by Nick Nollenberger | AHL On The Beat
In the American Hockey League, there are no constants. Players move up and down levels on a daily basis, and one loss or win can be the difference between playoff contention and being left out of the conversation. That can be said for the NHL too. Depth can be the difference between hoisting the Cup and fighting to get into the playoffs.
Just last week, the San Jose Barracuda had four of their top six offensive contributors out of the lineup due to injury or recall to the NHL. Through the halfway point of the NHL and AHL season, the Barracuda have seen seven players appear in at least one game with the Sharks and several others have been knocking at the door, an unprecedented number for San Jose’s top affiliate.
The once barren Sharks farm system didn’t fill up overnight, and the process in which San Jose obtained this amount of young talent has been a long time coming.
In 2011, San Jose made a conscious effort to become sellers not buyers. Reload on the fly while building up the organization for sustained success.
“We had a team that was making the playoffs every year and a team that had a chance to go far, and we were spending picks to acquire players for the Sharks at the deadline,” said Sharks Assistant General Manager and Barracuda General Manager Joe Will. “Over time we thought we could really use some more picks, we could probably use some more prospects. Despite the organization still going well, you’ve got to look ahead to the future. So we traded away some really popular players.”
San Jose was forced to part way with the likes of Douglas Murray, Ryan Clowe, Michael Handzus, Brad Stuart and Dan Boyle in order to obtain young assets.
On Tuesday, the Sharks cleared more space to make way for a flurry of hungry and talented youngsters chomping at the bit to contribute at the top level. San Jose traded forward Tommy Wingels to the Ottawa Senators for a draft pick and a pair of veteran forwards. Earlier this month San Jose put forward Matt Nieto on waivers.
The Sharks have built up their young depth in a relatively short period. This offseason San Jose acquired forward Marcus Sorensen and defenseman Tim Heed as free agents from the Swedish Hockey League (SweHL). In 2015, San Jose signed Joonas Donskoi from the Finnish Hockey League as a free agent and Melker Karlsson the year before from SweHL. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, Nikolay Goldobin, Daniel O’Regan, Joakim Ryan, and Mirco Mueller have all been drafted within the last five years and would be potential full-time NHLer’s in another organization. San Jose also signed Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Carpenter as free agents in 2014, both have played for the Sharks and Barracuda this season.
The organizational depth has allowed the Barracuda to become one of the best teams in the AHL’s Western Conference and allowed the Sharks to continue to roll despite several key injuries.
“You can gauge by the excitement of the scouting staff,” said Barracuda Vice President/Governor Jon Gustafson. “They’ve been talking about this group of guys for a number of years. It shows in our success being the youngest team in the American Hockey League and where we are positioned now speaks volumes to this group of guys.”
Despite a pair of road losses this past weekend, the Barracuda sit comfortably in a playoff spot in the Pacific Division. Meanwhile, the Sharks have reeled off six-straight wins and are first in the NHL’s Pacific Division.
Nine players on the Sharks current roster have spent time with the Barracuda over the last two years, and the number doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Barracuda Head Coach Roy Sommer who has been the head coach of San Jose’s top affiliate for 19 seasons admitted this group is one of the most talented a deep teams he’s ever been apart of.
“It’s really fun to come to the rink every day with this group. There’s a lot of talent out there,” said Sommer. “With all the Sharks success, we had years that young players and draft picks were traded to make a run in the playoffs, but they’ve really invested in the youth, and it’s paying off.”