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Inside the Cage: Earned Promotions

Young defensemen have earned their chance at NHL playing time

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon / sjsharks.com

With defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Justin Braun, Paul Martin and Brenden Dillon, the Sharks have the luxury of a deep blue line and revel in the security they don't need to rush young players into the lineup before their time.

That's what makes the integration of Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed on the back end more of a natural progression. There's no forced move because of salary-cap restrictions. There's nothing driving their promotion other than they've developed to the point they deserve a chance to help the team win.

And a chance is what they've been given.

"You just want to see them get in there and play the way they did during exhibition games, and do their thing," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "Some guys are getting opportunities here, and you want them to make the most of it."

San Jose dipped into the roster of their neighboring Barracuda of the American Hockey League last season to give 10 different players an opportunity to show their skills at the NHL level. The early-season promotion of Ryan and Heed is the first of those same kind of transactions.

Strong on puck retrieval, a good skater and possessing the ability to make a solid first pass out of the defensive zone are characteristics that describe Ryan's strengths. Heed possesses a rocket of a shot, which could come in handy on the power play in addition to even-strength play.

"They had good training camps," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "They've been around this group a little bit. We're excited for them to step in and play that role."

Having caught the scouts' eyes during his freshman year at Cornell, Ryan was San Jose's seventh-round selection in the 2012 NHL entry draft. After three more seasons in the Big Red program, Ryan signed an entry-level deal to turn pro and appeared in a combined 138 games with Worcester and San Jose of the AHL over parts of the last three seasons.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of Rumson, New Jersey, proved to be especially productive at both ends of the ice last season. Ryan was second among Barracuda blue liners with 10 goals, 39 assists and 49 points. And he led San Jose with a plus-27 rating, which was also fourth best in the AHL.

Ryan made his NHL debut on Oct. 12 during a 3-2 win over Buffalo and paired for a second straight game with Burns against the New York Islanders on Saturday night. Ryan's left-handed shot compliments the right-handed weapon the Norris Trophy winner possesses.

Video: Ryan Speaks Pregame vs Sabres on 10/12

"A big part of your job is getting him the puck in the right spots and it's tough to do that from your off-hand," DeBoer said of Ryan's teaming with Burns. "I don't want to say we would make every lineup decision with a lefty-righty combination, but it's definitely high on my list of importance."

Ryan didn't get on the score sheet in his first two games, but he blocked three shots against New York and logged 21:24 of ice time over 25 shifts against Buffalo. He displayed his versatility against the Sabres with 1:10 of penalty-killing time and nearly a minute (:51 seconds) of power-play time.

"I've been in the organization for three years now so I feel like I know the systems pretty well as far as where I'm supposed to be," said Ryan, 24. "Obviously all these guys know where they're supposed to be, too. And with guys like that it makes it easier for me."

And as for playing with Burns while Martin misses time due to injury?

"I love it," Ryan said. "He's one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Especially for me, my first game, getting to play with him, it was unbelievable. I really had a good time out there."

And as the son of former tennis star Catarina Linqvist, it's clear where Ryan received at least some of his athletic ability. Linqvist was ranked 10th in the world by the mid-1980s, won five singles' titles and reached the semifinals of a pair of grand slam events - losing both times to tennis great Martina Navratilova.

While Ryan dabbled with tennis as a youth, he knew he always wanted to play hockey instead.

"I don't know where that would have gone," Ryan said. "I always wanted to play hockey. This is something we all dream about as a kid, it's no different for me. It's what I've been working for my whole life."

While Ryan has Swedish ancestry, Heed was born in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 6-foot, 185-pound 26-year-old made his mark in the Swedish Hockey League where he won defenseman of the year honors in 2014-15. Drafted four years earlier by Anaheim, the Ducks did not retain his rights and the Sharks swooped in and signed Heed as a free agent. He spent last season with the Barracuda where - pairing mostly with his good buddy Ryan - Heed had the fourth most points among AHL defenders (56), was third in assists (42) and was named to the league's Second All-Star Team.

"I try to play a solid game overall," said Heed, who appeared in one game for the Sharks last season. "It starts with defense and breaking the puck out. If I can join the play offensively and put up points that's a bonus."

After blocking three shots and managing to put one on net during 13:10 during his debut against Buffalo, Heed saw his ice time increase to 19:49 against New York against which he put three shots on goal and blocked two.

"We're looking for consistency," DeBoer said. "I think that's what separates the full-time from the part-time guys, and the guys who make a career out of it. It's not easy. Some guys get it quicker than others. There's a lot of those guys in that stage.

"We talked right from the start of training camp that we have depth here, and we're going to use it."

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