For every player still left in Sharks training camp, it is all about making the team. Some obviously have better chances than others based on their skill, but the timing of reaching the NHL is an unknown to just about every player.
Sharks Captain Patrick Marleau
made the big club for good right out of juniors, but was still proving his worth every NHL game his rookie season or he could have been returned to Seattle.
San Jose goal-scorer extraordinaire Jonathan Cheechoo completed his junior eligibility, then spent two complete seasons, and part of another, toiling in the AHL before landing full-time in San Jose.
Winger Patrick Rissmiller must have seemed like a career minor-leaguer to outsiders. The six-foot-four product of Belmont, Massachusetts, skated four full seasons at Holy Cross before taking the free agent contract offered by Team Teal in 2003. “Rizz” had skated in just 22 NHL games before the age of 27 when he finally became a Sharks regular.
There are numerous Sharks prospects fighting for open roster spots right now and each has taken a different road.
Craig Valette is a 24-year-old who was signed as a free agent in 2003 after completing his junior career with Portland. During that campaign he posted 30 goals in 71 games and has since played four consecutive seasons with the Sharks top development affiliate.
“I hope to be like Rissmiller,” said Valette. “Each year, you just keep at it.”
“Rissmiller is a great example to all players in the organization,” said Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson. “He evolved as a hockey player. You may not have the ability to score at this level, but if you find your niche, you can be indispensable.”
As long as the Sharks see progress from a prospect, they will keep providing opportunities.
“We’ll spend years on guys as long as they’re trying to evolve,” said Wilson. “Everyone matures differently. As long as the curve on the graph is heading upwards, we’ll give them every opportunity.”
“I’ve continued to get better each year,” said Valette. “I’ll keep putting in the work.”
In the Sharks organization continued progress is more important than a player’s age. And players know that their chance to make the show is not based on a fictional clock.
“It seems like the window of opportunity will stay as long as you’re continuing to get better,” said Valette.
Valette was a 30-goal scorer in the WHL, but offense will not be his forte in the NHL.
“I had to work on D-zone coverage and little details,” said Valette. “I had to learn to get open when I didn’t have the puck.”
He did acknowledge that not making the roster immediately can have an affect.
“You get humbled when you go to a league where everyone was the best player on their team,” said Valette. “My first three years, I was nervous about making mistakes. Now I’ve made the mistakes and learned from them. It took a while to find my niche. That is where I’m at right now. When you’re relaxed and having fun, you play better.”
Fellow forward Lukas Kaspar was a first round selection (22nd overall) in 2004. Not an eternity by any stretch, but he is anxious to reach the NHL this year after two seasons in the AHL.
“I believe this is my time,” said Kaspar, who netted a three-assist night in the most recent game against Anaheim. “I worked hard this summer and last year to change the way I play.”
Similar to Valette, Kaspar stuck with the Sharks mantra to keep getting better.
“I play better in the defensive end,” said Kaspar. “Before I came over here, I was just offensive. I thought I knew what I was doing in the defensive end, but now I know. The Sharks really pay attention to their own end and, if you don’t, you’re not going to play here. I hope to be wearing this uniform all season.”
The same can be said for training camp hopefuls across the NHL.
The Sharks will host Anaheim tonight at HP Pavilion and tickets are still available at the HP Pavilion Box Office and at www.ticketmaster.com