With a team built on talent over experience, growing pains are to be expected. Even top-level players battle consistency at times, let alone those who play in the American Hockey League. Not helped by a schedule that saw just six games played in the first four weeks of the season, the level of imbalance that the San Jose Barracuda have played with should not be surprising. What has been welcomed this season, however, is a superior brand of hockey to watch over previous renditions and the Barracuda have already begun seeing some growth among their players.
It is difficult to gauge just where the team is heading, having a 5-5-2 record to start the season despite an offensive attack that ranks among the AHL’s best. The team stumbled in the back half of their recent six-game road trip, with back-to-back losses to the San Diego Gulls and then a loss Tuesday to the Bakersfield Condors. Until those games, the Barracuda led the league in team offense, averaging 4.11 goals-per-game. (They now rank 6th.) The concern of the club has been the 3.17 goals-against-per-game that they have allowed, even if defense was viewed as the weak spot entering the season. As the Barracuda now acclimate themselves to playing a normal schedule, the offense will need to continue its torrid pace as the defense and goaltending attempts to catch up.
Going into the 2016-17 season, the Bay Area buzzed about the invigoration of youth coming into the AHL roster. The Barracuda were immediately dealt a significant blow, however, as Timo Meier missed the latter half of training camp and the beginning of the season after contracting mononucleosis. With Meier gone, it became a wide-open field for the wealth of promising Barracuda forwards to boost their stock and rookie Kevin Labanc did just that. After going scoreless in his official debut, Labanc recorded a point — 10 in total — over the next five games. He was the focal piece of the Barracuda power play and, although with a limited sampling, showed to be the most skilled player that the team has had since their move from Worcester in 2015. Labanc is not afraid to shoot but also has the poise to make solid decisions with the puck. If the shot opportunity is not of good quality, he can make efficient passes in traffic and reposition himself as needed. His strong, heads-up game earned him a recall to the Sharks on November 7.
Meanwhile, Meier has since returned to the Barracuda lineup and scored his first two professional goals, both game-winners, on November 12 at Texas and November 15 at San Antonio. The excitement of fans have led to pleas of a recall as the Sharks deal with injury concerns, but the Swiss juggernaut is still looking to make up for lost time. He must continue to adjust to having less time and space to make plays at the pro level and cut back on his penalty troubles — leading the team with 22 penalty minutes in ten games. At only 20 years old, the Sharks can afford to take their time with Meier and simply for being the ninth overall pick in 2015 is not a valid reason to be called up.
Although the Swiss players on the roster are Meier and defenseman Mirco Mueller, the Swiss Army knife of the Barracuda roster has been center Danny O’Regan. Right from the beginning, O’Regan made an impact on the team, scoring the first Barracuda goal of the season in his professional debut. With Labanc gone, O’Regan slid up to take over the team lead in points with 12 in 12 games (5g, 7a). The four-year graduate of Boston University still must learn that puck protection at the professional level is a far different beast than it was for him in college. Still, O’Regan has shown great confidence in challenging opposing defensemen one-on-one with the puck and can turn a broken play into a quality opportunity. Despite his small stature of only 5′ 9″, O’Regan has been counted on by head coach Roy Sommer to play in any role presented to him. In Pucknology’s season preview, he was the prospect we felt that was flying most-under-the-radar that people should pay attention to. His name may now finally be a bit more recognizable going forward, after being rewarded with a one-game callup on Monday.
Much has been said about Nikolay Goldobin over the past 14 months; some of it unfairly and some of it deserved. Perhaps nobody in the Sharks system has needed to take a step forward more than Goldobin. A first-round pick in 2014, the Russian playmaker started off the season reaping the rewards from playing on the opposite wing of Labanc, centered by Rourke Chartier (who has already shown improvement since training camp), and posted ten points in his first six games. Unfortunately after Labanc’s recall, the offense has nearly dried up once again for the unpredictable Goldobin. He has only one assist in the past six games.
A player who Pucknology highlighted over the offseason and in training camp was wing Marcus Sörensen. Statistically, Sörensen has been fine, with eight points and a plus-5 in 12 games. However, the best asset for the 24-year-old Swede — his breakneck speed — has not come into play in most games thus far. Sörensen seems hesitant to jump in as the first man on the forecheck and spends too much time trying to process where he and his teammates are in relation to the play, likely caused by his adjustment to playing on North American rinks. Positively, it shows that he takes great care in his positioning and defensive responsibility. There comes a point, though, where Sörensen needs to let his instincts take over and just fly, fly, fly. He scored three goals on the Barracuda’s recent road trip and the hope is that it is a sign that he is starting to feel more comfortable.
