tierney could become even more heavily leaned upon by the Hunters, and really take off—the way he is coached in London, he has the potential to become a very good NHL player. Like with Hamilton, How he takes off, and his ability to score at the professional level will determine just what kind of player that will be.

7. (11) Dan O'Regan, C, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, 2012

Dan O’Regan has the potential to be a very good wing (he plays center, but given the center depth in front of him, his path at the professional level likely will be shifted to the wing) for the Sharks in the future. He has a very offensive skill set and arguably has the most offensive potential out of every Sharks prospect in the system—the question becomes if he can put things together and live up to the growing expectations.

Size will always be a concern for the undersized O’Regan, but with thanks to the collegiate schedule, and his current program, he is going to have a lot of opportunity to get bigger and stronger in the weight room. On the ice, pressure will definitely mount for the young sophomore at Boston University, as with Nieto’s departure he will be the main guy on campus. Due to his strong play last year as a freshman (where he actually outscored Nieto and was a Hockey East top-five scorer) O’Regan should be candidate to be one of the breakout players in college hockey; think John Gaudreau (CGY). He will also likely be one of the main weapons for the United States this year at the U20’s, proving that this could be a very big year for the Terriers star forward. Not bad for fifth round pick.

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

Konrad Abeltshauser has the kind of name that opposing announcers could mess up 20 different ways in a game, and he is also the kind of defensemen that is always in and around the play, so his name is constantly spoken during the game. The butchered variants will be spoken a lot this year in Worcester, because Abeltshauser is the type of defender that is involved in everything and he is going to make his mark.

He should not necessarily be considered a top-four defenseman at this stage in his career, but he certainly projects to be one, especially with his size and skating ability. His game is much more geared towards the rush and creating offense on the power play, but he certainly has a very underrated defensive skill set. He might get pushed around a bit (he is not very physical at all) by bigger opposition but it is a learning process. Abeltshauser has the potential to be a top-four defender with first unit power play potential—in fact it is not far out of the realm of possibility to see him quarterbacking the first unit in Worcester by seasons end.
9. (10) Sena Acolatse, D, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent in March, 2011

For the past few seasons Sena Acolatse has slowly climbed up the rankings and overtaken many respectable defensive prospects in the Sharks system. He might sit ninth on this list, but the gap between Acolatse and those defensemen ahead of him is not as big as one might think, and if one were to simply be discussing the now and not just potential, he might be on top of that list. In fact, if not for a jaw injury last season, he likely would have led Worcester in blue line points and be in line for the next defensive opening in San Jose based on his resume.

Acolatse is not going to light the world on fire and he is a little short, but he has undeniable hustle and heart and he does whatever it takes to help his team win. Acolatse uses his big shot and skating ability to create chances on the offensive end, and while his defensive prowess is not superb, he has gotten noticeably better. He will need to regain some of his trademark tenacity that he lost after coming back from his injury, and if he does, he is just going to keep rising up the ranks.

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

Dylan DeMelo is an offensive defenseman with huge question marks surrounding his ability to defend at the professional level due to his size and lack of physicality. He has always done well in most situations against kids, he even did well as a penalty-killer, but now his test will be against men. Those questions will start being answered this season as he will likely start for Worcester barring a terrible showing at camp.

What will not come into question is DeMelo’s offensive ability. He has gotten better each and every year and seems to live for the rush. He is not the best skater in the world but is above average and he possesses a hard accurate shot that will be an asset for his first year in the AHL, especially if he finds his way onto the second power play unit. DeMelo’s ceiling is not as high as the previously listed defensemen in terms of even strength play, but he could potentially become a power play specialist especially if he adds more mass and thus power to his slap shot.

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

Harri Sateri is an athletically gifted butterfly netminder with tremendous quickness. He will begin the year with a great opportunity as he battles Alex Stalock for the backup job in San Jose when training camp opens up in September. Many pundits have already written Stalock’s name on the bench, citing an experience edge. Do not be fooled; this will be an open competition and the Sharks will choose the best man for the job.

Statistically Stalock holds the edge, but when you throw out Sateri’s first six appearances during the first two months of play, all of a sudden the conversation has some real legs thanks to his hot play during the winter months of the year. In all likelihood though, this is the elder statesman’s job to lose, and Sateri will become the undisputed number one goalie in Worcester, a title he has never held due to his fierce competition with Stalock over the past few seasons.

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

Tarasov is a talented winger with loads of offensive ability. He plays a very prototypical Russian brand of hockey where his skills with the puck are very adept but his compete level and willingness to play without the puck are questionable.

After rising up the ranks last season after being signed to an AHL contract, Tarasov became a key piece for the Worcester Sharks offense. It is apparent that the offensively charged AHL Sharks will rely on the Russian for points but with a new influx of talent coming in, Tarasov will have to remain consistent if he wants to remain in a top-six role. This will be pivotal for Tarasov, as his lack of two-way play almost diminishes the chance that he could make it to the NHL in a non-scoring role. He will have every chance to slot in on the top line, and will likely be a key member of the team during the 2013-14 season. If he has a strong first half of the season he could be a potential injury call-up for the big Sharks.

13. (NR) Rylan Schwartz, C, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent in April, 2013

Rylan Schwartz is a dangler. His professional caliber puck skills can bring fans out of their seats and create many opportunities for scoring chances. His offensive game is not quite as refined as some might have you believe, but he makes up for it with his great defensive awareness. A skilled penalty-killer, Schwartz can fill many roles, which makes him an asset to any team.

