Shane Malloy / NHL.com correspondent
Oct 17, 2006, 9:50 AM EDT
Every time you look at the San Jose Sharks' farm system it seems another prospect is on the verge of cracking the big team's lineup.
Last season, it was Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier blasting out of the gates. Now, it may be Josh Gorges' turn to kick the door down and grab a roster spot.
Gorges -- a talented, but undrafted defenseman -- was signed as free agent in 2002. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, Gorges plays bigger than his size and has the intangibles needed to be a productive NHL defenseman.
Considering Gorges was undrafted, the odds of him playing in the NHL were remote. That makes his current position with the Sharks all the more impressive.
"Yes, I guess you could say that and sometimes in hockey that is the way it goes," Gorges said. "Drafted players have a lot of expectations on them to perform and, really, there was no expectation for me because know one expected me to do anything."
Going undrafted may have been frustrating, but was not a deterrent for the young defenseman, who relished the challenge of proving the talent evaluators wrong.
"I came in as a free agent and I just got to go out and play," he said. "I only had to prove it to myself and go out and show them that I could play at this level and that I was as good as any prospect they had drafted on this team."
Looking back in hindsight, it is a tremendous surprise that someone did not take a chance on Gorges earlier. In the junior ranks, his point production in the playoffs -- 45 points in 57 games -- is even more impressive than the 152 points he put up in 245 regular-season games with the Kelowna Rockets. The fact he produced these numbers as an undersized defenseman speaks of his work ethic and dedication.
His massive playoff experience, with three trips to the Memorial Cup and a World Junior Championship appearance, has set him apart from many of his peers.
"All the experiences that you gain help, like going to the Memorial Cup and learning to play in those higher-pressure situations against the best teams in the CHL, and then going to the World Juniors and playing against the best junior players in the world." Gorges said. "All those experiences (against) the best players and teams help prepare you for the next levels in terms of the speed and tempo of the game.
"If you take and learn from all the different coaches you have and all the players you play with and against, then the transition is a little easier."
Rob Zettler, a former NHL defenseman and Sharks assistant coach, made a point about how valuable those experiences are to young defenseman, especially those in Gorges' situation.
"No question, he has experienced a lot of huge games and that makes a big difference when you get to this level, where you are not intimidated or nervous coming into a big game or playing against top players," Zettler said. "He is used to it and his history has shown it and he is a leader and will continue to grow."
Gorges makes it clear he could not have had the opportunity to play at the NHL level if it was not for the guidance and support of his old coach, Jeff Truitt.
Gorges credits Truitt for taking the time to help him learn the details that make a difference on and off the ice.
"I would have to say my defense coach and the assistant coach at that time, Jeff Truitt, who now is the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets, really made an impact on my development from the age of 16 to 19," Gorges said. "He really pushed me to where I am now. We had a great relationship and he was an easy guy to talk to, so if things were not going well and I was not playing well, I could talk with him at anytime about how to fix the problem and prepare better."
The Kelowna, B.C. native paid his dues in the AHL and progressed to the NHL after only 92 games in the minors.
His offensive prowess and point production has yet to blossom. He posted a mere 17 points in his time in the AHL. Last season, his rookie season in San Jose, was much of the same. He picked up six points in 49 games and one point in 11 playoff games.
Keeping an eye on the maturation of Gorges has been one of Zettler's duties. The coach has worked closely with Gorges and is pleased with how quickly the player assimilated into the NHL.
"He came up last year and did a great job for us defensively and played against the top lines most nights in the regular season and playoffs, so we're really happy with last year," Zettler said. "His progression has been excellent and he is a joy to coach. You like having him around the room and you really pull for him being an undrafted guy who has worked his tail off and done it the right way."
After taking the chance to reflect on his quick ascension to the NHL from the AHL, Gorges is remarkably self-aware even though he just turned 22.