Sharks didn't choke, but is this still the end of an era?

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sharksgetswept.jpgThe San Jose Sharks didn’t lose in the first round this year. This wasn’t a situation in which they lost to a Cinderella team, either. Instead it was the No. 2 seed Chicago Blackhawks, a squad that barely fell short of taking the top seed from them in the regular season.

The higher level of “respectability” in this year’s series defeat doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks likely feel the same way they did last year: empty.

After losing to the Anaheim Ducks, some people thought that it was time for the regular season juggernaut to clean house. Aside from rotating the captaincy and acquiring sniper Dany Heatley, the team still revolved around Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Evgeni Nabokov this season. My guess is that things will be very, very different next year. How different remains to be seen, though.

Let’s take a look at the rubble heap that is the San Jose Sharks 2009-10 campaign.

The Sharks did not choke

You’ll certainly get a whiff of how odorous I often find the “choking” talk in my wrap-up of Montreal’s Game 4 goose egg, but I’d like to make it clear that the Sharks lacked bounces, timely goals and luck. (Not heart. Not the ability to administer the Heimlich Maneuver.)

If you take out the Game 4 empty-net goal, Chicago beat San Jose by 3-2 twice, 2-1 once and 4-2 once. In other words, the Sharks lost maybe one game “convincingly.” They out-shot the Blackhawks in three out of four games and even put 40+ pucks on net twice. In the first round, the Sharks ran into a great goalie in Craig Anderson but their depth and talent allowed them to grind out four wins. San Jose beat Detroit with considerable haste, although the Red Wings made that 4-1 series interesting at times. Unfortunately, Antti Niemi’s Finnish brand of goaltending proved to make the difference in the much-more-evenly-matched Western Conference finals.

Both the Sharks and Blackhawks pushed a lot of their metaphorical Stanley Cup poker chips to the middle of the table this season and someone had to lose. Let me say this, though: this series sure didn’t feel like a sweep. Hockey’s one of professional sports’ most luck-ridden sports; it even makes the Miracle on Ice a little easier to understand.

After looking back at the year that was, let’s take a quick glance at the Sharks’ very murky future after the jump.


Thumbnail image for thebigpavelski.jpgSo, what now?

There’s no doubt in my mind that this Sharks team will be significantly different next season. We’ll discuss the gritty salary cap details tomorrow, but just look at their most significant free agents: Nabokov, Marleau and Rob Blake are the biggest unrestricted names while Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi could be offer sheet bait as restricted ones.

Let’s not forget the possibility of trades, either. The much-maligned Thornton could be a casualty. Boyle might have Tampa Bay Lightning housecleaning flashbacks and want out. Oh, and Heatley … we all know how particular he is.

Heck, there’s no guarantee that GM Doug Wilson or head coach Todd McLellan will be back, either.

As I mentioned, expect some interesting salary cap/free agency related bits tomorrow and what could be a wildly different Sharks team during the 10-11 season. To at least some extent, we witnessed a disappointing end to what could have been a golden era in the Bay Area. Even if no one choked.

Kulikov returns to increasingly healthy Sabres lineup

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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No one’s going to confuse Dmitry Kulikov with Jack Eichel, but the Buffalo Sabres are likely happy to have him back after a long absence, too.

The Sabres have been on an upward trend lately (5-2-2 in their last nine games), and now they get a key defenseman back against the Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Kulikov last played on Nov. 9 and hasn’t recorded a point in 12 games, making for a tough start to his stint with the Sabres. Maybe he’ll begin to get a little more traction with his new team tonight?

He’s far from the only returning Buffalo player, either, as Josh Gorges and Nicolas Deslauriers are also back in the mix. Kulikov is slated to be on the Sabres’ second pairing with Cody Franson.

Buffalo sent Brendan Guhle to the AHL to make room for these tweaks.

With Foligno out sick, Columbus gives Bjorkstrand another shot

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 13:  Oliver Bjorkstrand #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets lines up for a face-off during the game against the Boston Bruins on October 13, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets will be without captain Nick Foligno because of an illness on Friday, opening up an opportunity for interesting prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The team tweeted out his linemates as Matt Calvert and Lukas Sedlak as a solid fourth line facing the Detroit Red Wings.

He failed to generate much (zero points, two shots on goal) in three games so far with Columbus this season, receiving about 25 minutes of ice time over that span.

With eight goals and 12 points in 19 AHL games so far in 2016-17, there’s the thought that he could eventually make the next step to becoming a decent contributor for the Blue Jackets.

Perhaps this will constitute his first real step in that direction?

Apparently this is a pretty abrupt situation for the 21-year-old:

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23: Wayne Gretzky (L) and Dale Hawerchuk drop the puck in a ceremonial face-off between Blake Wheeler #26 and Connor McDavid #97 during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Fred Greenslade /Getty Images)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 6, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.