The San Jose Sharks haven't been content to watch the proceedings at recent Entry Drafts, instead the Sharks have been movers and shakers in acquiring picks and stocking the team's talent pipeline.
In 2003, for example, the Sharks traded up to get right wing Steve Bernier and center Josh Hennessy. A year later, the Sharks swapped a higher pick to acquire three later picks in 2004 and used the first of those to grab highly rated German goalie Thomas Greiss
The Sharks have an incredibly solid group of talented goalies in their pipeline, but they also have some impressive forwards in Lukas Kaspar and Ryane Clowe
, plus defensemen in Matt Carle and Michael Vernace.
Bernier was the No. 1 pick in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Midget Draft and lived up to his high ranking during his junior career. He was named to the QMJHL Rookie All-Star team and was twice a Second All-Star Team selection. He scored 151 goals in four seasons with a high of 49 in 2002-03.
The Sharks traded three picks to the Boston Bruins in 2003 to get Bernier with the 16th overall pick. He's a rugged 6-foot-1, 214-pounder who has averaged over 90 penalty minutes a season the past three years. He's seen as a prototypical power forward who will go to the net with intensity.
Bernier caused a bit of a stir when some scouts expressed concern about his conditioning, but that's long in the past, Executive Vice President & General Manager Doug Wilson said. Bernier lost 10 pounds in the month between the testing and the draft and has been dedicated to his fitness ever since.
"We are very pleased with his progress," Wilson said. "He became a leader on that team and he had a really good playoffs. He's a big, powerful kid who really worked on his strength and fitness. He loves to play the game and can play any way you want to play. He had 35 goals and 114 penalty minutes while finishing as a plus player.
"We want players that just really love to play the game. I like the work he did in the summer. He showed he wanted to be a good hockey player. The fitness problem was way back when he was drafted and it's not an issue in any way. He did not know how to train. Since we got our hands on him, he has changed his body and we are really proud of him in that area.
"He has great hands and is defensively aware," Wilson added. "He's not a one-dimensional player. When you look at a guy go from juniors to the pros and work on areas that are his weaknesses, you really like that."
Hennessy left Milton Academy to play in the QMJHL at 16. He finished seventh in rookie scoring that season and finished with 130 goals in his four years with the Quebec Remparts. The Sharks love speed and Hennessy won't slow them down. He's an excellent skater with great acceleration and a high top-end. Add to that good hands and a shooter's eye and Hennessy projects at 6-foot, 190 pounds into an excellent offensive center. One of his biggest assets is he's been recognized as a "gamer."
"He was a team captain and I liked that he played through injuries," Wilson said. "He put up good numbers and was plus-28. He was dinged up in the playoffs, but he showed what he was made of. Josh is a smart hockey player. He has great hockey sense and the ability to do everything. He's a multidimensional player, a bit like Alyn McCauley. We project him as a center, but guys with good hockey sense can play any position."
We may well look back in a few years and realize the smartest European kids in this age group came over to play North American juniors, avoiding the influx of North Americans to the top European leagues this year. Kaspar was one of those "geniuses." In two full season with Litvinov in the top Czech league, Kaspar had five goals in 76 games. In 59 games with the Ottawa 67's, Kaspar had 21 goals and 30 assists in 59 games and helped Ottawa get to the Memorial Cup tournament. Wilson liked it that Kaspar was playing for his old junior coach, Hall of Famer Brian Kilrea.
"Yeah, it gave me a good excuse to go up and see 'Killer,'" Wilson said. "Kaspar had an OK regular season, but he really picked it up in the playoffs. He tied for ninth in the OHL playoffs with six goals and 14 assists. That made him the leading rookie scorer in the playoffs. We were very pleased with his play in the playoffs. That's when it matters most.
"He's a very good skater who gives the illusion of not working hard. Great players adjust their speed. They use their mind and their feet. He has that ability. When he gets a step on you, odds are you're not going to recover and get him. They had him playing the point on the power play, too, which tells you how he sees the ice. He has a great shot and he has to use it more. He moves the puck and makes everyone around him better. He has to get a little more selfish. He was always looking for his Czech buddy, Jakub Petruzalek."
The Sharks have several fine goaltending prospects, "in different places and phases," as Wilson put it.
