On draft day 2008, Jason Demers wasn't expecting a call from Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. He wasn't expecting a call from any NHL team in fact.
A career in the Queber Major Junior League with the Moncton Wildcats and Victoriaville Tigers had produced some notable numbers, but scouts and agents hadn't shown the overwhelming interest usually associated with a league leading point scorer. Demers had doubled his point production from 2007 to 2008 in the QMHL, scoring 9 goals and 64 points with the Tigers, and yet the bites weren't there on the big stage. Coupled with a stint at the Sharks Rookie Tournament in 2007 that didn't result in a professional contract, Demers was looking to go the school route as the next logical step in his life.
Unbeknownst to him, the Sharks were so impressed with his abilities that they had considered offering him a free agent deal a year before his draft day.
Unbeknownst to him, Tim Burke and Doug Wilson were set on taking him in the late rounds, an area of the draft where the organization has made a killing in recent years.
"Making the pros was always my goal, but I was actually leaning more towards the school route before I got drafted," Demers said following a practice at Sharks Ice. "The year before I got drafted my Junior career was going well but there was no talk of going to play pro. I was really interested in science and math, going to a Canadian University."
"It's been a whirlwind since then. It seems just like yesterday I got drafted."
Demers, a 186th pick in 2008, has joined the likes of Joe Pavelski (207th pick, 7th round) and Ryane Clowe (176th pick, 6th round) as late draft selections who are currently making a considerable impact on the team's quest to bring a Stanley Cup to the city of San Jose. Despite an average selection that is 24th in the NHL from 1996-2006, San Jose ranks third in players who have reached the 200 game threshold, first in picks who have played over 50 games, and fourth in average points per pick in that time span [link].
The masterminds behind it all? Director of Scouting Tim Burke and General Manager Doug Wilson.
In tune with the vibrant technological scene in Silicon Valley, the organization has been known to reach out to various firms in the area in order to land the most cutting edge data analysis that analyzes the worth of an individual player. The Sharks currently use propriety statistical measures that give certain weight to occurrences throughout the game-- for example, a goal in the last minute that ties or wins the game will count more towards a player's value than one that was scored with the team leading 6-1. Furthermore, the location of these events, as well as the opponents they were scored against, is also included in the analysis.
It may take a career in math, like the one Demers was considering, to truly understand these formulas and how they have been able to generate successful late round picks.
But it doesn't take any sort of advanced analysis of pre-draft methodology to see the impact Demers has made in the NHL.
Born in Dorval during the summer of 1988, Demers early career was typical of most Canadian players playing in the pros. The Montreal Canadiens were just a twenty minute drive away, and in the province of Quebec, that means hockey is king.
Demers' father coached him during his minor hockey career, running drills and teaching him the fundamentals as soon as he learned to skate. For a young player growing in his appreciation for the sport, that steady hand was a huge influence on his transformation from the bassinet to the blueline, as well as his opportunity to play with kids three years his senior for the majority of his childhood.
Things that led him to become the first player born in Dorval to make it to the big leagues.
"My dad coached my brother before he coached me and I would always go to the rink and get on the ice with the older guys," Demers explained. "He was three years older, which was a good opportunity for me. I was like the team mascot for those teams (laughs)."
It was good preparation for a life in the NHL. The 22 year old Demers' is now regularly skating against players who eclipse him in age by a decade, or in the case of Adam Foote and Nicklas Lidstrom, nearly two. And while their experience in the finer aspects of the game is something that any young player can only hope to acquire over time, Demers' saw an opportunity this summer to improve on a successful 2009-2010 regular season of 4 goals and 21 points that earned him Sharks Rookie of The Year honors.
After feeling slow during portions during his rookie campaign, Demers embarked on what he described as the best offseason he's ever had. Working with San Jose Sharks strength and conditioning trainer Mike Potenza, Demers personalized his offseason routine to cut down on the weight that he felt made him less effective than he wanted to be at the NHL level. It emphasized a stronger core and legs, traits that would allow him to become faster and more mobile on the rush.
Something that he saw was paying off dividends for another current Sharks defenseman.
