As a roommate, James Sheppard is, well, serviceable.
As a teammate, “I don’t think anyone in the room has one bad thing to say about him,” Wild goaltender Josh Harding
related following a recent practice.
But give Harding a couple of seconds, and he can come up with a few issues about the 21-year-old centerman as they relate to life at home.
“He likes to play guitar a lot. He’s probably one of the worst guitar players I’ve seen in my life,” Harding deadpanned. “I have to keep a bucket of Tylenol around just to deal with his music.
“We play PlayStation 3 hockey. I think I’m 15-0 against him. He’s still looking for that first one. Hopefully it’ll come later rather than sooner.”
With those admirable traits, he must burn the toast and undercook the noodles, too, right?
“He’s actually a pretty good cook,” Harding admitted. “He doesn’t do it too often, but when he does, it’s not too bad. I even take him to get groceries once in a while. He definitely doesn’t like to help out that way too much.”
Sheppard first stowed his belongings at Harding’s abode for a four-month stay last season. And, from the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” files, Sheppard came back for more this season at Chez Harding.
“He’s looking for a place right now, but it’s definitely a lot of fun around the house,” Harding said. “He’s awesome to have in the locker room. I get to see him probably a lot more off the ice than on the ice.”
And if the plan that Sheppard has mapped out for 2009-10 holds true, Wild fans will be seeing more of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder on the ice more, too.
There’s no denying that Sheppard has shown flashes of excellence. In the 2008-09 exhibition finale against Montreal, he centered a line with Marian Gaborik and Stephane Veilleux
. All that line did was tally five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in the Wild’s 3-0 win. Sheppard had a pair of assists in the game.
To close out the 2009-10 preseason in Philadelphia, he had a goal and an assist to go along with a plus-2 rating in the Wild’s 5-4 shootout victory. Combine those numbers with the seven points he chalked up in the last 10 regular-season games in 2008-09, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that ninth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft is on to something.
“You saw what he did centering that line against Montreal at this time last year,” Wild assistant general manager Tommy Thompson said. “That’s not a mirage. And he produced in the last dozen games of the year. In the middle, there was a long period of time where he seemed to have lost his confidence offensively.
“It’s not just a matter of saying ‘He’s only been here, and we hope he gets here,” Thompson said, raising his arm to chest level and then above his head to demonstrate the idea. “I think what we’re saying is we’ve seen those flashes. We just want to see more consistency. What he’s showing again now is this is what he’s capable of doing. That’s never been the issue. The issue is let’s make it more consistent.”
The Wild, Thompson said, are clearly in the hunt for more even-strength goals. And Sheppard will be an important part of that production. His goal and assist against the Flyers both came on 5-on-5 situations. Same for the game-opening goal against Chicago last Friday.
“Shep has been very good,” Wild coach Todd Richards said. “We’ve used him a couple of different roles on a couple of different lines and it seems like now the line he has been centering has been one of our best lines in the last two games.”
Skating alongside wingers Cal Clutterbuck
and Antti Miettinen in Philadelphia and with Martin Havlat and Miettinen against the Blackhawks, Sheppard has impressed.
“He scores a goal and Havlat scores a goal [against Chicago],” Richards said. “He’s found ways to contribute. We still have to get him to play better in his own zone, but he’s just a young guy and there’s lot of room for him to grow. And that’s our job as a coaching staff to make him better.”
Sheppard’s combination of enough muscle to keep opponents of the puck and speed that allows him to get to the puck first are assets. And they provide more reasons to believe that his season will include totals higher than the 19 and 24 points he accumulated the past two years, respectively.
“I have higher goals set than I did last year,” Sheppard said. “I want to be more a part of this season and help out in more places — 5-on-5, power play, PK. I want to do anything I can to become a bigger piece of the puzzle. That’s what I’m looking forward to. It doesn’t have to be numbers here and there. It has to be that I made a difference and that I helped our team throughout the season and throughout the playoffs.”
Sheppard’s work on the forecheck won’t be apparent in any statistical breakdown of a game, but he’s surely looking forward to creating headaches that would make Harding proud for opponents in their own zone.
“I enjoy that part of the game,” Sheppard said. “Once I get a little speed, I can get pretty fast out there. Going 1-on-1, 2-on-2 down low in the corner. I can use my body to protect the puck and find my open teammates. That’s something I’m looking forward to, something I’ve relied on in my ‘career.’ I took a lot of pride in that in juniors, and I think it’s one of my best qualities.”
With speed an important of the Wild’s new up-tempo style, Sheppard can be relied on to make the heads-up pass.
“He’s calm with the hands and will make the right play,” Thompson said. “Hockey the way it’s played now requires the ability to make good, short passes consistently in tight situations. He has that, and he can handle the puck.”
Nestled between Petr Sykora and Havlat in the newly reconfigured seating arrangement in the Wild dressing room, Sheppard will have some seasoned players near him. He has been known to turn to 37-year-old Owen Nolan.
“He’s been around, knows a little bit of everything,” Sheppard said. “Faceoffs, being aggressive, the mental part of the game. He’s a guy you can talk to. He’s always talking to the young guys. Especially me, I appreciate what he does, and he does it for the team, so it’s great to have him.”
As Sheppard heads into the season-opener Saturday at Columbus, he’ll embark on year three as a pro with renewed confidence.
“I’ve had a lot of minutes [in the preseason] just because guys haven’t been playing a whole lot,” Sheppard said. “Hopefully I can carry that over. Most of our team was out there [against Philadelphia], and I felt that I played well. I was getting going and getting PK and power-play time, getting into the game. That’s what I have to do the whole season to become better — get in the game more, play more minutes and have things snowball from there.”
As part of his best-laid plans, Sheppard would continue to see ice time in the range of 17-18 minutes. And knowing his roommate like he does, Harding won’t be surprised when Sheppard makes the most of those shifts.
“Seeing him out at camp and how he’s improved so far this year, I think this system helps him out a lot better, on the boards and down low,” Harding said. “He can make the little plays and battle along the boards. I think it’s going to be a great year for him. I think it’s going to be a breakout year for him, and I think if you ask him that he’d probably say the same thing.”
But breakout year or not, Sheppard certainly fits into the Wild’s plans.
“He’s an extremely hard worker and he’s a strong kid, too,” Richards said. “For being so young, he’s got good size. There’s an offensive side to him, and hopefully it will come out. I think he’s going to be a big part of our future here.”Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc