San Jose staking its claim to Hockeytown, USA
Date: Feb 24, 2017
SAN JOSE — The Sharks aren’t the only first-place team that calls SAP Center its home.
The San Jose Barracuda, the Sharks’ top affiliate, is tearing up the American Hockey League. The Barracuda is riding a franchise-record 12-game winning streak and holding the 30-team league’s best record (31-11-4), despite carrying its second-youngest roster.
The San Jose teams are seeking to become the fourth NHL-AHL tandem to win championships in the same season, and the first to do so since the New Jersey Devils and the Albany River Rats won the Stanley Cup and the Calder Cup during the 1994-95 season.
“Good organizations, I don’t think it’s any secret, their American League teams are very good, and a lot of times, they’re winning championships,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “We have that type of team down there.”
The Barracuda’s rise to the top of the AHL standings reflects a shift in philosophy in the Sharks front office four years ago.
For years, the Sharks sold off their top prospects and draft picks to acquire veterans at the trade deadline in search of that elusive Stanley Cup. But the strategy eventually left the team in a compromised position, lacking talent in the pipeline as its core of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle started to age.
As a result, the front office decided it needed to replenish the farm, stockpiling 24 picks over three drafts (2013, 2014, 2015) by trading away veterans such as Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus.
“That’s why we are where we are right now,” said Barracuda coach Roy Sommer, who has been behind the bench of the Sharks’ AHL affiliate since 1998.
“Before, the coaches wanted to make deals at the deadline and we traded away some really good players, like Nick Bonino (of the Pittsburgh Penguins). They stopped doing that, and that’s why we’re the most loaded team in the American League.”
With a full cupboard, the Barracuda is a healthy blend of first-round prospects, late-round steals and free-agent signees from the European professional leagues, college hockey and the Canadian junior system. A total of 18 first-year players have suited up for the Barracuda this season and seven rookies were on the ice for the team’s 12th straight victory Monday, a 5-3 win over the Texas Stars.
First-round picks such as Mirco Mueller (2013), Nikolay Goldobin (2014) and Timo Meier (2015) are providing high-end skill, but the Barracuda is dominant because of the “sleepers” who surround those blue chip prospects.
Danny O’Regan, a fifth-round pick in 2012 (138th overall), leads AHL rookies in scoring with 45 points in 43 games after collecting 154 points in 154 NCAA games with Boston University. Tim Heed, whom the Sharks signed in May from the Swedish Hockey League, is third among AHL defensemen in scoring with 41 points in 38 games. Goalie Troy Grosenick, who signed with the organization from Union College in 2013, leads AHL goalies in goals-against average (1.97), save percentage (.934) and shutouts (seven).
And there’s more.
Marcus Sorensen, a Swedish Hockey League signee, has 22 points in his last 22 games, Rourke Chartier, a fifth-round pick in 2014 (No. 149) has 23 points in 45 games despite playing in a shutdown role. Kevin Labanc, a sixth-round pick in 2014 (No. 171), has played 45 games for the big club.
“The organization was really excited that all these guys were coming in, but you never really know until it’s on the ice,” Sommer said. “From the first game you could tell that we had a lot of skill, that we were fast, but who would have thought that it would all line up like it has?”
After 46 games, the Barracuda are near the top of the AHL in almost every statistical category. They entered Tuesday’s action ranked second in offense (3.52 goals per game), third in goals-against average (2.43), third on the penalty kill (85.5), second on the power play (25.3 percent) and third in shots per game (33.2).
Sommer’s team is also nearly impossible to beat with a lead, boasting a 27-2-2 record when scoring first, an 18-1-2 record when leading after 20 minutes and a 26-0-1 record when leading after two periods.
The team is also benefiting from the franchise’s move from Worcester to San Jose last season with the AHL’s formation of a Pacific Division.
With the parent club in the same city, the organization can swap players up and down with a snap of the fingers, keeping everyone on the roster “honest” as teammates battle for the opportunity to be the next player recalled by the Sharks.
“Competition is the best motivator,” Will said. “We’ve already had 10 players recalled this year. They see that and they know that they’re pretty close.”
Despite the team’s success, the Barracuda continue to be a well-kept secret in the larger Bay Area sports landscape. The Barracuda currently rank 22nd in paid attendance, averaging 4,309 fans per game, but in truth, a significantly smaller crowd usually shows up at the Tank.
Regardless, Will said the benefits of having the AHL and NHL clubs playing side by side outweigh the short term costs of starting from scratch and building a new fan base in San Jose.
“The crowds are getting bigger, better, rowdier — you can see it growing,” Will said. “The potential is certainly there…. The bigger picture is to continue to build a hockey community in the Bay Area and the Barracuda are part of that.”