Worcester makes free agency splash and why San Jose should rethink their view on the ECHL

Less than a week into the free agency signing frenzy, the Worcester Sharks already have their fans eagerly anticipating the puck to drop for the 2012-13 season.

In case you missed the news, Matt Irwin and Alex Stalock were resigned to one-year contracts; qualifying offers were made to Brandon Mashinter, Tim Kennedy, Frazer McLaren, Nick Petrecki and Matt Pelech; free agents Bracken Kearns, Jon Matsumoto and Danny Groulx were signed, and crowd favorite Jimmy Bonneau was brought back as he signed an AHL contract.

On July 2, it was reported on Twitter that John McCarthy had resigned as well but Bill Ballou confirmed in his July 3 article for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that negotiations with McCarthy were still ongoing.

Stalock being brought back is a huge sigh of relief to Worcester fans as some thought he was gone for good after he was loaned for free to the Peoria Rivermen near the end of the 2011-12 season. After missing a majority of the 2011-12 season due to a sliced nerve injury behind his left knee {suffered in a Feb. 4, 2011 game against the Manchester Monarchs}, Stalock returned to on-ice action with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL on Jan. 21 and posted a 5-1-0 record with a 2.83 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage.

After his time with the Thunder, Stalock was recalled to Worcester and made his first Worcester start in over a year on Feb. 18 in a 2-1 road win over the Springfield Falcons. In all, Stalock appeared in five games between Worcester and Peoria and went 3-1-0 with a 1.87 goals-against-average and a .932 save percentage to go along with one shutout.

In case you forget about his credentials, Stalock, as a rookie in 2009-10, was an AHL All-Star, named to the AHL All-Rookie Team and was recognized as the Worcester Sharks Team MVP after going 39-19-2 with a 2.63 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage in 61 games played. Prior to suffering his injury in his second season, Stalock posted a 19-17-4 record with a 2.63 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 41 games played.

Irwin was the second leading scorer on Worcester last season with 42 points {11-31-42} in 71 games played and finished first amongst AHL defensemen in power play goals {9} and shots on goal {209}. In addition, Irwin's power play goals, shots on goal, assists and power play points {24} were all team leading for Worcester. As a result, Irwin was named to the 2012 AHL All-Star Game.

Kearns, a six-year veteran of the AHL who is coming off back-to-back 20 goal seasons, is a solid two-way forward who registered 52 points {22-30-52} for the San Antonio Rampage last season in 69 games played and has 220 career AHL points {89-131-220}. Kearns made his NHL debut last season with the Florida Panthers and picked up 10 penalty minutes in five games. Lastly, Kearns played under current Worcester head coach Roy Sommer for one game in the 2005-06 season as a member of the Cleveland Barons and had an assist.

Matsumoto, a third round draft pick {#79 overall} by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, tweeted on July 2 that he was happy to be a part of the San Jose organization before any official announcement was made on his signing. Matsumoto has had six solid seasons in the AHL, registering 281 points {124-157-281} while playing for the Philadelphia/Adirondack Phantoms, Charlotte Checkers and the Rampage. Last season, Matsumoto split the season with the Checkers and Rampage and registered 60 points {23-37-60} in 76 games played. Lastly, Matsumoto has appeared in 14 NHL games {13 with the Carolina Hurricanes and one with the Panthers} and has registered two goals {both with the Hurricanes}.

Groulx coming back was a total surprise. For those who don't know, Groulx played for Worcester in the 2009-10 season and set professional career highs in goals {14}, assists {52} and points {66}. As a result of his breakout year, Groulx won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's Best Defenseman and was named to the AHL First All-Star Team. His 66 points led Worcester in overall scoring and the league in defenseman points. The past two seasons, Groulx has played in the Kontinental Hockey League {KHL} and split the 2011-12 season with Minsk Dynamo and Khanty-Mansiysk Yugra, registering two assists and 22 penalty minutes in 24 games played combined.

