Saturday, June 19, 2010

Shep back for 2010-2011

After a disappointing 2009-2010 campaign, Wild forward James Sheppard (a restricted free agent) signed a one-year deal to stay with the team. Sheppard scored only two goals and added a minuscule four assists for Minnesota and many Wild fans who were high on Shep as a rookie a couple years ago are thinking Chuck Fletcher wasted a roster spot on the still young center. I definitely see where these fans are coming from, but I believe there is a case to be made for Sheppard.

The consensus argument that has favored Sheppard since the news of his signing broke is that he is only 22 years old and I think this is very important to note. Sheppard is still growing into an NHLer and there is reason to be hopeful that he can contribute into a positive player for the Wild. Another important thing to know about Sheppard is that he is a center, a position where the Wild is dangerously thin outside of captain Mikko Koivu. If anything, this move will create a competition in the pre-season for the second line center job. This is what Fletcher wants. Sheppard knows he is running out of opportunities to live up to his draft position as the number nine overall pick in the 2006 draft.

While every player that went ahead of him in the draft (Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Kyle Okposo, and Peter Mueller) have made names for themselves in NHL, Sheppard has struggled as a pro. I am a fan of developing players. While some players like Matt Duchene turn into solid NHL players right off the bat, some take time to develop. James Sheppard was thrown right into the mix and actually didn't fare too bad in his rookie season--he's just declined since then. I think, though, that this is the kick in the butt he needs. Former Wild GM Doug Risebrough seemed to put players on the fast track to the big team, while Fletcher has been more conservative, giving a variety of young players short stints with the big club (as we saw with the number of players making their NHL debuts with Minnesota last season). The prime example of this was sending Colton Gillies to Houston for the year. I think he probably would have done the same with Sheppard, but Shep had played too many games in the NHL to send to Houston.

I have read that Fletcher is too reluctant to get rid of a high pick in keeping Sheppard, but I think Fletcher sees something in him that shows promise. After all, it wasn't Fletcher who drafted Sheppard. Now that Sheppard knows he is getting a new opportunity with the organization that drafted him, he has all summer to prepare to make a better impact. As hockey fans, we've all seen crazier things happen. If Sheppard moves sideways with his next season, he will be either dealt or let go. It's not like he got a five-year deal...and it's not like he has a no-trade clause. As I would any professional athlete in Sheppard's situation, I expect number 51 to prove himself worthy of a spot on the team in camp, but if he doesn't, the Wild can try and send him to Houston (which I think would be ideal if it came to that) or another team can scoop him up and take him off the Wild's hands.

Last year, I think Sheppard did enough to earn a spot on the team, but was less deserving of it as the season went on. I think if he can play to his potential on a more consistent basis, he will be a good asset for the team either as a player or a trading piece. Sheppard notched two goals and two assists in the pre-season last year, but the numbers and momentum from his final games (against Philadelphia and Chicago where he scored in each game) didn't translate into a good regular season. Hopefully either this changes, but if not, it would be beneficial for the Wild if he doesn't lead Fletcher and the coaches on with a solid pre-season.

If Sheppard doesn't improve as expected, the Wild will have every reason to get rid of him, but I think he is worth the shot because he is a rather inexpensive option at center that does have some potential upside. While he was ineffective most of last season, he did have his good games, where he played well, and made contributions that didn't appear on the scoresheet. There is reason to be skeptical as this isn't the first time Sheppard has been pressured to step up for the Wild, but I think I'd rather take the chance on Sheppard than have a more expensive option fail to pan out for the Wild. Something he was really low on last season was confidence and his new signing should give him a boost in that category. He knows Fletcher believes in him and that should aid him in this crucial offseason for him. Hopefully Sheppard can recover from the knee injury he sustained at the end of last season and last season as a whole in 2010-2011.

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