In today’s salary cap era, keeping a team together is certainly a challenge. Not only must the team be built with enough skill, speed and grit to win the day-to-day battles, but there has to be the proper mix of veteran savvy, youthful energy and willful role players to round out the roster. Chemistry is the term commonly used to describe these sorts of things in hockey, more so than in any other sport, and for good reason: we all remember Glen Sather’s New York Rangers from 2000-01 through 2003-04 and their utter lack of regular season success – missing the playoffs all four seasons – despite rosters replete with high-profile skill players. The talent was there, but the chemistry remained in the Petri dish.
When you’re an early-round selection in the NHL draft, you are expected to have the entire “package” to reach the NHL quickly. General Managers crave size, speed, leadership qualities, and of course the requisite skill sets to succeed. Late-round selections, on the other hand, carry reduced expectations. Taken in the 7th round (#186 overall) of the 2008 draft, the San Jose Sharks’ Jason Demers was just 25 picks away from being “Mr. Irrelevant”, and as such, carried few expectations.
At first glance, one can see why. At 6’1″ and 195 pounds, Demers appears to have an average defenseman’s physique. Nothing wrong with it by any means, but he’s no Taylor Doherty, who at an imposing 6’8″ and 230 pounds was a San Jose 2nd round pick one year later. Demers has good speed, but not remarkably so, and although he led the QMJHL in defensemen points in 2007-08 with 64, he’s not known for a blistering slap shot. Plus, everyone can score in the Q. Let’s face it, there are a lot of guys with Demers’ profile taken around or even before him in the NHL draft every year, with few making an impact at the highest level. In Demers’ draft year, only 18 out of 90 players selected between the fifth and seventh rounds have even touched a cup of coffee at the NHL level so far, with – you guessed it – Demers playing the most games for an NHL club of the bunch. His 119 games dwarfs Mike “Who am I?” Martin’s 64 games. In fact, you have to go all the way into the first round to find players who have seen more NHL ice time than Jason Demers.
So what makes Demers different than 95% of the players drafted in his position? His style is that of a power-play quarterback and he has assumed that role at times for the Sharks. The position requires vision, mobility, excellent passing skills and intelligence, as passing and shooting lanes open and close more quickly than Winona Ryder’s purse.
At the heart of it, the difference between Demers and the player picked six slots below him (sorry Jordan Benfeld, nothing personal) might just be that – heart. Demers plays much bigger than his frame would suggest. Not known for his defensive prowess in the Q, he became a significant plus-player in the AHL, which has carried over to the NHL. In fact, Demers is currently second amongst Sharks players at +14 as of this writing. Alluding to his ability to react situationally, Demers said, “If we’re up a goal and there is two minutes left, I’m not going to try and go end-to-end. You have to take a quick look to see how much time you have if you’re going on at the last minute. You can sort of gauge in your head when to go and when not to go.”
Certainly, Demers’ tangible measurements are a direct measurement of the intangibles. He ranks second amongst Sharks defensemen in points with 23, and is producing in crunch time, with two points in his last four games, and carrying a +5 over his last fifteen. He is third in shots with 100 despite being just fifth in ATOI this season. Discussing his style of play, he said, “Someone I try to model my game after is Dan Boyle. He’s one of the older guys who I look up the most to on the team. I look to him for help if I ever need it.”
At $580,000, Demers is a tremendous bargain for the Sharks, and they know it. Already, they’ve locked him up for an additional two years at $1.25 million per. Plucking a power-play quarterback out of the 7th round allows a good team like the Sharks to perpetuate their success and is one example of how franchises like San Jose and Detroit seem to do it year after year.
Want another example of Demers’ intangibles (granted, not his smarts)? Check out this video:
Kids, don’t try this at home.
San Jose’s playoff failures over the years have been much-ballyhooed. I wrote a piece recently discussing that issue on these very pages. Obviously, the factors comprising these things vary from year to year, but with fifteen playoff games already under his belt from last year’s run to the conference finals (one goal, four assists, +0), Demers is poised to be a difference-maker once again this season. The Sharks are on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot, and are the front-runners for the Pacific division title once again. They are going to need contributory help from players like Demers to compliment the big guns of Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Dan Boyle.
Demers has entrenched himself has a regular top-six defenseman for San Jose, with upside that has yet to be seen. At just 22, he’s years away from his prime. He is the type of player that allows San Jose not only to win the battles, but in the age of the salary cap where teams have to draft smart and find bargains where they can, win the wars.