He is not known to play a physical game, but by no means is he passive or soft and most scouts believe he will evolve into a bit of a shift disturber. After signing with the Sharks in early April, the Wilcox, Saskatchewan native played a handful of games with Worcester and did not look out of place in the least. In fact, expectations by many are high coming in the season, and Schwartz, even as a professional rookie, will be counted on for offensive production.

It should be noted that the same sort of expectations were had for a name further down this list, but Travis Oleksuk struggled to live up to them. Both are offensively gifted forwards coming out of college after big years. Schwartz will need to live up to his potential as to not fall down the same path.

14. (9) Taylor Doherty, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2009

There were times last year when Doherty looked comfortable and poised on the ice; he looked like the defensive beast he was drafted to be. Due to injury and his continued skating deficiencies those times were few and far between.

While it is likely that Doherty’s upcoming season will be more of the same, this is a contract year, and Doherty put in a ton of work in the off-season to get stronger in hopes to not only earn a new deal but to keep his dream alive. Even as a veteran on the Worcester Sharks there are no guarantees, and with new blood coming to town, competition is going to be high for all spots on the blue line. Doherty will make it out of camp, but his leash is going to be incredibly small. This is a make or break year for the hulking rearguard.

15. (12) Sean Kuraly, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2011

After a forgettable freshman season at Miami (Ohio) University, Kuraly will look to rebound and find his offensive prowess at the collegiate level. Early in the season he was relegated to a checking role after a very unlucky start and he just could not break out of that role despite his strong offensive skill set that he wowed audiences with at U.S. Junior Evaluation Camp before the start of last season.

With a plethora of better two-way centers in the prospect pool, it will be important for Kuraly to find confidence and put the puck in the back of the net or risk being buried in the depth charts. If he can utilize his speed, and find his way onto a scoring line (which might be simple as many members of Miami’s forward core graduated last season) he will rejuvenate his stock. This is still a good prospect but there are a lot of questions and the next few seasons will either see Kuraly climb the prospect ranks or fall mightily.

16. (NR) Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2013

For a long time the San Jose Sharks have made really safe picks. Especially at the top of the draft. Paquin-Boudreau represents a growing trend within the system of young, offensively-dynamic players with boom-or-bust potential. Do not go buying a San Jose Sharks jersey with his incredibly long hyphenated name on it just yet.

Paquin-Boudreau is a player who just started playing CHL hockey last season (he was playing Quebec Midget AAA before that) and as a late-bloomer he is just starting to come into his game. It is quite evident when you watch his rough positional play.

When he skates and carries the puck it is easy to imagine what he could become, but then when his smallish frame gets hammered in the open ice, that image quickly fades away. There are obvious strengths to his game, especially with the puck in and around scoring areas, but Paquin-Boudreau will always be haunted by his recklessness and while he has the speed and tools to make it to the “men’s league” he is going to need to fill out and play a more intelligent game with the puck to avoid injury. Look for the speedy scorer to light the lamp en masse for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar this season.

17. (NR) Michael Brodzinski, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 141st overall, 2013

The Sharks have done well in recent years for developing offensively gifted defensemen like Justin Braun, Jason Demers, and Matt Irwin. These were all players with concerns regarding their defensive prowess during their tenure in the prospect pool. Michael Brodzinski fits that bill perfectly. In fact, he might just have more offensive flash than any of the other three.

The strong University of Minnesota skater has the offensive power to become a very good offensively charged pointman, but his poor decision making process hinders that potential. A strong performance at the U.S. Junior Evaluation Camp has revved up expectations of the young blueliner, but he will have plenty of time to develop at the collegiate level before fans can start cheering “Brodzi” each time he slaps a howitzer from the point.

18. (NR) Christophe Lalancette, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2012

Having finally found his stride during the second half of the 2012-13 QMJHL season, Lalancette begins his third year of junior hockey in unfamiliar territory and likely a lesser scoring role after being traded to the Drummondville Voltigeurs. The young playmaker's offensive skills could possibly take a backseat this year, which is unfortunate given his offensive skill set and potential. However, if he finds his way into centering the top line, he could be one of the stars of the QMJHL.

19. (NR) Fredrik Bergvik, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 117th overall, 2013

A relative unknown to many in the hockey world (he was not among Central Scouting’s top 10 final ranking of European goalies) Fredrik Bergvik might just be the best statistical goaltender you have never heard of. While he played very few games as he was a backup for Frolunda’s U20 team he amassed a .948 save percentage in regional play, and in the Top 10 series he improved to .953. The limited data actually puts him in the same sort of conversation as Jakob Markstrom (FLA).

Now to be fair Bergvik does not have the same gigantic frame as Markstrom and they play quite different styles of butterfly. However, what Bergvik lacks in size he makes up for in technical acumen and veteran-like savvy. He is a very heady goaltender and plays to his strengths and limits opportunities. He should see an increased role with Frolunda in the new season.

20. (16) Travis Oleksuk, C, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent in March, 2012

This is a big year for the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star forward. Travis Oleksuk has all the skill to one day be an NHL player but last season he did not show that potential very often. He is a skilled player struggling to find his game at the professional level.

While there were numerous other prospects who could have made this slot, it is believed that after a strong summer, Oleksuk will bounce and find his ice legs. Despite struggling mightily to create offense for the AHL Sharks, the Thunder Bay native still projects long-term as an offensive two-way forward.