Bonneau coming back was a nice surprise as well as I thought for sure he was gone once McLaren was given a qualifying offer and to be honest, I'm still baffled as to why McLaren was given one as Worcester fans have grown tired of him taking dumb penalties when on the ice. Yes, Bonneau is a scraper as well {Bonneau set the team record last season with 22 fighting majors and finished tied with Pelech as the team leaders in penalty minutes with 168} but Bonneau can skate and isn't a liability when on the ice. However, Bonneau will have to sit out the first three games of the 2012-13 season as he finishes out his suspension sentence from last season.

The unofficial Twitter report on July 2 said McCarthy had signed a two-year deal and that the second year was a one-way deal. Hopefully a deal is reached {or has been reached} with McCarthy, who was Worcester's leading scorer with 47 points {20-27-47} in 65 games played last season. McCarthy's points {47} and goals {20} were professional career highs while his 27 assists tied his professional career high.

As for the other players that were given qualifying offers, no complaints here. I have to admit, I didn't think much of Pelech when he was signed last year but once he got on the ice, it was like something just clicked with him and you always knew when he was on the ice because he was either putting the body on someone or blocking shots like a machine.

Despite having professional career lows in goals {1}, assists {8) and points {9}, Petrecki was the recipient of the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award as the AHL's Man of the Year. Hopefully, this will be the season that it all comes together for Petrecki, who has shown flashes of brilliance during his time in Worcester and has had some head-scratching plays/decisions. He's only 23 so don't write him off if you already have. Once the player Petrecki is meets with the player he should be, it's going to make for one heck of a player.

Kennedy is someone I said the Sharks should've signed back in the summer of 2010 on my Facebook page {I wasn't into Twitter until Fall 2010}. After being acquired from the Rampage for defenseman Sean Sullivan, Kennedy registered 31 points {10-21-31} in 35 games for Worcester and had 40 points for the entire season {13-27-40}.

As for Mashinter, I hope this is his breakout season. I've been rooting for him since his arrival in Worcester and though he did struggle in 2011-12, he finally turned it on towards the end of the season once paired on the top line with Kennedy and McCarthy and finished with 33 points {16-17-33} in 65 games played.

When you factor in these signings with some of the young talent in Worcester such as Sena Acolatse, Sebastian Stalberg, Yanni Gourde, Freddie Hamilton, Matt Tennyson, Daniil Tarasov, Curt Gogol and Travis Oleksuk {who I still say will make San Jose's roster out of training camp}, it's no wonder Worcester fans are eagerly anticipating the start of the 2012-13 season.

Photo courtesy of www.sharksahl.com

With all these new additions checking in, some familiar faces had to check out. Darryl Hunt {@210Darryl} reported in his June 29 "WorSharks Summer Report" on Sharkspage.com that Ryan Del Monte signed a contract with Starbulls Rosenheim of the 2nd Bundesliga in Germany and there are rumors that Jack Combs is also headed overseas.

In addition, Cam MacIntyre, James Marcou, Tyson Sexsmith, Tony Lucia and Benn Ferriero were not made qualifying offers and team captain Mike Moore signed a two-way contract with the Nashville Predators on July 3.

I had a feeling both Del Monte and Combs wouldn't be brought back due to both being on AHL contracts. However, I was holding out hope Combs would stay as he provided some bite in the Sharks offense by registering 30 points {16-14-30} in 50 games played after registering 37 points {17-20-37} in 23 games played with the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL.

Del Monte was in his second stint with the Sharks as he appeared in teal for 15 games in the 2010-11 season and registered four points {1-3-4} in 15 games played. In 2011-12, Del Monte battled various injuries and registered 19 points {4-15-19} in 52 games played.

I can't say I was surprised to see that MacIntyre and Marcou were not made qualifying offers due to their history of injuries. Marcou missed the entire 2011-12 season as he continues to battle post concussion syndrome after being injured in the 2010-11 season, where he registered 19 points {4-15-19} in 41 games played. MacIntyre battled various injuries in his two seasons with the Sharks and registered 15 points {8-7-15} in 66 career games {42 in 2010-11 and 24 in 2011-12}.

Losing Sexsmith was a double-edged sword as the Sharks were going to lose a solid goaltender no matter what decision they made. As thrilled as I am about Stalock staying with the Sharks, I would be lying if I didn't say it doesn't hurt a little bit to lose Sexsmith after watching him carry the load for the Sharks in 2011-12 and make the 2012 AHL All-Star Game. Stats wise, Sexsmith posted a 13-12-7 record with a 2.333 goals-against-average and .916 save percentage.

