Perhaps more than any other team in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks will rely on youth to shoulder the load, and take them into, and hopefully far into, the playoffs. As with any team, there are key players on the Sharks who need to maintain their level of play. Players such as Vincent Damphousse who will be relied upon to maintain his scoring presence that he showed at the end of last year. Gary Suter who will be relied upon to lead the defensive core, and hopefully make a complete recovery from elbow problems last year. And of course, Mike Vernon who will be relied upon in goal along with Steve Shields, and most likely, be the main man come playoff time.
From there, the Sharks have a list of about 7 players long, who will take on just as important roles, all of whom under 25 years of age. Mike Rathje at 25 years old, Niklas Sundstrom at 24, Jeff Friesen and Alex Korolyuk both 23, Marco Sturm 21, Patrick Marleau 20, and Brad Stuart at only 19 years of age. You could throw Scott Hannan, 20, into the mix as well, as he’ll most likely be in the lineup before the season ends.
Everyone forgets that Mike Rathje still has yet to reach his prime ages for a defenseman. At 25 years old most defensemen are only in their 2nd or 3rd year. Very few, if any defensemen as young as Rathje, are as responsible in his own area of the ice. Does he hit? No. Does he chip in on offense? Starting to a bit more, but not really. Will he wow you with a great move? No. But what Rathje is very good at is simply stopping his opponents from scoring. Paired with Marcus Ragnarsson, this duo was very effective in stopping his opponent’s top lines. This year, these two will be expected to do it again. You could make a case for Rathje as being anywhere from the team’s 2nd-4th defenseman (first clearly being Suter). It’s not common for a 25 year old defenseman to be one of the main bases for your defense, but Rathje is just that.
I’m interested to see if we see any improvement on Rathje’s offense this year. Depending on the role that the rookie d-men play, you very well may see Rathje as part of the second unit for the power play. He does have a strong shot, but it takes him about a year to take it. If he can learn to quicken it up, he will be a threat. If not, he will still be a solid player to keep the puck in, and feed it to his wings.
Many players were disappointed when the Sharks traded promising young defenseman Andrei Zyuzin for Niklas Sundstrom, a player well known for his defensive presence, but not so much known for scoring. When the Sharks traded for him, all I could tell people was: “hold on, wait for him to play, you’ll like him.” With the season beginning, I’m sticking with that advice. Sundstrom’s style of play fits in perfectly with Darryl Sutter’s system of hockey–defense first.
In his first couple years in New York, Sundstrom was expected to be a strong scorer in the NHL. In his sophomore year, he had 24 goals and 28 assists, his highest point total in his 4 years. From then, he’s slowly declined, scoring 13 goals, and 30 assists. Fans in New York started getting on his case for his lack of scoring, spurring his trade to the Tampa Bay Lightening on draft day. Before playing a game for TB, he was traded to the Sharks for Andrei Zyuzin, Steve Guolla, Bill Houlder and Shawn Burr.
Sundstrom, constantly a candidate for the Selke Trophy, does have offensive talent. He’s not a great skater, but he knows when to shoot. While his production was down the last couple years, look at the team he was playing with. Playing for New York was not the best situation for him to be in. The team was struggling, and the style of play did not suit him best. Playing in San Jose, his style will be easily and well exploited. He certainly won’t have any problem showing his defensive skills on the defensive oriented Sharks, but with fast players next to him (any combo of Friesen, Marleau, Sturm and Damphousse), it won’t be necessary for him to be the one to carry the puck into the zone. I would not be shocked to see him break the 50 point mark again with the Sharks, scoring around 25 goals and assists.
Another thing that makes Sundstrom so attractive is that he can be used in any situation. He is strong at even strength, can be used easily on the power play, and is one of the best penalty killers in the league. I don’t doubt for a second that he’s a player Shark fans are going to like once given a fair chance.
At only 23 years old, it’s not fair to say that it’s time for Jeff Friesen to prove himself, but many are saying that that’s exactly what he needs to do. His best scoring came in 97/98, when he scored 31 goals and 32 assists, the first and only time he broke the 30 goal mark. Last year, he scored only 22 goals and 35 assists; in what many said was a disappointing season. However, remember that he suffered a shoulder injury early in the season, one that hampered him the rest of the season.
