“Out with the old and in with the new.”
That saying does not just apply to the San Jose Barracuda roster for the 2016-17 season, which begins tonight – It also stands for the complete change in philosophy that San Jose Sharks’ farm teams have been built around for the better part of the franchise’s history. Whether it was the Worcester Sharks, Cleveland Barons, Kentucky Thoroughblades, or even the Kansas City Blades, the Sharks’ farm system has almost looked been viewed as more of an opportunity for stashing extra players, rather than to breed them for NHL success. Whichever promising prospects the Sharks have had in the past have almost always been fast-tracked directly to the NHL. Of the homegrown talent on the Sharks’ current roster, the only players who have played the equivalent of one full AHL season or more are defenseman Dylan DeMelo (162 games) and right wing Tommy Wingels (98 games). The contrast to past groups is what makes this year’s Barracuda lineup so intriguing and worthy of getting excited for – the chance to see a collection of legitimate NHL prospects all playing on one team.
This season, the Barracuda will dress the youngest lineup of all major professional North American hockey leagues, at an average age near just 22.5 years old. It will be an interesting adjustment for head coach Roy Sommer, who is back at the helm of a Sharks affiliate bench for the 16th straight season. His merit as the all-time AHL leader in wins coached cannot be questioned. What will be a recurring story this year though is how Sommer will handle such a young and talented group of players and groom them upward, after years of controlling the exact opposite type of team.
Before you get to know the fresh faces that will adorn the teal, white, and orange (…and pink and green and red and whichever other fancy promotional jerseys the Barracuda will wear this season), you should also know of which faces you knew from last season who have moved on.
The Old Guard
Starting goaltender Aaron Dell was likely the team’s true MVP last season, picking up the team on his back in the second half of the year and lifting them into the Calder Cup playoffs single-handedly. He is the only member from last season’s Barracuda roster who graduated to the Sharks to start this season (though forwards Ryan Carpenter and Micheal Haley are also with the big club for now). The composed and cool Dell re-signed with the Sharks under a two-way contract this offseason, but things will have had to unravel for him at the NHL level if he were to find himself back with the Barracuda this season.
The mass influx of new young talent meant few available roster spots available for existing veterans, even for last year’s captain, Bryan Lerg. He moved to Sweden to continue his career and as we conjectured back in May, he has mostly thrived in his new setting, scoring seven points (4g, 3a) in his first four games for Rögle BK, though only has one goal in his last three games.
Another overseas transfer that was quite the shocker was that of the wildly-popular right wing Trevor Parkes. One of just three men to play in all 68 games for the Barracuda last season, Parkes’ balls-to-the-wall style and surprisingly-good stick handling earned him overwhelming adoration from Barracuda fans. With his versatility to play any role with the team, if there was one man who could be thought to return to the Barracuda this season, the money should have been on Parkes. He and former Barracuda defenseman Mark Cundari both signed over the summer with the Augsburg Panthers in Germany’s DEL, who currently sit in last place through nine games.
Center Scott Timmins (DEL – Straubing Tigers) and right wing Petter Emanuelsson (SHL – Luleå HF) have also trekked across the Atlantic. They both played top-6 minutes last season for the Barracuda but likely would have struggled for ice time if they had remained on this year’s squad.
Meanwhile, some former members do remain in North America as well. Defenseman Karl Stollery, who looked like a mini viking for the first half of the season, and right wing Jeremy Morin were signed by New Jersey and Tampa Bay, respectively, though both were assigned to AHL affiliates. Defenseman Gus Young will look to find his footing with the Chicago Wolves and speedy right wing Jeremy Langlois was inked by the Wolves’ interstate rivals, the Rockford IceHogs.
Enforcer Frazer McLaren, who missed most of the second-half of the season from a horrendously broken nose (I encourage you NOT to look it up – seriously, you have been warned), is still unsigned and one has to wonder if his hockey career is finished.
You will have to look at the 2005-06 Cleveland Barons to find the last time that the bulk of a Sharks farm team was comprised of youth, rather than plug-and-play AHL journeymen. To preface just how long ago that truly was, that roster was led by Ryane Clowe, Steve Bernier, Tomáš Plíhal, Patrick Rissmiller, Josh Hennessy, Lukáš Kašpar, Tom Cavanagh, Mike Iggulden, Garrett Stafford, and Douglas Murray. However, many of those players were afforded a full year of AHL experience in the prior season due the NHL lockout. Josh Gorges and Grant Stevenson also started that season with the Barons before being permanently recalled to the Sharks early on.
This year’s Barracuda roster will potentially feature 13 players in their first full season of professional hockey in North America. The majority of them are forwards, which creates such a logjam that the Sharks and Barracuda will finally be able to use their ECHL affiliation in Allen, Texas for legitimate use.