Lucia not being brought back was a bit of a surprise to me as he was a solid third line player for the Sharks when he got on the ice. Like Marcou, Lucia battled post concussion syndrome and missed all but the first two games of the 2010-11 season. In 2011-12, Lucia registered 27 points {8-19-27} in 46 games played.

As for Ferriero, I feel San Jose mishandled his situation when they recalled him and then kept him a scratch as he would've had to clear waivers if he was reassigned back to Worcester. If San Jose didn't have long term plans to play Ferriero, who has scored big goals in San Jose history, then why bother recalling him in the first place? Instead of sitting in the stands, Ferriero could've been on the ice helping the anemic Worcester offense. In 20 games with Worcester in 2011-12, Ferriero registered 20 points {9-11-20}.

Once Groulx was signed, I had a feeling Moore would be the odd man out on the Sharks blue line. I wish Moore nothing but the best and hope to see him make the Predators line-up as a regular. In addition, I echo what Mr. Hunt tweeted on July 3, "If there is a player that personifies what being a is supposed to be, it's Mike Moore. His #8 should be raised to the DCU rafters."


Logos courtesy of www.wikipedia.com

Ever since the ECHL announced via a press release on Sept. 21, 2011, that its Board of Governors approved the Expansion Membership application of the San Francisco Bulls, rumors have run rampant that the Bulls would become the San Jose Sharks' ECHL affiliate. Those rumors picked up steam on June 26 when the Bulls announced their partnership with Kristi Yamaguchi's Always Dream Foundation.

Currently, San Jose and the Edmonton Oilers share the Thunder as their ECHL affiliate {The Thunder became the Oilers' ECHL affiliate prior to the start of the 2006-07 season and became San Jose's mid-way through the 2009-10 season}.

Sadly though, Thunder fans have rarely seen any San Jose prospects on the Thunder {with the exception of goalies Sexsmith, Stalock and Thomas Heemskerk} due to an organizational belief within San Jose of not using the ECHL to develop players, which I think is a huge mistake.

By actually using an ECHL affiliate, San Jose prospects coming out of college and juniors would get their feet wet with the professional game and gain valuable experience. A perfect example of how an ECHL affiliation would benefit player development for San Jose can be found in the organizations handling of Halifax Mooseheads defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League {QMJHL}.

Last season, Abeltshauser, the Mooseheads' Defenseman of the Year, had a breakout year with 44 points {8-36-44} to lead all team defenseman {and placed him ninth in league scoring among defensemen} and registered another 16 points {5-11-16} in the Mooseheads' 15 playoff games.

As a result of his breakout season, San Jose rewarded Abeltshauser by signing him to entry-level contract on April 13. However, rumors are running rampant that San Jose is going to keep Abeltshauser in Halifax for an overage season, which will burn a year off of Abeltshauser's eligibility on his entry-level contract.

With Worcester having a logjam of defensemen, wouldn't it be better for Abeltshauser and his development to play in the ECHL and get his feet wet in the professional game against grown men instead of playing an overage season in juniors against teenagers? Also, should a defenseman go down in Worcester, the team could bring Abeltshauser up from the ECHL instead of having to scramble to sign a free agent to a PTO and then release him several games later.

Abeltshauser isn't the only Sharks prospect facing this dilemma. Goaltender J.P. Anderson is rumored to be returning to the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League {OHL} for an overage season if he doesn't find a spot on the Thunder roster with Heemskerk. Defenseman William Wrenn was one of several graduating players on the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League {WHL} but I have yet to read anything on what San Jose plans to do with him.

If the San Jose organization thinks there is no value in using the ECHL to develop players, perhaps they should ask Bonneau about his time in the ECHL. In an exclusive interview with Fear the Fin in September 2011, Bonneau said the following about the ECHL, "I played with great players in a great league with good hockey. Instead of entering the NHL at age 21 or 22, it might take a few years and you may enter the NHL from the ECHL at 24 or 25 but you can still be a star. At first, I was thinking I’d rather not go play in the ECHL but now, I can see its done a lot for me and my development."