Friesen made a very bold statement regarding the signing of Damphousse. He said that if the Sharks signed him “I’ll score 40.” He certainly has the ability to do so. Don Cherry was once quoted as saying that Friesen is the fastest player in the NHL while with the puck. He has a good shot, and has added a surprising amount of grit to his game, as he’s not afraid to shove his way through to get the puck. Where he was once strictly a finesse player, Darryl Sutter has turned him into a more all-around player.
If Friesen can live up to his prediction, people will have to look at the Sharks as a serious threat to some of the top teams in the NHL, and Jeff Friesen as one of the premier players in the NHL. Whether he actually does this or not is another story. There are a few things that will need to happen. A) He’ll need to stay healthy. One of his strengths is not maintaining his play through injury, as shown last year. B) He’ll need help from his linemates–Vincent Damphousse and Owen Nolan. C) The other young players on this list will need to live up to expectations, so opposing teams don’t key in on one line.
Either way, Friesen is already a key member of the Sharks. He’s one of, if not the, main offensive threat for the Sharks. He has the potential to score at slightly above a point per game basis. He’s a 100 point man, but he can certainly be a dynamic force in the NHL, and this very well could be the year he does it.
Alex Korolyuk came to the Sharks last year, and surprised everyone, immediately becoming a fan favorite. An older rookie than most at age 23, Korky recorded 12 goals and 18 assists in 55 games for the Sharks. It seemed as though every one of his dozen goals were highlight reel types, and he often was the one to spark a comeback. At only 5’9″ many Shark fans immediately compared him to the man they love to hate-Theo Fleury. The two players do resemble each other in many aspects. They’re small, very quick, very crafty, and both surprisingly chippy. Neither one is afraid to go up against bigger players, and fight for the puck until they get it or get knocked down.
One warning I have for Shark fans, however, is to not expect him to be a star. He very well may score 20-25 goals and 25-30 assists, however the expectations that many have predicted may be out of line. I’ve heard some expecting him to score 75+ points as early as this year. There are several things you need to take into consideration though. First of all, at the age of 23, there’s only so much development he has left. That’s not to say he won’t improve, but not so much to the extent that he’ll score more as much as some expect. If he was a few years younger, then I could possibly see the expectations.
What Korolyuk will provide is a 2nd or VERY good 3rd line player who will be a very dangerous threat, especially against certain types of teams. If you give him the chance to beat you–he will. He is a player very easily overlooked if on the 3rd line, as often, the opponent will let up a little on the last two lines. However, this letting up will cost the team with a player like Korky. With depth players like him on the team, it makes the job of the first lines a lot easier, since there’s a threat on every line. He is also very effective on the power play, and is the type of player who will allow you to play with 4 forwards (especially with the addition of Sundstrom) on your power play.
Marco Sturm and Patrick Marleau both finished their sophomore year last year, and in the process impressed a lot of people. Both players showed solid improvement, and in addition, showed more of what we can possibly expect in the future. These two players, who are also close friends off the ice, are a dangerous duo on the ice.
Last year, Marco Sturm may not have had the best statistical numbers in the world with 16 goals and 22 assists, but was an integral part of the team none the less. I feel that the most you’ll see out of him is around the 25 goal, and 30 assist mark, but where he’ll be valuable is not necessarily in his point production. Not unlike Sundstrom, he can be used in all situations. At even strength, he can use his speed to rush the puck up ice and join a rush, and is very strong in his own zone as well. While on the power play, he’s often the one to start things up ice, not necessarily getting a point, but creating the point, as I’ll describe later. Killing penalties, he’s very good at covering large portions of the ice with his speed.
In the NHL All-Star game, he came within a hundredth of a second of winning the fastest skater competition. With his speed, he is very good at covering the ice as I described. He simply gets to where he needs to be. In even strength or power play situations, he is very good at streaking up ice, forcing a defenseman to draw out wide, leaving an opening for another one of the forwards. It is in situations like this, where Sturm creates goals, without ever touching the puck. Since his speed does have to be taken into consideration, teams are often forced to double team him, or at least keep a man on him, allowing Sturm to set up his teammates in this fashion.