"I found that I was a little behind the game here and there. I wasn't heavy by any means, but I wanted to get down to Dan Boyle's weight," Demers said. "I played at about two hundred last year, this year I'm around one-ninety. I feel a lot better. It's allowed me to improve at getting away from some guys [when carrying the puck]."
Always a gifted offensive talent on the power play, Demers' improved skating ability has made him an even more dangerous threat for opposing players when the Sharks are screaming down the ice on the rush. But perhaps the biggest addition to his game this season has been a noticeable physical presence. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jakub Voracek and Los Angeles Kings winger Ryan Smyth have already felt the wrath of Demers' offseason regiment during 2010, with huge collisions resulting in both players being violently dispatched to the ice. Like a torpedo Demers has struck, quickly and efficiently closing the gap before his victims know what hit them.
The decreased weight? Not an issue. In fact, it's part of the reason why his physical game has picked up.
"This year I can get to guys a little quicker before they can see me because of my skating. I like to catch guys off guard. When they see me it might just be more of a little bump," Demers said with a laugh. "The physical game has always been there for me during my hockey career, but last year I was focusing more on the other aspects of transitioning to the NHL, still feeling out the league. I've always liked to play with a chip on my shoulder though, and the coaches like when I'm pinching up."
Pinching up, puck control, and becoming involved offensively are what Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan expects of his blueline, philosophies he brought over from his time spent under Mike Babcock in Detroit. He likes them to be as aggressive as possible when they see an opportunity to make a play, and at the same time, be ever cognisant of their defensive responsibilities. It's a system that is built for quick and mobile offensive defenseman, guys who will take the risks that lead to rewards. Finding the right balance between those two areas has been something Demers has been able to do in spades this season.
But don't think that he can do it alone, something Demers' emphatically pointed out.
"I love playing with Kent, can't say enough good things about him. He's one of the most underrated players on our team," Demers said. "I know when I give him the puck I can take off up the ice because he's going to make the right play. It allows me to cheat a little bit because if I get caught he's going to pick up those mistakes."
Those mistakes have been few and far between. Up until November 4th's game against the St. Louis Blues the pairing of Huskins-Demers had yet to be on the ice for a goal against at five on five-- they have three goals against at full strength since that time, the lowest total on the entire team despite playing combined 35 minutes per night. It's been a big part of a Sharks defense that has exceeded early season expectations by allowing only 27.7 shots against per game, seventh best in the NHL.
With his defensive game tightened up from last year, and his hitting game improving, the next step for Demers will be to improve on his offensive totals. He has zero goals and four assists this season. In a situation that is much like the one Joe Pavelski was experiencing last week however, don't let the boxscore totals fool you. His pairing has the best Corsi rating out of the blueline this year, driving the play in the right direction every night, and Demers himself has logged 30 shots on net.
The opportunities have been there. Now it's just a matter of getting that first one and watching the dominoes begin to fall.
"It's a bounce here or there and I could have six or seven more points. That's just how it goes," Demers said. "It would be different if I wasn't playing the way I am playing now, but I feel like I'm playing well. Kent and I talk about it after games, and as long as we're staying strong in our own end, the points will come."
Demers' strides in the skating department have been notable, along with his confidence when carrying the puck. A year under his belt has drastically improved his decision making in his own end, a pleasant addition for an organization that trusted Demers and his young counterparts Logan Couture, John McCarthy, and Jamie McGinn to give the team quality shifts this season.
With an average of 19:08 ice time thus far this year, and a defensive game that has grown in leaps and bounds from where it was last season, 2010-2011 is no sophomore slump for Demers. A contract extension that will carry him through the 2012-2013 season is looking like a steal already, as the 22 year old will only be making $1.25 MM against the cap. A solid investment for the organization, especially if Demers can further improve his game.
It's been a long time since Demers was considering majoring in math at University, and a long time since the trips from San Jose, Worcester, and Stockton dominated his life from November to late March last season.
"As long as im playing well enough to get ice time and have Coach McLellan's trust, I'm happy," Demers said. "That's what I'm looking for. We're all going right now, and when the team is winning, that's the most important thing."
It's safe to say the early returns have indicated as much.