The San Jose Barracuda defense and goaltending, like the forward group, has seen an influx of new players that through the quarter mark of the AHL season already have paid dividends. When asked if this was the best defense of his AHL career, head coach Roy Sommer said they were the best in recent memory.
“We’ve had some pretty good defenses over 19 years but lately, definitely lately as far as guys being able to move pucks,” Sommer said of his current defensive corps. “They are all kind of built the same they can get back and move. We have only one stay-at-homer, and that’s [Dan] Kelly and everyone else is pretty mobile, can see the ice and create offense. That’s how the NHL is going and the teams that are good in our league.”
While the turnover is as numerically impressive as the forward group, there are fewer jobs in the back half of the line-up, the impact has been just as pronounced.
The Defense Strikes Back
Four of the top-six defenders are returning players for the Barracuda. Patrick McNally, Julius Berman, Joakim Ryan and Mirco Mueller all spent the 2015-16 season in San Jose and all, but Mueller was in their first years as professionals. As is usually the case, young defenders take some time to adjust to the higher levels of play. McNally would appear in only 35 games and Bergman struggled early, but by the end of the season, Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer said that Bergman was an important part of the Barracuda playoff push. Mueller and Ryan would be mainstays in the lineup that at times struggled for consistency on the blueline.
Julius Bergman looks like a different player. Smarter, quicker decisions and real good anticipation.
— Dylan Finan (@dfinhockey) November 26, 2016
This year, however, all four have appeared in every San Jose game to date. Much like the parent club, there has been very little turnover among the defensemen and nearly none in the pairings. Each pairing also does a good job of mirroring the roles of their counterparts on the Sharks.
Top Pairing – Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed
Joakim Ryan through the quarter point of the season already has matched his goal totals from last year (two goals), and the assists are on pace as well with six thus far. Ryan has continued his steady defensive play and has been a complete defender for the Barracuda this year as well. He is often the time-on-ice leader, and when he is not, it’s usually his partner that is a few seconds ahead. Ryan’s game is understated but his good hockey sense, and defensive awareness both have taken a step forward this year.
Partnered with Ryan has been newcomer Tim Heed. Heed, 25, was originally an Anaheim Ducks draft pick back in 2010 but never felt he or his game was ready for North America until this past year. Making the jump from the SHL, Heed has to be considered a revelation for the San Jose Sharks and yet another feather in the cap of scout Shin Larsson, who was instrumental in the signings of Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson and the trio of SHL players signed last spring. Heed has a blistering slapshot from the point that he often uses and with good accuracy, as seen by his five goals already in 17 games for the Barracuda (and he added another in game 18 as well) in addition to his nine assists.
Goal scoring defenseman, beard, pizza, great interview. He's a touque away from getting confused with Burns pic.twitter.com/5Rr1zN0yQ0
— Zachary DeVine (@zakkthebear) December 10, 2016
The pairing of the only defenders under 6-foot tall has been impressive. The duo plays a defensive style that fans are seeing more in the NHL: transitional defense. Ryan and Heed have smart, active sticks that disrupt break-out passes and clearing attempts with high frequency. In the offensive zone, neither are riverboat gamblers, but smarts and skating ability allow them to stick with the play until the last possible moment. This has kept many plays alive, and it is much easier to be a defenseman in the offensive zone than in your own. When the pair is back in their zone, either player is highly capable, but Heed has been slightly better at bringing the puck up ice and setting the table for the forwards.
“We just try to help each other out and try to be on the forecheck too. If the forwards do a good job, we can jump in join into the forecheck. That makes us a lot harder to play against.”
Middle Pairing – Mirco Mueller and Julius Bergman
Far more is known by most fans about the Barracuda second pairing of Mirco Mueller and Julius Bergman. Both 21-year-old defenders are high draft picks, Muller a first rounder in 2013 and Bergman in the 2014 second round. Mueller has appeared in 50 games for the San Jose Sharks over the years, but one could reasonably argue that he was rushed to the NHL. Mueller has always been a responsible rearguard and early returns this season are no different. His confidence and decisions with the puck on his stick have waxed and waned in games, but Sommer has said on numerous occasions that Mueller remains the best defenseman on the team, even if the scoresheet ice-time have not always shown a similar result. He remains a top prospect for the club and has been called up twice to be the seventh defenseman for the Sharks.