When Labanc was recalled, Coach Sommer put together a “veteran” line of goal-scoring leader Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Carpenter, and John McCarthy and saw immediate results with a Goodrow hat trick against the Texas Stars on November 11. Since then, the trio have found themselves in more of a checking-line role and things have not been clicking. Their offense has been non-existent and they have conbined for a minus-12 rating over the past two games. Ideally the team would rather not have its defensive eggs (Carpenter and McCarthy) in one basket, while Goodrow would benefit from skating with a more dynamic playmaker.
Rounding out the remaining forwards, one has to wonder how much longer Colin Blackwell will remain in the lineup, as his luster is starting to wear off. After a strong training camp, the two assists and minus-8 that Blackwell has posted in 12 games are not statistics that anyone can be happy with. His play has still been decent but his small size has been a big factor, getting shoved off the puck rather easily, despite his fearlessness along the boards. With Adam Helewka and Alex Gallant both fully-recovered from injuries and Alex Schoenborn and Jon Martin still trying to find a regular spot in the lineup, Blackwell will need to step things up before he finds himself out of the fold altogether.
Goaltender Troy Grosenick has fared well in most games, aside from a couple of stinkers like in Saturday’s loss to the Gulls after the strong showing the night before. Grosenick has corrected issues such as overplaying his angles and relying too much on his athleticism. Unfortunately, Grosenick appeared to suffer a significant lower body injury on Tuesday night and if he is out long-term, it is a devastating blow for a man who worked vehemently in the summer in preparation of this season. If he is able to return in short-enough order, Grosenick needs to continue to focus on what is right about his game, rather than allowing past tendencies seep back in, if the team is going to be a force.
‘Erratic’ is the best way to describe the play of backup goaltender Mantas Armalis. He last started against the high-powered Texas Stars offense, who lit him up for five goals on 16 shots, before he was pulled on November 11. As with most goaltending projects, Armalis does not stop the puck in any typical fashion. He sprawls out at times and seems to try “too hard” to make saves in one fashion that it exposes holes in other areas that scorers can exploit. While playing for Djurgården in Sweden last season, “Teal Steel” was calm in the net and relied more on his positioning than his reflexes and needs to get back to that if he is going to advance over the course of the season. He continues to train very hard with goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov on his fundamentals and has kept a great attitude in the process. Originally, if Armalis could be relied on to steadily make 25-30 starts this season, it would have been greatly beneficial for both Grosenick and the Barracuda. However, if Armalis is now the de facto starter after the Grosenick injury, the Lithuanian goaltender will need to balance development with playing time in a “trial by fire” scenario.
These latest developments will now add extra pressure to a back end that has been the epitome of the club’s inconsistency this season. Even with their small stature, the top pair of Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan have found a nice balance together and have been relied on in all situations. Heed has transitioned well from Sweden and ranks T-11th in the AHL in points by defensemen with ten (2g, 8a). Although Heed is known to take gambles with pinches from time to time, it has, shockingly, been the normally-stable Ryan who has struggled with making quizzical plays in his own end. On the lighter side, Ryan has already matched his two-goal output from last season, while Heed has effectively been the power play quarterback that the team lacked a year ago.
The second pair of Barracuda defensemen has featured one player who has taken a huge step forward, while the other continues to see his value drop off. The positive strides that Mirco Mueller at the end of last season have appeared to be all-for-naught. Once again, Mueller appears to be a victim of his own head, failing to commit to any decisions and getting lost in the defensive zone. His saving grace has been partner Julius Bergman, who struggled for ice time for much of last season. Bergman, a second-round pick in 2014, has shown efficiency in breaking the puck out of his end and holding his ground against oncoming attackers. His new-found confidence has shown in his stats and increased ice time, posting seven points in 12 games, after just 11 points in 60 games last season. Bergman, also, already has half of his shots-on-goal total from all of 2015-16. It may be safe to say that Bergman has jumped all the way up to #3 on the team depth chart at the expense of his own partner on defense.
The third defensive pair has seen a few names rotate around due to the suspension incurred last season by Dan Kelly, when he played with the Albany Devils. The consistent member of the pair has been Patrick McNally, who has done what is expected of a defenseman — be invisible in your own end. Kelly, now finally in the lineup, has shown a propensity for big hits in his few games this season and is miserable to play against. Sommer needs to continue to match up the Kelly-McNally pair the proper way, though, as Kelly’s lack of foot speed and McNally’s “keep it simple” approach are easy to expose if the forwards are not helping on the backcheck.
The important thing to remember about the Barracuda is that they are, collectively, the youngest team in all of North American professional hockey. There will be a lot of growing pains as so many of these players get accustomed to not only playing with each other but playing pro hockey altogether. Thus far, the .500 points percentage of the Barracuda has been decent enough. Once the Barracuda get through the first week of December, they will need to gobble up points during the stretch from December 8 through January 16, in which they will play 14 of 16 games at SAP Center. It is fair to expect that Labanc will be back on the AHL roster at some point, dialing the energy up even more. Winning games 5-4 may turn Roy Sommer’s hair from platinum to invisible, but it should remain a fun ride for fans to go see.