The San Jose Sharks recently acquired James Sheppard from the Minnesota Wild for a third round pick. Wild fans are positively giddy about the deal. Sharks fans are somewhat confused.

And for seemingly good reason. As Bryan Reynolds notes from the link above:

One season in the Q that showed any real promise, ninth overall pick, thrown into the NHL without earning the spot, development completely ruined by the HWSRN regime, a career on a downward spiral, all fittingly punctuated by an ATV accident during a training trip to Colorado that ended his make or break season before it ever started. James Sheppard has been a punchline in Minnesota for nearly seven years, and Chuck Fletcher got something of value in return for him.

Well done, Mr. Fletcher. Well done, indeed.

To Sharks fans, we offer our sincere thanks, and our deepest sympathies. What your general manager sees in James Sheppard escapes me. Six points in 64 games in his last season played, with no real hint at anything more before that crash does not tell me that there is lighting in that bottle. If Wilson wanted a helium balloon on the ice, I’m thinking a trip to the local party supply store would have been cheaper.

The bolded portion can’t be overemphasized. James Sheppard stands as singular case study of how not to develop young players or leverage an entry level contract in the NHL.

Chosen 9th overall in 2006 after scoring 30 goals and 84 points in the QMJHL, Sheppard increased his point total the next season to 96 and looked like a decent value top-10 choice. He made the Wild out of camp as a teen in 2007-08, scoring just four goals and 19 points in 78-games. He would manage just 30-points over his next 146 NHL games before being felled by the aforementioned ATV accident. So what happened?

The Wild took a kid just finding his legs and threw him into the deep end of the pool. With a piano tied to his ankle. The only season he was given a fighting chance was his rookie year, when Lemaire gave Sheppard some protection: relatively easy zone starts (50.4%) and soft competition. That year, Sheppard had the fourth best relative corsi rate on his club, behind only PM Bouchard, Brian Rolston and Mikko Koivu. He didn’t score a whole lot, but at least he was keeping his head above water possession-wise.

The next season, however, Lemaire decided that his 20-year old sophomore was going to become a checking center. Sheppard’s quality of competition rose to middling and his offensive-to-defensive zone start ratio sank to just 39.1%. Those are tough circumstances for most veterans, nevermind a guy who can’t legally drink in the United States.  Sheppard’s corsi and production predictably fell at even strength. The 2009-10 season was more of the same: middle level competition and a zone start (39.7%) that all but guaranteed Sheppard would have to battle up hill most of the time. His PP time also sank to just 19 seconds per game. With about 11 minutes of ice night total (much of it starting in his own zone), it’s no wonder Sheppard scored a measly 10 points as a 22-year old. The deck was completely stacked against him.

It usually doesn’t make sense to rush a teen to the big league. Very few of them are capable of handling the competition, so it’s typically better to delay their rookie season as long as possible in order to properly leverage their ELC. NHL players first contract is artificially capped under the current CBA, meaning kids can be a great place to find cap value if they are developed and managed properly. I don’t know if Lemaire was going with “the hottest fires forge the hardest steal” kind of plan when he threw Sheppard to the wolves, but all it did was sink the kid, waste the last two seasons of his ELC and damage the perception of his abilities to the degree that Minnesota fans are happily high-fiving each other because their GM moved a 23-year old former top-10 pick for a lottery ticket.

It’s hard to say what kind of asset the Sharks have on their hands. Sheppard spent his few first years in the league playing well over his head and his development was further hampered by an injury that wiped out an entire season. It’s possible, given better circumstances, that Sheppard will get back on track and start fulfilling some of the promise he showed as a high scoring center in junior. It’s also possible, of course, that he’s irreparably damaged goods.