In professional sports, it is often thought that experience is a necessity for success. So far, through two weeks, the San Jose Barracuda are busting that myth.
The Sharks AHL affiliate opened up their fourth season in San Jose on October 5 as the league's youngest team with an average age of 22.7-years old and a locker room comprised of 12 newcomers and 10 rookies. The Barracuda have exceeded and accelerated expectations with a franchise-best 4-0-0-1 start to the season and a league-high nine points through five games. In addition, San Jose ranks fifth in the league with 20 goals scored. An encouraging statistic for a club that netted a league-low 186 goals last year.
"It's been surprising a bit with such a young group, but they do a great job here (with the Sharks) getting the right people," said Barracuda captain John McCarthy. "A lot of the guys were captains of their junior teams and college teams and everyone has bought in quickly."
Two years ago the Sharks made a draft-day trade to acquire Maxim Letunov from the Arizona Coyotes. Last December they signed Jayden Halbgewachs to an entry-level deal as a free agent out of the WHL. This past summer, Doug Wilson added Kyle Wood and Francis Perron in separate trades while Lukas Radil and Vincent Praplan were signed as free agents from Europe. The list goes on from there. 21 of the Barracuda's 24 current players on their roster were not drafted by the organization but assembled via trade or signing, and yet, tremendous scouting, development, and player acquisition has the Sharks farm system as deep as it has ever been.
"Our scouts, development coaches and coaches are integrated in a way that they understand the type of players the organization wants and needs," said Barracuda General Manager Joe Will.
The Barracuda have also built depth by signing several players to AHL contracts, including defensemen Thomas Gregoire, Keaton Middleton and Zach Frye, along with forwards Jeffrey Viel and Matt Fonteyne. All five wore letters in juniors and or college and despite being 21 years or under, with the exception of Frye, they have all displayed composure both on and off the ice that is rarely associated with players of their age.
Two seasons ago, coming off a Memorial Cup appearance with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Alex True signed an AHL deal that he pawned into an entry-level contract with the Sharks. Jake Middleton did the same thing the season before. A reason San Jose has had so much success signing junior, college and European free agents is due in part to the organization's philosophy on competition and opportunity.
"We don't care if you're drafted in the first round or you're a free agent, you're going to get opportunities," said Will. "We want to create competition throughout the entire organization and let it be known that there are jobs to be had with the Sharks and the Barracuda."
Seven different nations are represented on the Barracuda this season (United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland) and while French has become as much of the spoken word in the locker room as English, the camaraderie the team has already built just under a month together has been a huge piece of its early success.
"With pro teams, you never know if you're going to have good chemistry," said rookie defenseman Thomas Gregoire. "But we have a great group in the room that enjoys being around one another and it's translating on the ice."
Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer, the longest tenured coach in AHL history, realizes his group has a long way to go, but when he addressed season ticket holders at the annual Meet the Team event on Wednesday at Solar4America Ice he compared his current group to the 2016-17 squad that reached the Western Conference Finals, had 11 different skaters play in at least one game with the Sharks, went on a league-high 14 game winning streak and won multiple league awards, among other accolades.
"Developing a swagger on a young team is nothing but positive," said Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer. "Guys are competing and enjoying coming to the rink, there is an energy and a youthful exuberance in this group that's rubbing off on everyone."
In the AHL, keeping your team intact throughout the season can be nearly impossible at times, but the Sharks depth at all three levels, knock on wood, should bode well for Sommer and his young club moving forward.