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.

Video: Friday night fights between Bolts and Red Wings

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Not much offense — actually, just one goal midway through the second period as of the writing of this post — between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday.

But there has definitely been some animosity between the two clubs.

Tempers flared late in the first period, with Adam Erne and Andreas Athanasiou getting involved in a spirited scrap — and Athanasiou unsuccessful in his attempt at the take-down.

The bad blood continued in the second period with Greg McKegg and Anthony Mantha getting involved in a fight, and Mantha — given the instigator — landing a couple of shots with McKegg on the ice.

 

NHL, MLB player unions support U.S. women hockey players’ boycott

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Unions representing NHL and Major League Baseball players are backing U.S. Women’s National Hockey team players’ decision to boycott next week’s world championships because of a wage dispute.

The NHL Players’ Association posted a note on its Twitter account on Friday saying it supports the U.S. players while panning USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements. The NHLPA says the decision to go with replacement players “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

Earlier in the day, the MLB Players Association encouraged all women hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Read more: USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage, as dispute with women’s national team continues

The Twitter messages were posted a day after USA Hockey announced it would begin gauging interest of replacement players to compete at the tournament, which opens next Friday in Plymouth, Michigan.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period.

Brock Boeser Watch is officially on in Vancouver

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It’s been a bleak season for the Vancouver Canucks.

Perhaps developments Friday evening can provide some optimism for fans of a team that can’t score, has trouble defending and has been decimated by injury.

Brock Boeser’s sophomore college season came to an end Friday, as North Dakota lost 4-3 to Boston University in double overtime. The Canucks selected Boeser 23rd overall in the 2015 draft with the hopes the talented right winger would one day become a central figure in that team’s scoring attack.

In his first season at North Dakota, Boeser scored 27 goals and 60 points in 42 games. His overall production dropped in his sophomore year — he had wrist surgery in December — but he still averaged more than a point per game in 31 contests, with 16 goals.

With North Dakota’s campaign finished, the Canucks can now work to get Boeser under contract and perhaps get him into some NHL games to close out what has been a disappointing season in Vancouver.

In that case, the Canucks would burn the first year of his entry-level contract.

The Canucks, officially eliminated from playoff contention, have nine games remaining on their schedule.

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Giving the fans something to get excited about in another season gone south seems as vital as giving Boeser a crash course on what to expect next season.

The Canucks are willing to burn a year of his entry-level deal because playing one game at age 20 would do that. But it seems worth the price for an organization in transition, even if Boeser would become a restricted free agent after two seasons and be in line for a big pay day should his production match predictions of effectiveness.

The Canucks are in Minnesota on Saturday and Winnipeg on Sunday.

It seemed, several weeks ago, that North Dakota’s hockey program was preparing for Boeser to turn pro after his second year ended.

Related: Trading Burrows and Hansen represents significant ‘shift’ for Canucks

Survival of the lucky? Stanley Cup playoff hopes can rise and fall with significant injuries

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There’s plenty of knocking on wood this time of year around the NHL as teams hope to avoid injuries that could damage their playoff hopes.

For some, it’s already too late.

The Tampa Bay Lightning lost Steven Stamkos for four months — and counting — and now Tyler Johnson. The Florida Panthers went without Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov for much of the year. The Los Angeles Kings tried to stay afloat without goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February but will likely miss the playoffs.

While the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have withstood a barrage of injuries and the league-leading Washington Capitals have largely avoided them, they’re keenly aware of how quickly even one injury can make a difference.

“There’s other teams that are good teams that have just had some bad luck,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “Tampa Bay just couldn’t overcome the injuries. If Tampa Bay has Stamkos all the way through the season, they’d certainly be in a different place.”

Read more: Injuries keep adding up for Lightning

Considered Cup contenders at the start of the season, the Lightning had to make a run just to get within three points of a playoff spot with nine games remaining.

The Panthers got Barkov and Huberdeau back and dug out of an early hole, but a lower-body injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo contributed to a 3-7-1 tailspin that might ultimately cost them the chance to make the postseason for a second consecutive year.

“Sometimes just your body breaks up because of the games and stuff like that,” said Barkov, who missed 15 games with a back injury. “Some teams just get more injuries, and some teams just get lucky not to get injuries.”

Injuries have again been the story of the year for the Penguins, who are currently without half their regular defense in Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, and also lost trade acquisition Ron Hainsey. But they haven’t missed a beat.

“The guys that have come in just understanding whatever role that they get, they have to be accepting of it,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They have a lot of responsibility in most cases, too, because they’re filling in for some guys who play a lot of key minutes.”

Injuries were a severe blow to the Dallas Stars, with 292 man games lost, and 265 man games lost has put the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy. The Edmonton Oilers have around 300 man games lost, but unlike last year’s stumble when Connor McDavid broke his collarbone they are poised to end a 10-year playoff drought.

“This organization seems to have a way of getting beat up and having injuries and needing others to support the group, and this year I think we’ve done a better job,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We haven’t lost those key forwards, knock on wood, like we did last year.”

Tampa Bay did when Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 after putting up 20 points in his first 17 games. Friday night marked his 57th consecutive game out of the lineup.

Yet in Washington, the Capitals have a grand total of 42 man games lost all season and have only dealt with a hand injury that sidelined forward Andre Burakovsky 15 games and upper-body ailments that cost T.J. Oshie 13. Defenseman Brooks Orpik believes the Capitals’ fortunes are a combination of off-ice injury prevention techniques and luck, while the team’s brass thinks it’s also about taxing players less each game.

“The team philosophy of going four lines and spreading the ice time out and spreading the ice time out on defense and spreading the ice time out among your goalies, I think it puts less stress on your lineup,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “Having a deep team, I think, results in less injuries.”

Depth up front helped the Chicago Blackhawks withstand captain Jonathan Toews‘ nine-game absence with back problems, and having backup Antti Raanta kept the New York Rangers on track when goaltender Henrik Lundqvist went out for two weeks this month with a lower-body injury. Lundqvist is expected back this weekend.

The Columbus Blue Jackets feel fortunate not to need to test their depth again this season after injuries ravaged them to the count of 510 man games lost two years ago. They’ve overcome defenseman Seth Jones‘ broken foot and Ryan Murray‘s broken hand to make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, so it doesn’t feel at all like 2014-15 in Columbus.

“It’s just too good of a league to be able to survive that type of season,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “This year we’ve been lucky and hopefully done some things right as well where we haven’t been injured as much and knock on wood hopefully stay healthy for the rest of the year.”