SAN JOSE There probably arent too many players in the league that are as frustrated as Sharks forward Tommy Wingels must be. For the first time in his career, the forward is assured of a place on the NHL club when training camp begins. Rather than getting ready for a slate of preseason games, though, the NHL's doors are currently closed for business, preventing Wingels and the rest of the team from the normal fall routine.
Wingels somewhat surprisingly made the opening night roster last year, but was quickly reassigned to Worcester after just five games. He returned in January, and scored his first career NHL goal on Jan. 15 against the Blackhawks in his home state. A pair of upper body injuries, including a shoulder, sidelined him for 15 games total in the second half of the season.
When he was in, though, Wingels showed the kind of reckless abandon that hockey management, coaches -- and fans -- love. The 6-foot, 195-pounder finished with 102 hits, fourth on the team, despite playing in just 33 games. He ended the year with three goals and six assists, and one assist in five playoff games against the Blues.
Hes now among a group of younger players on the Sharks that will be counted on to take that proverbial next step and contribute on one of the teams scoring lines.
Wingels knows it, and is looking forward to the challenge.
My last year was pretty good, but I personally feel like I can build on it. Like you said, I think theres that expectation from the team for me to do that, he said. Thats a challenge I have for myself. I think youre going to see a lot of guys, most of the guys here, build on what they did last year -- whether its guys who didnt do as well as they would have liked, guys who were injured, or guys who are just ready to take that next step.
Have a conversation with Wingels about the NHL lockout -- or anything, really -- and youd swear you were speaking with a longtime league veteran rather than a player who has yet to play even a full season in the pros.
But the 24-year-old Evanston, Illinois native, who was one of three Sharks to attend the NHLPA meetings in New York nearly two weeks ago, is supremely eloquent and thoughtful when describing the state of collective bargaining negotiations from his perspective.
You want to play as many years in this league as you can. In that sense, you want to be as informed as you can about the nature of the league and where its going; the shape it will be five or 10 years from now, Wingels said on Tuesday at Sharks Ice. Careers are short, so in one sense youve got to worry about now, but at the same time youve got to worry about future years and players that are coming up behind you.
As a young guy now, I try to ask a lot of questions, to guys who have been through it before and guys that are leading the charge now. The best thing you can do is stay as informed as you can. This is our livelihood here, so I dont see why guys wouldnt be informed.
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Although the uncertainty of the next CBA and salary cap limit played into the Sharks relatively dormant offseason, the expectation that players like Wingels will continue to improve and have a direct impact on the club has just as much to do with their lack of free agent activity.
That indirect vote of confidence from the Sharks' brass sits fine with Wingels.
As a younger player, thats what you want to see. Youve got confidence in your game, and when you play with great players, you expect a lot out of yourself. I know young guys like myself, TJ Galiardi, James Sheppard and guys that are newer in this league, the first couple years I think your development comes pretty quickly. There is a process of getting your feet wet and feeling out the league, and then your confidence and game takes over from there.
There are a number of factors that played into San Joses uneven regular season and first round ouster last season. A horrid penalty kill and untimely goals allowed by the goaltender are among them.
But, so was a lack of scoring from anyone other than the top two lines or the power play. After the club traded Jamie McGinn to Colorado on Feb. 27, the Sharks third and fourth lines rarely found the scoresheet. In the final 21 games of the season after that deal, the Sharks bottom six combined for just nine goals total while at even strength.
Wingels, who didnt score a goal himself in his final 21 combined regular season and playoff games, thinks he can help.
Id like to score some more goals, he said. Like you said, this team was missing that last year. If we could have found 20 or 30 goals collectively from a few guys, we would have been in a lot better shape. Thats something I want to contribute. At the same time, I think a lot of my game is played without the puck -- forechecking, being physical, playing well defensively. I think when I do all those things combined is when Im most effective, and the goals start coming.
For now, though, Wingels waits, along with the rest of the league. Hes considering going to Europe if the lockout drags on, but said he doesnt have a sense yet of which country he might end up in.
Its disappointing and frustrating, he said. You work all summer and prepare to start playing here, and you want to play games. We play this game because we love it, because the games are the most fun and best part about it. So, its disappointing, but theres an onus on you to stay and shape and be ready. Things can progress quickly, and I think thats what were all hoping.
When it does begin, Wingels wont take his assurance of a roster spot for granted.
You still have to have that chip on your shoulder, he said. Nothing is given to you, and ice time -- youve got to earn that. In that sense, my mentality wont change.