by Nick Nollenberger / sjbarracuda.com
A season ago, the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda boasted the Western Conference’s best regular season winning percentage and one of the leagues stingiest defensive corps. Thanks in large part to current NHLers Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, and Mirco Mueller along with standouts Julius Bergman and Jake Middleton, San Jose finished last season with a plus-56 goal differential.
This year, Bergman and Middleton are the elder statesmen in a d-core that averages 22.5-years-old and includes three rookies (Nick DeSimone, Cavan Fitzgerald and Jeremy Roy [out for the year]) along with first-year AHLer Radim Simek. Also, before this season, Michael Brodzinski had just 15 AHL games under his belt, so he could fall into the rookie category as well.
For the Barracuda backend, the 2017-18 season has been about reps and opportunity. Combined with All-Star goaltender Antoine Bibeau, the Barracuda have allowed the T-fifth fewest goals against in the AHL and have found a way to stay in playoff contention by keeping games low scoring.
As the season has rolled along, San Jose’s youthful blueline has become more and more comfortable with one another, and the results are beginning to prove that.
“I think we’re a really close unit as a group,” said DeSimone. “There’s a lot of competition which is always good. It pushed us especially at the start of the season, and now we’ve just come together as a group. We’re all friends, so that helps a lot and we’re all just kind of finding our groove in this league.”
Despite tempered expectations and several unknowns heading into a year filled with new faces, San Jose’s backend has found a way to make significant offensive contributions. Among Barracuda skaters, Middleton ranks T-third on the team in points (18), Simek T-third (17), Bergman T-fourth (14), and Fitzgerald and DeSimone sit at T-fifth (13). In addition, Bergman is T-first on the team in power-play goals (5).
With Ryan and Heed pacing the power-play a season ago, Bergman found sparing minutes on San Jose’s second unit, but in an expanded role this season, the third-year pro has doubled his goals from the two previous years combined.
“If you get pucks to the net good things happen and we’ve got some really good net-front players like John McCarthy, so it’s about trying to get it to them,” said Bergman. “We’re trying to play smart back there, and we’re doing the little things, killing plays, having good positioning, boxing out, blocking shots. We know if we do the little things the offense will follow.”
After a breakout rookie season a year ago that culminated in a three-year entry-level contract, 22-year-old Middleton has been relied on to take a leadership role, often wearing a letter despite being only in his second season of pro hockey.
“I did take a leadership role heading into this season, but everyone is a pro when they get to pro hockey, so they know what needs to be done so it’s more or less just showing up to work every day and doing my job,” said Middleton.
With the Barracuda having to rely on offense by committee this season, the defense has been forced to contribute.
“There’s gotta be offense from all five guys on the ice,” said Middleton. “The way the game is going, everyone has to contribute. First and foremost is our responsibility is our zone, but there’s nothing better than scoring a goal or helping assist on one.”
With just 17 games remaining on the regular season schedule and a playoffs still within reach, the San Jose backend will have to continue to produce if the Barracuda are to win games down the stretch and punch a ticket to the dance.