Dimitri Patzold, the Sharks' fourth-round pick, 107th overall, in 2001, is probably the most advanced. He was the more successful goalie with the Cleveland Barons, splitting duties with Nolan Schaefer, the fifth-round pick, 166th overall, in 2000.
The Kazakhstan native spent three seasons playing in German leagues before arriving in Cleveland in 2003-04 where he went 10-15-0 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He duplicated his save percentage this past season in 41 AHL games, but lowered his GAA to 2.48 while going 18-16-0.
"Dimitri had a good year, not a great year, on a young team in Cleveland," Wilson said. "I like his character a lot."
"We've really been blessed with goaltending talent in recent years," said Sharks Vice President and Assistant General Manager Wayne Thomas. "We feel we have another coming in Patzold, given his talent and the work he's done with goaltending coach Warren Strelow. We have a good program and we haven't had to hurry them. Dimitri has made a lot of progress. Both Nolan and Dimitri have made huge strides to the point we think either is ready if one of our top two goalies goes out with an injury.
"There were only nine or 10 players from the 1983 age group in the AHL this season so Dimitri is playing at a high level for his age. He is very athletic, has good size and good patience. I think the new rules are going to place a premium on athleticism for goalies so that will be to his advantage."
Schaefer was a standout at Providence College where he led the Friars to the fifth seed in the NCAA Frozen Four in his sophomore season. He played part of the 2003-04 season with Fresno in the ECHL and with Cleveland. He had good numbers with the Barons that season and was 17-23-0 with a 2.73 GAA and .907 save percentage the next year.
"Nolan has come a long way since turning pro," Thomas said. "He's older than Patzold, so we're going to have to find a way to give him an opportunity in the next year or two. He's a tremendous competitor who works hard and likes to win. His stats weren't quite as good but he can get hot. His athleticism has really improved."
Patrick Ehelechner played two years in the top German league and also saw action with the national Under-18 and World Junior teams. The fifth-round pick, 139th overall in 2003, has had two solid seasons with the Sudbury Wolves, going 23-21-4 last season with a 2.56 GAA and .916 save percentage.
"He's kind of in transition. He can really move when he wants to," Thomas said. "He was an All-Star both years in the OHL and he got Germany back in the A group with his play for the national team. We have big hopes for him. He has good size and athleticism. He's working hard and learning to be more patient. He's maturing and we have to let him evolve."Thomas Greiss
guided Cologne's junior team to the championship finals in 2002-03 and has been playing for top German coach Hans Zach. He's an intense competitor who hates to lose. He also has played for Germany's national Under-18 and World Junior teams.
San Jose acquired three picks at the 2004 draft from the Bruins in exchange for the 63rd pick. They used the first of those picks, 94th, to take Greiss, fearing he wouldn't last much longer.
"I haven't seen too many goalies who move as well as he does. He has tremendous leg strength," Thomas said. "He had an in-and-out year as the whole team faltered and they never identified a No. 1 goalie. But he recovered well after the World Junior tournament. He has all the attributes and will be a high-level goalie. He reminds me of Nabokov with his style and athleticism."
Jason Churchill, from a remote town in Newfoundland, Hodge's Cove, moved to Nova Scotia in 2002-03 to try out for the Halifax Mooseheads. The team found a Junior A club for him in Antigonish, then sent him to the Allaire brothers in Quebec for instruction. The fourth-round pick, 129th overall, in 2004 went 28-18-8 with a 2.59 GAA for the Mooseheads this year.
"He's a butterfly goalie with good size at 6-foot-4," Thomas said. "He's a real competitor and he loves to play. He needs a little time to work on being more patient. The end result will be tremendous.
"I don't know what happened this year in Halifax or why. He played nearly every game through January, then they had a coaching change and traded for another goalie who got hot and played most of the games through the end of the year. I didn't think goaltending had been their problem, but in the changeover they made this move and it affected Jason. But he maintained a positive attitude. It was a test for him and we'll see how he comes out of it."
Brian Mahoney-Wilson is Sharks coach Ron Wilson's nephew, but he was "discovered" by Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Burke during a review of Massachusetts high-school hockey. When Burke told Wilson he'd spotted a sharp goaltender at perennial power Catholic Memorial, Wilson responded, "That's my nephew." Brian's father and Ron's brother, Randy, played for their uncle, former Detroit Red Wings coach Johnny Wilson, with the AHL Springfield Indians.
