SAN JOSE – It was a day of player movement, both literally and figuratively, at Sharks Ice on Monday.
Tomas Hertl is now sitting between Patrick Marleau and Tyler Kennedy in the main dressing room at the team’s official practice facility. Matt Nieto is in the far corner, the lone forward on a wall of defensemen. Freddie Hamilton is next to goaltender Antti Niemi, and although he’ll certainly move to one of the newly vacated stalls, the fact that he’s still in the main room at all is significant.
The Sharks made their final cuts on Monday, sending a bevy of players to their AHL affiliate in Worcester. The result is a roster sprinkled with rookies, including Hertl, Nieto and Hamilton, and 26-year-old goaltender Alex Stalock, who is not technically a rookie but will start the season on an NHL roster for the first time in his career.
Injuries have played a role, most notably Raffi Torres’ torn ACL that will likely keep him out until after the Olympic break in February. But, the kids have played well, according to head coach Todd McLellan.
“A number of them have earned the chance to come and play,” McLellan said.
Among the forwards, Hertl’s making the cut is the least surprising. The team’s first round pick in 2012 showed in the preseason that he’s skilled enough to play at an NHL level, scoring three goals and an assist in four games, and his big six-foot-two, 210-pound frame should help him better withstand the rigors of an NHL schedule.
He’ll be on the wing of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns when the Sharks open up on Thursday against Vancouver.
“Tomas being my linemate, it’s been a lot of fun,” Thornton said. “Me and Burnzie have been smiling a lot, just enjoying his company out there. I think with getting some young guys in here, it adds a little bit more enthusiasm in the room.”
The 34-year-old captain of the Sharks, Thornton has already seen Hertl progress from the start of camp three weeks ago.
“It’s like you see your kid, you go on the road once a week and then you come back and see him and he’s huge,” said Thornton, who welcomed his second child to the world this summer. “I think that’s what you’re going to see with Tomas this year, each week he’s going to get better and better. Every week he’s been here he’s gotten better, and it’s a good sign.”
Nieto looks to be penciled in on the Sharks’ third line with Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels, in the place that Torres would have probably occupied.
No one will confuse Nieto with Torres, whose physicality and ability to deliver a game-altering hit will be sorely missed, but Nieto does possess one trait that should help – speed.
“For me, I just want to compliment those players and chip in offensively, use my speed to create turnovers, and we’re all offensively gifted,” said Nieto, a native of Long Beach. “We’re going to try to make plays, and put up some goals.”
McLellan pointed out that in preseason action, Nieto was on the ice for many more scoring chances for than against.
“I don’t think Matt Nieto is going to step into that position and replace Raffi, they play the game completely different, but the speed element is one thing that Matt’s brought,” McLellan said.
Hamilton’s versatility may be his biggest asset, at least for the time being. The 21-year-old spent all of last season in Worcester, and although it looks like he’ll start out in a fourth line role (depending on the health status of Adam Burish, who is still not skating due to a lower body injury), Hamilton can potentially contribute as a center, a wing, on the power play or the penalty kill.
“I think I’ve proven I can play at this level, but we’ll see what happens based on bodies and that,” he said. “I just have got to keep on working hard, and whatever happens is going to happen.”
Regardless of which players stick around for the duration of the season – and McLellan said that there were several on their way back to Worcester that deserved a chance to play NHL games – there’s no hiding the excitement of having an opening night roster spot in the best hockey league in the World.
“It’s really crazy. It’s a dream come true. I’ve always thought about it as a kid, and it’s finally here,” he said. “It’s crazy to see my dreams become a reality.”