One of the most frequently asked questions I got last season, whether it be through Twitter or during an online chat, was: whats the deal with James Sheppard?
My repetitious reply from January on was simple and straightforward: dont expect Sheppard, who suffered a serious left knee injury in the summer of 2010, to have any sort of impact on the NHL club this year. After all, the former first round pick (ninth overall) of the Minnesota Wild hadnt played a game at any level in a year-and-a-half up to that point, and it wasnt even a sure thing that his professional career would continue.
Now? Sheppard has declared himself recovered and is ready to begin his journey back to the NHL with the American Hockey Leagues Worcester Sharks, with whom he signed a contract with just before training camp. Head coach Roy Sommer told the Worcester Telegram that Sheppard looks great now, and I think youve just seen the tip of it. Sheppard even scored a goal in Worcesters preseason game last Thursday, a 4-3 loss to the Connecticut Whale (which was led by Calder Trophy candidate and Rangers playoff hero Chris Kreider, who tallied a hat trick).
I feel really good. I feel in shape, I feel energetic, and Im really happy to be playing hockey again, Sheppard told me on Tuesday, via telephone.
Its been a long road back for Sheppard, who was injured in an offseason ATV accident while training in Vail, Colorado in September of 2010. The Sharks took a chance when they acquired him from the Wild, with whom he had 11 goals and 38 assists in 224 games over parts of three seasons from 2007-10. The Sharks sent a third round pick in 2013 to Minnesota in exchange for the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder on August 8, 2011.
We looked at it as a risk-reward thing, Wilson told the Telegram. We scouted him as a junior and really liked him then. We even thought about trading up in the draft so wed have a chance to take him.
He arrived in San Jose a little more than a year ago and immediately took up residence in the training room. Sheppard briefly made an appearance for practice on Nov. 18, but that didnt last very long, and he later described that attempt to return as feeling like he was skating in mud. He promptly went back to the gym to build more muscle.
Fast-forward to Jan. 7, and Sheppard once again took part in a practice at Sharks Ice. His stated goal that day, he told reporters, was to play a game by the beginning of March.
He reached that goal when he appeared in four games with Worcester on a two-week conditioning stint from late Feb. through March 11, going scoreless with two penalty minutes before he was shut down again. He admitted on Tuesday that playing in those games might not have been the best idea.
I feel way better, and completely different now, Sheppard said. I wasnt really ready when I played those four games, looking back. I feel much better now, and feel prepared and ready to go right now. Last year, I felt like I had a bad knee and I dont think I was 100 percent out there. Now, I feel like Im 100 percent, and I can play the game that I want to play.
Although pain in his left knee will be something that he likely has to manage for the rest of his life, its not something that he thinks about now when he hops over the boards.
When I get on the ice it all kind of goes away, just because of how intense the game is and how fast it is, he said. You just kind of lose yourself in the game.
When and if the NHL season gets under way, it will be interesting to see where Sheppard ends up, provided he stays healthy. The Sharks are counting on several of their younger players like Tommy Wingels, TJ Galiardi and Andrew Desjardins to continue their development provide steady minutes and secondary scoring on the bottom two lines.
Adding the 24-year-old Sheppard into that mix would help in terms of depth, and internal competition for playing time.
Thats not something Sheppard is focused on just yet, though. Instead, hes in high spirits to move forward with his career, after a roller coaster ride of emotions the last two years.
Everyone can have bad days and good days where they kind of question themselves, but the quicker you get over that and quicker you say Im going to beat this thing, the better it is, he said. I really have to give a lot of thanks to a lot of people who helped me through that, and helped me to where I am right now.