Brian played two seasons at CM before he went 23-15-2 last year with a 2.73 GAA and .920 save percentage with the Walpole Jr. Stars of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He spent a week working with Nabokov on adjustments to his style and will play American juniors again this year. He's also expected to play college so he's not due to challenge for a job in San Jose for several years.
"I saw Brian for a few days and he uses all his ability," Thomas said. "He's a really smart young goalie and he works hard and studies his game. I like the way he reads the play. He needs to take another step so I hope he gets a good junior opportunity that will help him into a good college program."
Doug Wilson identifies Carle as a winner. That's based on his contributions to the University of Denver's back-to-back NCAA championships, Team USA's gold medal at the 2004 World Junior Championship and the U.S. National Team's Under-17 championship in 2002. He also played a strong year for the River City Lancers of the USHL. He was plus-2 for the winning Team USA in the 2003 USHL All-Star Game. He's another strong player coming out of Alaska.
Carle had 12 goals and 28 assists for Denver this past season. He was deadly to Denver's main rival, Colorado College, the WCHA co-champions. He had the assist on the winning goal earlier in the season and three points in Denver's Frozen Four semifinal victory against Colorado College. Carle made the WCHA All-Rookie team two years ago and was a first-team All-American this year.
"He makes big plays in big games," Wilson said. "That tells you something about him. Two national college championships and two gold medals! He's developing in a strong college program. We had him at summer development camp last summer and he's one of those players you only have to tell it to him once and he's got it. Great hockey sense. We like him at both ends of the ice. He's a strong kid at 6 feet, 190 pounds. Size isn't going to be a problem for him. He's a winner."
Defenseman Michael Vernace had a lot to do and not much time to do it to get drafted in 2004 in the seventh round, 201st overall. A top youth-hockey player in the Toronto area, Vernace was drafted by the Brampton Battalion of the OHL, but spent his rookie season with their development team in Bramalea. He was called up for the final two OHL regular-season games and had a point in each. But he then led Brampton defensemen in playoff scoring. Vernace led OHL rookie defensemen in scoring this season with 12 goals and 38 assists.
"Not bad, 50 points for a rookie defenseman," Wilson said. "He stepped right in a year ago and did very well. We had him in rookie camp and he was a kid playing against men but he figured things out as the week went on. He had a very good year this season and he's only going to get bigger and stronger."
Newfoundland is another place developing more and better players than ever before. There were only eight players from "The Rock" on NHL rosters in 2003-04 but there are over 20 NHL candidates playing in the recently announced summer league. Clowe, a sixth-round pick, 175th overall in 2001, from St. John's was named the Barons MVP after leading the team with 27 goals, 35 assists and 62 points. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound left wing also had 101 penalty minutes.
Clowe's accomplishments are a reflection of his hard work and courage for he is not the fastest skater. He's gotten better with plyometrics, but he is basically a banger, a player who finishes his checks and wins the battles along the boards. He'll go to the net and he's proven he can convert a good pass.
"He reminds people of Jonathan Cheechoo in that he's not a great skater, but Jonathan has no trouble keeping up and neither does Ryane," Wilson said. "They both worked hard to get that needed extra half step."
Wilson also likes Northeastern right wing Mike Morris, Boston University defenseman Dan Spang and Barons defensemen Garrett Stafford, Doug Murray and Josh Gorges.
"Gorges went from winning the Memorial Cup as Kelowna's captain to being one of our best players in Cleveland," Wilson said. "Here's a kid to keep an eye on. He's very mature and very smart and makes the game easy for those around him. Morris plays in all areas of the rink and he was Northeastern's go-to guy. He'll probably finish at Northeastern as we support college hockey. It helps players evolve as people, gives them balance, so I guess that offsets playing fewer games. Spang is a strong kid with very good leadership skills. He's a good, efficient player who can move the puck and create offense without adding risk in our zone.
"Stafford reminds you of Danny Boyle," Wilson added. "He has some offense, he can skate and he's strong. He was badly injured in the AHL playoffs last season and he came back with a strong season. Murray might be the best open-ice hitter I've seen in a long time. He's a big physical kid who was captain at Cornell. Doug ran the power play there. He goes back to his native Sweden in the summer. We really missed him this season when he was injured."
The good news for Sharks fans is that the future looks as bright as the present.
By John McGourty, NHL.com