The Barracuda will receive a massive jolt, whether they will need it or not, when top prospect Timo Meier has fully recovered from mononucleosis. Even with only turning 20 years old last week, Meier has the presence of a grown man, both physically and mentally. When given time, he reads the play extremely well and knows what to do with the puck. Missing most of camp due to his illness means he will join the Barracuda when he is healthy to do so, which is not necessarily a bad thing for his development. Meier still needs to get acclimated to playing under pressure against other stronger, faster men. Fans should take advantage of seeing him while he is around at the much more affordable AHL ticket prices.
Similar can be said for Swedish winger Marcus Sörensen, who was a slight surprise to be assigned to the Barracuda. When Meier went out, it was thought that Sörensen would be the easy candidate to make the Sharks roster in his place – not just because of a “gimme,” but because he earned it with two impressive summer camps. We discussed Sörensen in-depth at the time of his signing and thus far, he has matched the scouting report. After his AHL assignment, Sörensen proceeded to score a hat trick in the Barracuda preseason opener against Tucson. He is another candidate to be in the NHL before the end of the calendar year. For now, there is little need for Sörensen to be pushed into NHL competition with the Western Conference champion Sharks having a full battalion of forwards.
A player who also turned heads at training camp was right wing Kevin Labanc. Last year’s leading scorer of the Ontario Hockey League, Labanc showed quick hands and a determined effort to generate offense throughout the preseason, leading all Sharks forwards in points. As expected, Labanc was assigned to the Barracuda on Tuesday and will attempt to prove his scoring prowess in juniors can translate to the professional game.
Two others from Labanc’s 2014 draft class should also see time with the Barracuda this season. Rourke Chartier has been a much-anticipated forward, though was rather unnoticeable in training camp. Though the general scouting report is that Chartier is a strong skater, he has a bit of clunkiness to it when opening himself up for a play, which needs some correction. Still, he is effective at the north-south game and can be relied on for a variety of game situations. He is likely a couple of years away from seeing any NHL time but can be afforded the time necessary to build up to his high ceiling. Meanwhile, third-rounder right wing Alex Schoenborn has turned into a decent prospect, but may be a victim of high number of forwards on the roster and could find himself shuttling to and from the Allen Americans this season. He does a little bit of everything and can be plugged in as needed.
Danny O’Regan has been a highly-touted, smaller center who scored over a point-per-game in his junior and senior years at Boston University. He may be in the shadow of many of the other newcomers (a major reason why Dylan Sadowy asked to be and was traded to the Detroit Red Wings) but may end up as the most exciting forward to watch if Meier and Sörensen are promoted. Though it is unknown if O’Regan can contribute consistent NHL offense at his size, he certainly has all of the tools to be a dominant AHL scorer.
Adam Helewka was an overage draftee in 2015 and actually played the first three games of last season’s Barracuda schedule. He was eventually returned to the Western Hockey League and impressively led the Red Deer Rebels to the semifinal of the Memorial Cup tournament. It is unusual to say that he may have an advantage that other prospects have of possibly being better-suited as a bottom-six wing. However, his size, smarts, and leadership can help him earn “responsible” ice time, while most others battle for time in the offensive zone, in a similar way that Carpenter has developed.
With all of the excitement about the forwards, it is easy to forget the two other important signings the Sharks pulled from Sweden. Defenseman Tim Heed chose to sign with the Sharks after being a top scorer among defensemen in the Swedish Hockey League over the past two seasons. He owns a blistering slap shot and is the easy choice to quarterback the Barracuda power play this season. With his strong offensive style, he will either be a joy to watch or drive fans batty, and will need some time to adjust to the North American style and physicality. We looked further into Heed’s attributes in an article back in May.
Around that same time, the Sharks seemingly came out of nowhere to sign Lithuanian goaltender/model Mantas Armalis. A lot is expected of “Teal Steel” this season, even though he will begin his Barracuda career as the number two goalie. Armalis is positionally sound and will not give up on a play but has some fundamental flaws that goalie coach Evgeni Nabokov has already identified and is attempting to correct, particularly in his lateral movement. Expectations should be tempered for now, especially when you consider that only two Lithuianian-born players have ever reached the NHL. Armalis could struggle early on in the season but as long as he continues to adjust, he should fare well as the season moves along.
The only true veteran added to the Barracuda this season is Dan Kelly, who spent the last six seasons with the AHL’s Albany Devils. He is an unspectacular defenseman (not a bad thing), who will be relied upon to stabilize a defense corps that is considered weak in their own end. He was also named as an alternate captain. The only current problem for Kelly is that he still must serve the remaining seven games of a ten-game suspension handed to him in the Calder Cup playoffs after a vicious head shot he planted on Toronto Marlies’ forward Andreas Johnson. With the bizarre Barracuda schedule to start the season, that means that Kelly will not be eligible to play until November 12.
Even after all of these players discussed, there is still the potential for even more new faces. Matt Willows and Colin Blackwell both had a fantastic training camp, showing great speed, tenacity, and corner-picking shots. They both seem to compete at higher, more noticeable levels than center Jake Marchment and right wing Jon Martin. Unfortunately for them, with O’Regan already on the roster, there may only be room for one other diminutive forward. Willows, Blackwell, and Marchment are all signed to two-way AHL contracts.