Julius Bergman looks to have picked up right where he left off last season when he was a mainstay in the Barracuda defense for the last half of the season. He is only two points behind last year’s totals, so those should easily be blown out of the water, and Bergman is the second-leading defenseman.
— Paul Gackle (@GackleReport) December 7, 2016
His play away from the puck and defensive posture has been improved and plays a steady game that has not always been noticed but has been integral to the early results for the Barracuda. While there is no standout portion of Bergman’s game, every facet is above-average. His understated play gets the job done in both zones and offensive ability is there, but never at the expense of sound positioning and supporting his partner.
Bottom Pairing – Patrick McNally and Dan Kelly/Jacob Middleton
McNally has been a mainstay as the fifth defenseman and while the offense hasn’t been there for the former Harvard Crimson player, the regularity in the line-up has to be considered a step forward after appearing in 35 games last year. His defensive partner has been a bit of a revolving door. Jacob Middleton, whom the Sharks signed as a free-agent this October. In games he has drawn into, Sommer has been pleased. “He’s played real well, every game he’s been in he’s been a horse. He hasn’t complained. It’s hard not playing. He’s come in and stepped into the AHL which is hard for a defenseman. He just keeps it real simple, and you don’t notice him. And when you don’t notice a defenseman, that’s usually a good thing,” said Sommer. Middleton is still eligible for the OHL and the Ottawa 67’s still seem to want the big defender back.
Ottawa is still waiting to see what happens with Jacob Middleton. Holding out hope for a return. Owen Sound could upgrade on Justin Brack.
— OHL Prospects (@BrockOtten) December 4, 2016
Dan Kelly has drawn into the lineup against the heavier teams in the AHL after he completed his 10-game suspension for knocking out Andreas Johnsson in last years’ AHL playoffs with the Albany Devils.
The goaltending for the Barracuda once again features a healthy competition in nets. Veteran Troy Grosenick is back after summer of hard work with noted goalie specialist Adam Francillia and keeping in close contact with Sharks goaltender development coach Evgeni Nabokov. The work does appear to have paid off for the former Union College goalie. Through 17 games, Grosenick has a solid 2.47 goals-against average and .915 save percentage to go with two shutouts in 10 appearances. His record of 3-4-1 is middle of the road, but the quality of his goaltending is much improved over last year’s’ iteration. Grosenick is much calmer in net and staying on his feet longer than previous years, adding an element of positional strength to his athletic goaltending style.
Newcomer Mantas Armalis is the new kid on the block, despite spending nearly the last decade in Sweden. The adjustment to the smaller ice surface and more chaotic crease area is ongoing. The 6’3, 200-pound native of Plunge, Lithuania has been a quick study in his new role with the Barracuda and progress in his positioning, play reads and play with this puck improve weekly. It also does not hurt that Armalis, 24, just finds ways to win games. His record is a solid 5-2-2 in 11 contests to go with a shutout as well.
How It Translates to the Ice
Last year, the defense was a hodgepodge of AHLers and bonafide rookies making their first attempt at professional hockey. The defense played a very old-school style system of dumping the puck into the corners and allowing the forwards to get to work on the forecheck.
“They read off one another; they’re a breakout machine. They basically keep it real simple and then offensively they pound pucks. They D to D wide. We rim out on a lot of our plays. They get pucks through the first forechecker. It creates rebounds, and it creates offense for us. They’ve been a big part of things.”
With a bit of turnover and a year of experience, this club has experienced a transformation, and the emphasis on the “new” NHL brand of hockey is improved with the added experience and skill on the blue line. Dan Kelly is the last anchor to the grizzled defenseman of yesteryear, much like a Roman Polak was for the Sharks last season. But the other six regular defenders all fit the mold of the new, transition-based NHL game and Tim Heed is the “old man” of the group at only 25.
As far as the goaltending, already it has shown improvements over the Barracuda inaugural season. Grosenick looks to have rebounded from a sub-par campaign, and Armalis has proven to be a quick study of the North American game. Goaltending just needs to be consistently present, and the duo of Grosenick and Armalis certainly have shown to be capable. If they can continue to provide solid goaltending for this young, yet talented team, it could be a very busy spring and summer at the SAP Center.
Remember to Check Out Pat 1: Barracuda at the Quarter Mark – The Forwards