This year, Sturm’s role shouldn’t be drastically different than his previous two years. He won’t be required to be one of the main scorers for the Sharks this year, but he will be called upon to be a solid player on the 2nd line. What I noticed more of out of Sturm so far, is that he has shoved his way through and chipped in rebound goals more than he has in the past. In his previous two years, most of his goals were by using his speed. If he can learn to stay in front more like this, he should find his production numbers rising, and if nothing else, creating yet more of these chances for his teammates.
Sturm is the type of player who does a lot of the work, that others get credit for. Many of these players are often overlooked, but Sturm is so good at what he does, he’s warranted attention from other teams for it.
The player the Sharks are counting on for offense in the future will be Patrick Marleau. In his sophomore season last year, Marleau recorded 21 goals and 24 assists, improving upon his numbers the year before. The first half the year was a bit of a struggle, but as the year progressed, he got stronger. He started to look more confident in his skills, and started showing signs of what many predict him to be.
This year, he looks like he’s added a few more pounds of muscle, and has also improved his speed, more specifically, his acceleration. More so, he’s allowing his natural talent to lead him, instead of reacting to the puck, then using his natural talent. Reacting like that is fine when you have the time to do so. However, by reacting like this, you’re not going to be one of the premier players. Now, Marleau appears to be pouncing on loose pucks and rebounds a lot more quickly, anticipating where the puck is going to be, THEN reacting accordingly.
I expect big things from Marleau this year. I can easily see Marleau scoring 30 goals, and 25-30 assists. While it was clear that he had the skill the previous two years he hadn’t learned how to use it yet. He’s starting to learn how to use it now. Keep in mind that he just celebrated his 20th birthday in September, and after spending two years in the NHL already, is still one of the youngest players in the league.
On defense, there are two young players who will be fighting all year to see who deserves the spot on defense-Brad Stuart, and Scott Hannan. Currently, it is Brad Stuart who has the nod over Hannan. However, I have a theory that this is not based on their play, but several other factors, mostly political, which I’ll describe in a future article.
Whether it be one of them, or both of them playing, they will not be asked to be the savior on defense in their first year. However, on the Sharks, each player is required to hold his own, if either doesn’t, the Sharks won’t hesitate to use one of their other gluttony of defensemen they have in Kentucky.
Brad Stuart has been paired with Gary Suter, and it’s reasonable to assume that will continue. The advantage Stuart has over Hannan is that Stuart provides a more dynamic force on the ice. He’s far more of a threat to score and more of a threat on the power play than Hannan is. However, he’s also far more prone to mistakes than Hannan is. They key for Stuart this year, will be to maintain his style of play, but use proper discretion of when and when not to join the rush. I feel that his best approach would be to error on the side of caution. If he’s not sure whether to rush up, stay back.
The advantage Hannan has over Stuart is that he doesn’t make the typical rookie mistakes you see out of young players. There are certain things he doesn’t do that he’ll eventually learn from time, but there are not liabilities in his game that will cost him due to that lack of experience. The key to Hannan’s success will most likely lie in him maintaining his steady style of play. Once he feels comfortable in the NHL at playing his steady game, then he can start incorporating the other aspects of the game that he learns along the way.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the situation with Hannan and Stuart, as this will be the basis for my next article, but sufficed to say, if these two are here, they’re here to play. And if they’re going to be here, they will need to hold their own and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
Add Owen Nolan, Steve Shields and Mike Ricci all at the age of 27, and you’d be hard pressed to find a team in the NHL with a younger group of players who are playing as key roles as they are. Teams such as the Sharks, Edmonton, Calgary, Boston, Tampa Bay, and others, all have young talent on their team, who either this year, or in the near future, could very well surprise people. With the Sharks, if the above mentioned players begin to come into their own, the Sharks very well could be looking at the second round of the playoffs again, and threatening for the 3rd round. It should also give us a good gauge of what this team should be like in 5 years.