Michael Brodzinski had a miserable introduction to pro hockey at the end of last season, totaling a minus-13 and eight penalty minutes in only seven games. The defenseman is a candidate to start the season in the ECHL, even with Kelly’s suspension and especially if the pro tryouts for Jacob Middleton and/or Harrison Ruopp continue.
All That Remains
Believe it or not, the Barracuda still look to squeeze some players into the roster from last season. One is AHL All-Star Barclay Goodrow, which is a bit of a surprise considering that he has played more NHL games (74) in his career than AHL games (63) and often looked bored playing at the AHL level last year. Where Goodrow’s career will head remains a mystery, falling into the similar “in-between” territory that Ben Smith found himself in last season.
Reigning AHL “Man of the Year,” Ryan Carpenter, will likely split the season between the Sharks and Barracuda, and was recalled to the NHL level on Friday. Carpenter was the leading candidate to be this year’s Barracuda captain. His possible run on the NHL-AHL shuttle this year, though, would not have given the team a steady captain. Instead, the returning veteran John McCarthy will adorn the ‘C.’ It will be curious to see which how much time Carpenter or all-purpose forward Micheal Haley play at each level.
Two players with a humongous spotlight on them are Russian wing Nikolay Goldobin and fourth-year goaltender Troy Grosenick. Goldobin received criticism last season for his lackadaisical play in the defensive end. It seems like an unfair assessment, as Goldobin does actually back-check decently well. The problem is in the consistency of his effort. Both he and Nikita Jevpalovs have issues with accepting defeat too easily, rather than getting back into the play after a turnover or receiving a hit, and will need to overcome this if they wish not to be buried behind the other forwards mentioned.
Back to Grosenick. Overall, last season was not a good one for someone who was thought to be a possible NHL backup to the Sharks’ Martin Jones a year ago. However, Grosenick was actually decent early on, playing well in four losses to start the 2015-16 season, and then going 10-1-2 in the next 13 games. His issue was an overreliance on his athleticism to bail himself out of increasingly poor positioning as the year wore on. It snowballed and Grosenick could not mentally snap out of it. He looked to have corrected many deficiencies in his style control in this year’s training camp, due in large part to intense offseason training with conditioning coach Adam Francilia, according to Zach DeVine of Last Word on Hockey. This will likely be Grosenick’s last opportunity at a starting role in the AHL and he will look to make the most of it.
On defense, Joakim Ryan looks to build from a solid rookie season as, arguably, the best defenseman on the Barracuda. “Smaul Martin” will need to increase his offensive output in order to earn a promotion, as it is a difficult path for smaller defensemen to crack NHL blue lines, regardless of how poised and sound they may be. He might be the perfect complement to the aforementioned Heed, if it were not for their size issues.
Likely, it will be Mirco Mueller who will play with one of Ryan or Heed on the top Barracuda defensive pair. Mueller struggled mightily for much of last season until finding a groove in the final six weeks and playoffs. The former first-round pick has good mobility and size and must continue to increase his coordination. A good season from Mueller will be a catch-22, however, as he will likely be exposed to next summer’s NHL Expansion Draft. Poor play will lead Mueller into “bust” territory, though playing too well could cause the Sharks to lose him to Las Vegas for nothing.
Rounding out the back end, Julius Bergman will need to show more in all areas this year to jump back into consideration as a legitimate prospect. Patrick McNally will need to do the same, especially as an offensive-minded defenseman who only posted three points in 35 regular season games. If they continue to improve their overall game, they should remain full-time defensemen this season.
Left wing Alex Gallant should also be in the mix in some capacity. His role as a Grade-A enforcer last season earned him a contract extension for this season and the admiration of Barracuda fans. Gallant worked on his skating over the summer in an effort to come into camp and show he can do more than throw bombs – an important step since the AHL is attempting to curtail the amount of fighting this season. Again, though, the role is what will get Gallant into AHL games when he possibly shuttles between the Barracuda and Americans.
Despite the overall optimism surrounding the Barracuda for the 2016-17 season, an awkward schedule to start the season – only four games in the first three weeks – could mean some wild inconsistency out of the gate for this group of youngsters. As so many adapt to the professional game, it will be important for both the players and fans to keep their head up if the team struggles through the first several weeks of the season.
The big uncertainty going into this season may loom on the versatility of the defensive corps, rather than the youth at forward. If the back end and goaltending holds up, the Barracuda could be a top team in the Pacific division. Overall, the Barracuda should be right in the mix for a playoff spot. With more Barracuda players competing for NHL promotions, rather than simply playing to remain in the North American game, fans who do come out to games will be treated to an on-ice product.
It seems like we have all waited more than a year for this moment. This group – this group – may be the collective building blocks of the post-Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau era. Only one player graduated from last year’s team to the Sharks and that is something that we are all used to. The players still need to do their job on the ice before we get ahead of ourselves. However, with so much young blood infused into the farm system, this may be a banner year that fans can look back on with admiration. It is exciting and it is here. It all begins tonight in Stockton.