Sommer talks Sharks prospects, and more

Sommer talks Sharks prospects, and more
December 26, 2012, 12:45 pm
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When the NHL lockout began more than 100 days ago, several teams with young, improving players still on entry-level deals had the opportunity to keep those players in North America by sending them to their American Hockey League affiliates.

The Sharks had no such luxury, as guys like Tommy Wingels, Justin Braun and Andrew Desjardins weren’t AHL eligible. Despite that disadvantage, San Jose’s top minor league club in Worcester is having a decent season with a 14-10-1-2 record, good for third place in the tight Atlantic Division. The Sharks (31 points) are just three points behind first-place Portland with two games in hand.

Head coach Roy Sommer said: “It’s kind of staying up with the Joneses. A lot of parity in our league right now.”

Although it may not have any household names on its roster, Worcester features a number of players that could have an impact on the Sharks if a shortened season begins in January. While on-ice success is significant, it pales in comparison to the importance of an AHL team developing talent for its parent club.

Front and center among those names is former first round pick James Sheppard, who was acquired by the Sharks from Minnesota in the summer of 2011 for a third round pick. Aside from a brief stint with Worcester in the second half of last season, Sheppard spent the 2011-12 campaign rehabbing his left knee from a serious ATV accident in September of 2010. The Sharks knew that they were taking a risk when they acquired Sheppard, and Sommer suggests that risk could pay off.

“He’s really starting to find his game now,” Sommer said. “The guy hasn’t played in two years, you knew it was going to take awhile. They’ve got something right now.”

Sheppard (7g, 9a in 27 games) currently has a three-game point streak, with four goals and one assist in that span. That includes two goals in a 4-3 win over Hershey on Dec. 15, a game that Sommer says Sheppard won “all by himself.”
 
“He’s just starting to find his stride, and it looks like he’s almost there. You can see why he was a first rounder,” Sommer said of Sheppard, the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft.

Sheppard’s 224 games in an NHL uniform give him the most professional experience of anyone on the Worcester roster. Tim Kennedy is second in that regard with 112 career NHL games, and is another guy that Sommer can see potentially contributing to the Sharks if the league and players’ association come to an agreement.

Kennedy has been Worcester’s most consistent offensive threat, and is tied for eighth in the league in scoring with 28 points (12g, 16a).

“He’s real dynamic, kind of a top-six forward guy that moves pucks and is real fast and gritty,” Sommer said. “He’s not real big, but he plays big.”

The 5-10, 175-pound Kennedy played in 27 games with the Florida Panthers last season before San Jose traded for him in late January and assigned him to the AHL.

* * *

While San Jose would have to dig into Worcester’s forward pool in the event of a shortened season, it would likely leave the defense and goaltending alone. The Sharks’ top seven on defense are basically set, as is the goaltending tandem of Antti Niemi and Thomas Griess.

Worcester’s blue line is a young group, and features some intriguing names. Matt Irwin, a 25-year-old who was recalled last season by San Jose but didn’t get into a game is the most NHL-ready according to Sommer, but there are others to keep an eye on.

“Sena Acolatse is another guy that’s really coming along. He’s right up there in defensive scoring in the league,” said Sommer, referring to Acolatse’s four goals and 12 assists in 25 games.

“Matt Tennyson (2g, 12a), I really thought he was a great pickup for the organization. They’re not going to have to wait long for his development. He’s been coming along really nicely.”

There are a couple of high draft picks, too, in 6-8, 230-pound Taylor Doherty (second round, 2009) and 6-3, 230-pound Nick Petrecki (first round, 2007). Doherty, though, is sidelined for at least five more weeks with a sliced Achilles tendon while Petrecki recently returned from a broken hand that kept him out for more than a month.

In fact, Petrecki, who is in his fourth season in Worcester, made his return last Friday in the Sharks’ final game before the Christmas break. Sommer was impressed with the 23-year-old in that game, after Petrecki finished with an assist and a +3 rating.

Although reviews are mixed on Petrecki’s development and skill set, Sommer's opinion is that he could still contribute in the NHL at some point.

“I think he’s on track to what they thought he would be at. He’s a big guy, a monster of a man, and he’s just starting to get things down like keeping his game simple,” Sommer said. “At times he tries to do too much and he gets in trouble, but if he played like he did [Friday] night, he’s not that far away.”

In goal, Alex Stalock (10-5-1, 2.66 goals-against average, .909 save percentage) has gotten a bit more playing time than Harri Sateri (4-6-1, 3.11 GAA, .901 SP).

Stalock, who has successfully returned from a year on the sidelines with a career-threatening nerve injury in Feb. 2011, could be on track to be Niemi’s backup in 2013-14 as Greiss will be an unrestricted free agent.

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Stalock reminds Sommer of another successful American-born netminder.

“He plays a lot like Tim Thomas. Real exciting. If you like watching goaltender he’s definitely fun to watch the way he moves the puck and stuff,” Sommer said.

“We didn’t even know if he was going to play again, but he came back and did everything that he was told to do, and more. He kind of started off a little bit slow for us, but at the season has progressed, I think he’s become one of the top goaltenders in the league.”

* * *

The San Jose Sharks’ newly formed coaching staff hasn’t gotten a chance to work together on the ice in San Jose just yet, but they have all taken trips to Worcester to get a first hand look at some of the organization’s prospect pool.

Sommer, in his 15th year behind an AHL bench, welcomes the support.

“All of them have been real positive. The guys love having them down here,” Sommer said. “It’s a different voice when we’re trying to get the same point across.”

The Sharks’ coaching staff of Todd McLellan, Larry Robinson, Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft were in the Bay Area for the San Francisco Bulls’ ECHL game at HP Pavilion on Dec. 17 for a chalk talk with Sharks season ticket holders. If the NHL season is cancelled, they’ll start rotating back into Worcester.

“They’ve all got good insight and have been around the game a long time,” Sommer said. “A lot of times when you’re at ice level you don’t see as many things as they see.”

Regardless of what happens with the NHL, Sommer’s job description won’t change. He’ll continue to work to strengthen the organization from top to bottom, and assist as many players on their path to the NHL as he can.

Sommer said: “That’s the pride you get when you do this. Not everyone can make it, but the ones that put their time in, and listen, they get there. It’s not the problem getting there, it’s staying there. It’s tough. It’s a tough business up there.”