Healthy Sheppard trying to resurrect career


Healthy Sheppard trying to resurrect career

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.

Facial fractures for Couture; Thornton undergoes surgery

Facial fractures for Couture; Thornton undergoes surgery

SAN JOSE – Just in case there was any question as to the grisly nature of Logan Couture’s mouth injury, the Sharks forward shared a picture on his personal Instagram account on Monday.

If you haven’t seen it yet, proceed with caution.

The photo was taken the night of his injury on March 25 in Nashville, showing several top teeth missing in a mouth that can accurately be described as a bloody mess, after he was hit with a defected puck while standing in front of the net in a game against the Predators.

Couture revealed on Tuesday in a conference call that there was more to his injury that just damaged teeth. He also has some facial fractures, including one above his upper lip that extends to his nasal area, and another that is under the bottom row of his teeth.

The one that’s higher in his face is still painful. 

“Still struggle to eat and sleep. … It’s not a comfortable state to be in,” said Couture, who missed the final seven games of the regular season before returning for the six-game first round series loss to Edmonton.

As for the next step, Couture has yet to sit down with his dentist, although further work is on the horizon.

“There’s going to be some implants to get the teeth fixed,” he said. “Hopefully get it done in the next few weeks, and then I’ll head back to Canada.”

Couture doesn’t yet know how many teeth need to be replaced.

“All depends on how the teeth respond,” he said.

* * *

Joe Thornton had successful surgery on his left knee on Monday afternoon, NBC Sports California has learned, and according to a team statement released later on Tuesday he is expected to "make a complete recovery and be ready for the start of the 2017-18 season." 

According to a source, the damage to Thornton’s MCL was more significant than his ACL. The team declined to give any details about the surgery in its statement, including who performed it and where it was done. 

Thornton played four playoff games against Edmonton despite damaged knee ligaments, head coach Pete DeBoer revealed on Monday, when he said Thornton was dealing with a “torn MCL and ACL” after getting hurt in Vancouver on April 2.

Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

SAN JOSE – There was an NHL coaching casualty on Monday on a team that flamed out in the first round.

No, it wasn’t in San Jose. It was in Chicago, as the Blackhawks fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who was in charge of their penalty kill. Chicago, swept by Nashville despite finishing atop the Western Conference, finished 24th on the PK in the regular season.

When it comes to the Sharks’ coaching staff, there’s no doubt that head coach Pete DeBoer will return, but it’s fair to wonder if assistant coach Steve Spott is feeling a little heat right now. The Sharks’ power play, a primary focus of Spott’s, finished just 25th in the NHL this season (16.7 percent) after it was third in the league in 2015-16 (22.5 percent).

When asked if the full Sharks’ coaching staff would return next season, general manager Doug Wilson didn’t offer anything definitive.

“I haven’t sat down with them yet. I think they did an outstanding job,” Wilson said. “You go through the last 12 months with a compressed schedule, very few practices, integrating players. I’m very pleased with their performance.

“I think there are things that they want to do better. We all have to take a look back and be honest, and say since we’re not playing right now, what can we do better? I think that transparency and honesty is a really good part of this group. We’ll do that in the next week.”

And what was Wilson’s perspective of the power play?

“It’s got to be better. [The coaches] will tell you. …  It’s not [always] the percentage or the number, it’s when you score goals. We certainly have the talent, and historically we’ve done very well,” Wilson said.

There was no part of the Sharks’ game during the regular season and in the playoffs that was more baffling and frustrating than its performance with a man advantage. Last season’s success seemed to bleed into October as the Sharks were running at a 24.1 percent rate through the first month of the 2016-17 season, but after November 1 and through the end of the season, the power play was a miserable 15.7 percent (34-for-217).

In the playoffs the Sharks were a more respectable 5-for-28, but even DeBoer called that misleading as four of those came in the 7-0 blowout in Game 4. They were 1-for-18 the rest of the series.

DeBoer, as the head coach, took responsibility for that part of the Sharks’ game when asked how much the miserable power play grinded on Spott.

“It grinds on all of us,” he said. “This isn’t about Steve. The power play is not about Steve. The power play is about our whole staff. We sit on all those situations as a group, and I’m the ultimate guy responsible for all those things. 

“I think it ground on all of us. It didn’t give us momentum, it didn’t create momentum even when it wasn’t scoring. That’s what you want your power play to do, is at least give you some momentum that you’re feeling good coming out of it. We didn’t get that, so that’s something that’s right at the top of our list.”

One baffling aspect of the power play is that the coaching staff hardly ever tried anything different with its units unless it was forced into it due to injury. Patrick Marleau was bumped from the top unit for a brief stretch in the middle of the season, but it didn’t last very long.

The second unit generated just seven goals in the 82-game season, and none after Feb. 2 other than rookie Danny O’Regan’s score in the final game when several Sharks regulars were resting.

One argument regarding the top unit is that it simply became too predictable. Joe Thornton could be counted on to pass, Brent Burns was going to shoot any chance he got, and Joe Pavelski would be hovering somewhere around the slot looking for a deflection.

Pavelski said: “There were times where maybe we rushed it, forced a few things. Definitely all year it could have been a little better, a little more of our identity and what it has been in the past. So, that’s on us as players.”

DeBoer said: “I think we got a little stagnant. I don’t think we had as much motion as we usually have and as much movement, and that comes with some confidence. You lose confidence, you tend to stand still. That’s something that we’ve got to get back.”