McLaren deals with minor problem

WORCESTER, Mass. – Kyle McLaren, the erstwhile defenseman of the San Jose Sharks, should not be playing in the American Hockey League.

At least that's the view of Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. And he's the guy who sent him there in the first place.

Worcester Sharks coach Roy Sommer doesn't think McLaren should be on his club, either. And he's the guy who plays him nearly 25 minutes per game.

And last of all, there's McLaren himself. He doesn't think he belongs in the minors, either. But he agreed to go there anyway, to try to make the best of a bad situation.

And make the best of it he has.

The 31-year-old rugged rear guard from Humboldt, Sask., who had never seen a day in the minor leagues until October, skates and waits patiently every day until San Jose, or someone else, can make room for him. And that means room on an NHL roster and under the salary cap.

"First and foremost, I just want to play hockey," McLaren said Sunday. "That's what I wanted to do when I was there (in San Jose). Unfortunately with the money situation, I was the odd-man out. That sucks. But that's the business side of it."

McLaren indeed was caught in a Silicon Valley numbers crunch.

When Wilson retooled his defense and brought in Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich, each of whom can flash a Stanley Cup ring, it squeezed McLaren out of the roster picture.

Then there was the matter of squeezing in McLaren's $2.5 million salary under a cap ceiling that the Sharks were pushing for the first time in club history.

It wouldn't fit.

So with McLaren's contract set to run out after this season and no early-season deals available, Wilson was left with little choice but to dispatch McLaren to Worcester.

First, however, he had to expose him through waivers. But with every other team still assessing their own rosters, McLaren passed through without a claim.

He would have to pass through re-entry waivers to get back to San Jose, and if another team claims him, the Sharks would be on the hook for half his salary, as well as a troublesome cap hit.

"Kyle belongs in the NHL," Wilson said. "Kyle worked very hard, (but) it was just a numbers issue, here. We've given every opportunity for other teams to claim him on waivers. Some of them had concerns about his health. But that is not an issue."

Since they don't teach you to whine in Humboldt and instead train you to face life's two-handers to the chops, McLaren accepted the demotion to Worcester. That's less than an hour's drive from Boston, where he coincidentally began his pro career 13 seasons ago.

"It was disappointing," McLaren said. "But I said back then (I'd do) whatever I can do to help out. My only choice I felt was just to come here and play hard, and hopefully somebody would pick me up. It would have been nice to have a few days down here, and then that's it. But I've got to take it day by day and work as hard as I can."

McLaren's presence has been an asset to Sommer, whose job for the last 10 seasons has been to develop the Sharks' AHL prospects.

"He doesn't have to play as hard as he does," Sommer said. "He still brings a physical presence. You still see the big hits. No one wants to come down after 13 years. It's a big culture shock. I think there's a good support cast down here. They get along. He knows all the guys, and he's been a good mentor in the room. Those guys should feel fortunate to have a guy like him."

Worcester defenseman Brett Westgarth certainly does.

"It's a great experience," said Westgarth, who has both a Princeton degree and three years of minor-league finishing school. "It's so easy to play with him. He knows the game inside and out. He's a great influence, (like) just letting me know different things on the bench. It's been a great learning process for me."

McLaren is getting quite an education, too, although this is one class he'd just as soon have skipped.

"It's hockey, no matter what," he said. "But it is the AHL. It's a different world down here than in the NHL, that's for sure. The biggest difference is the caliber. You're not playing against the (Sidney) Crosbys and the (Alexander) Ovechkins. You're playing against top prospects.

"To be honest, there are only a few guys in this league I even know," McLaren added. "If I play against them once or twice, I'm still trying to figure out who I'm playing against. (Up there), you know how the (Mike) Modanos and the (Joe) Sakics are going to play against you. This is the AHL, and it's a developmental league for a reason."

While the AHL is the hothouse for many budding NHL stars, you can still find a veteran player or two who is ready to step into a big-league lineup on a moment's notice.

And as the season grinds along, there is bound to be an NHL club that can use a bone-jarring defenseman with plenty of experience and lots left in that tank. Be it San Jose, or someone else.

"I expect Kyle to have the opportunity to play in the NHL very shortly," Wilson said. "He deserves it. He's done everything he could down there. I hope that opportunity comes for Kyle soon. And that's what we want. We want to see Kyle back in the NHL, which is where he belongs."