SAN JOSE Whether or not the NHL season begins on Nov. 2 or is pushed back even further, younger prospects and recent draft picks wont be a part of training camp. In the unlikely event it starts early, the players taking part will more or less be those assured of their place on the NHL roster.
In other words, if Sharks fans want to get an up-close look at the clubs top minor league prospects, they cant do it without a cross-country flight to Boston Logan and subsequent pricey cab ride to Worcester, Mass.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and the teams entire coaching staff made that trek last week, taking in part of Worcesters training camp and a few of its preseason games. The trip was productive for a few reasons, according to Wilson.
It was a great opportunity for all our staff to spend time together, get on the ice, and see the young players that theyve worked with at the development camp, Wilson said, referring to the Sharks mid-summer prospect gathering in San Jose. Its as important that the young players there, who didnt get the opportunity to have a training camp or exhibition games here, show us what they can do. We have a very good team down there, thats very competitive.
There are a number of players on Worcesters roster that are of particular interest, and could even appear in a Sharks jersey this season. At the top is forward James Sheppard, who hasnt played NHL hockey in two seasons, but has seemingly worked his way back into playing condition.
In fact, in Worcesters first two games in Norfolk, Va. last weekend, Sheppard contributed a goal and two assists and was the Sharks nominee for AHL Player of the Week (he didnt win). Hes their first line center, skating between wingers Sebastian Stalberg and Travis Oleksuk.
Sheppard, who spoke to CSNCalifornia.com last week, seems primed to battle for a top-nine forward role for the Sharks this season provided he doesnt suffer any setbacks. It could be an incredible story after the former first round pick suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury in Sept. 2010 in an ATV accident while training in Vail, Co.
Were excited to see a player who has gone through a bump in the road, put all this work in, and come out of it on the healthy side, said Wilson, who traded a third round pick in 2013 to Minnesota last summer to acquire Sheppard, only to see him shelved for the entirety of the 2011-12 season. To see him playing the way he was playing, and feeling healthy, and having the jump back in his game, is exciting for Shep and really exciting for us, too. That factored into the riskreward of acquiring him.
Sheppard isnt the only player with NHL hopes thats on the mend. Goaltender Alex Stalocks career was also nearly cut short when he suffered a sliced nerve behind his left knee in Feb. 2011 while playing for Worcester. After nearly a full year on the shelf, Stalock returned late last season and played in 11 games between Worcester, Peoria, Ill. (AHL, on loan) and Stockton, Ca. (ECHL).
Hes 100 percent cleared by the Mayo Clinic. Its a great story, Wilson said. Obviously, he healed well. In that type of injury you just hope to get through that barrier, but hes completely cleared, looks great, and we expect him to have a very dominant year.
Stalock is half of the goalie tandem that also includes 2008 fourth round pick Harri Sateri. Each has started one of Worcesters first two games, and each allowed three goals as Worcester dropped both contests.
We have high expectations for Harri. The competition between the two will make them both better, but theyre both high-end goalies, Wilson said.
Wilson doesnt like to name names when asked which players on Worcesters roster are the closest to being NHL-ready, but there are still some players that provoke more interest than others, if based only on draft position or media reports.
One of those is defenseman Nick Petrecki. The big defenseman was chosen in the first round (28th overall) the same year as Logan Couture (2007), but has yet to get even a sniff of the NHL. Reviews of Petreckis play at the minor league level have been mixed, at best, as he begins his fourth year with Worcester.
In Petreckis defense, blueliners generally take longer to develop than high-end skilled offensive players like Couture. According to Wilson, the 23-year-old Petrecki is still on the right path, and has bulked up to 238 pounds to go along with his 6-3 frame.
Hes right on track, Wilson said. I think what happens is when a player like a Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Couture makes an NHL roster right awaythats the aberration. Look how young Nick Petrecki still is.
He continued: We try to build a career for players. What happens is, the big physical players normally take longer. Thats just the history of it. Theyve been able to intimidate or scare people in junior or college, and they need to round out their game.
Another name that popped up just this summer is that of 19-year-old forward Sean Kuraly, after his impressive performance at the World Junior prospect camp in Lake Placid, NY.
Kuraly, a fifth round pick of the Sharks in 2011, led all players at the camp with six goals and nine points. A native of Columbus, Oh., Kuraly is a lock to represent the United States at the World Junior Championships at the end of the calendar year.
In fact, one unnamed NHL scout told ESPN.com: "Whatever round this kid was taken in, it should have been the first.
He showed what hes capable of at that camp. Thats really all Im going to say, Wilson said. In the World Juniors this year, I think youll see some stuff.
Kuralys rise out of seemingly nowhere could be used as a good example against the credibility of prospect lists that appear in hockey publications and on websites. The Sharks are consistently rated among the leagues worst teams when it comes to in-the-system depth. HockeyProspectus.com ranks the Sharks 29th out of 30, while Hockeysfuture.com ranks the Sharks dead last.
So, too, does the well-respected Hockey News, putting San Jose 30th out of 30 teams, along with a C-minus grade.
GM Doug Wilson will tell you the Sharks success hasnt adversely affected their drafting. However, there are few blue-chippers to speak of, says the publication in its 2012-13 yearbook.
Its evident in speaking with Wilson that those lists dont keep him up at night.
People call and ask me to comment. Some of the people filling content dont do their homework, and some of the people they ask for their opinions are people that are trying to get back in the game, that arent in the game because theyre not very good at what they do, to be honest, Wilson said.
Instead, hed rather point to the kids like Kuraly, who could be yet another diamond in the rough for the franchise and its scouting department headed by Tim Burke, who just completed his 15th season in that role. In fact, the Sharks 2012-13 roster will feature a whole slew of mid-to-late round picks and home grown talent from previous drafts, including Joe Pavelski (7th round, 2003), Ryane Clowe (6th round, 2001), Douglas Murray (8th round, 1999), Tommy Wingels (6th round, 2008), Justin Braun (7th round, 2007), Thomas Greiss (3rd round, 2004) and Andrew Desjardins (undrafted free agent).
Since 2003, when Wilson took over, Sharks draft picks have played a total of 3829 NHL games, whether with San Jose or somewhere else in the league. That number is second only to Chicago (3980) and Montreal (4154).
Youve got to find guys that can play, that might not be fully developed, but have great hockey sense and get those pros in the second third, fifth, sixth, seventh rounds. Thats really where you make your bones in this business.