2010-11 NHL season preview: San Jose Sharks

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toddmclellansad.jpgLast season: (51-20-11, 113 points, 1st in Pacific Division,1st in Western Conference) The Sharks had another fantastic regular season. After fighting off the pesky Avalanche and the tired Red Wings in the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks swept them away in the Western finals. It’s always embarrassing to lose a series 4-0, but the games against the eventual Cup champs were very competitive. In a way, though, that typified the Sharks fan experience; watch your team out-shoot and skate with their opponents only to watch them lose anyway. So, ultimately, it was a ‘good news/bad news’ season in San Jose.

Head coach: In some ways, Todd McLellan inherited a no-win (or only win if you capture a Cup) situation when the team parted ways with Ron Wilson. He hasn’t been able to get the team over the hump in some ways, but the Sharks play a very Red Wings-like style of puck possession, high-shot volume and face-off dominance. Who knows if that will ever win them a Cup, but it seems like the team is in good hands with McLellan.

Key departures: G Evgeni Nabokov, D Rob Blake, F Manny Malhotra, F Jed Ortmeyer. Nabokov is the biggest loss after 10 years as the Sharks’ franchise goalie. No doubt about it, the team’s new goalies are their most interesting storyline. Blake’s mixture of physical play and booming shot will be missed, but he was getting up there in years. Malhotra is a face-off wizard and will be missed in subtle ways.

niemiasashark.jpgKey arrivals: G Antti Niemi, G Antero Niittymaki, F Jamal Mayers. The Sharks exchanged one expensive Russian goalie for a Finnish pair that will cost 2/3 of the price. The catch is that it’s unclear what they’ll get from Niemi and Niittymaki after a decade of often great, yet occasionally infuriating, work from Nabokov. Mayers is a depth forward of questionable value.

Under pressure: Isn’t it always Joe Thornton? The world-class passer will always be under the microscope once the playoffs roll around, but this year is even more pressurized because Jumbo Joe might earn a Jumbo Deal. He’s an unrestricted free agent after the  season.

Protecting the house: The Sharks got an up-close-and-personal look at Niemi as he played his best hockey for the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals and owns a Stanley Cup ring. Niemi will have plenty of motivation from within and also from San Jose’s bench as Niittymaki was actually the team’s first netminder addition. Two decent goalies don’t make one good one, though, so one of them will need to step up for San Jose to come out smelling like roses.

Losing out on free agent Willie Mitchell this summer probably downgrades their defense from very good to solid. They have one fantastic offensive defenseman (Dan Boyle), one rock solid stopper (Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and one heavy hitter (Doug Murray). The problem comes after those three, though. Jason Demers is offensively flashy but not quite ready yet, Niclas Wallin seems a bit overpaid for his value and Kent Huskins is, well, Kent Huskins. They’re not necessarily putting their new goalies in the best position to succeed with their solid (but not superlative) defense.

sharksbigline.jpgTop line we’d like to see: Dany Heatley-Thornton-Patrick Marleau. The line that often dominated the league last season is an amazing collection of talent. Heatley brings that single-minded scoring touch, Thornton can make millionaires out of the likes of former Shark Jonathan Cheechoo because of his passing ability and Marleau can do a little of everything.

Oh captain, my captain: With Rob Blake retired, the Sharks need to name a new captain. It would probably be awkward to hand the ‘C’ back to Patrick Marleau, so I’d name one-time Cup winner and dazzling talent Dan Boyle the captain. Joe Pavelski would be an interesting choice some day, but I’m not sure he’s ready for that just yet.

Street fighting man: The Sharks aren’t really a team that emphasizes fighting, but rugged winger Scott Nichol will occasionally throw some punches if called upon. They no longer have a designated clubber like Jody Shelley. Instead they focus on employing real hockey players.

Best-case scenario: After years of frustration, we find out that it was Nabokov’s fault after all (kidding). Niemi becomes a back-to-back Cup winner while Niittymaki provides useful sport (and valuable competition) as the 1b. Thornton gets whatever playoff monkeys remained off his back with a Conn Smythe-worthy performance, but Marleau gets the playoff MVP instead. The Sharks finally win that Cup and kill the choking jokes … for at least a few years.

Worst-case scenario: Niemi and Niittymaki fall apart behind a defense that is worse than expected. Not only do the L.A. Kings pass San Jose by, but the Coyotes do as well. The Sharks eek their way into the playoffs (sorry, I can’t imagine them missing the postseason) only to suffer from another Blackhawks sweep.

Keeping it real: The Sharks still host some of the best talent in the NHL, but they have a lot working against them. Not only do they need to adjust to a new goalie in net, they also travel at least 2,000 miles more than any other team in the league. So there are reasons to be negative, but let’s face it: they’re a regular-season beast year after year for a reason. They have four elite players and some really good pieces such as Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. The Kings will nip at their heels, but San Jose wins the division again.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Sharks get a 5. Many will jeer at this since they’ve fallen short of a championship all these years, but their chances are just as strong as anyone else.

Antti Niemi had to make a save with his bare hand

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Antti Niemi made 31 saves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, and 30 of them were pretty standard.

The one that wasn’t came in the third period when he lost his glove during a scramble around the net and still managed to instinctively make a save on the puck. With his bare hand.

Niemi said after the game, via the Tribune Review, that he thought the referees would stop the play after his glove came off, and when they didn’t “I just kept playing.”

You can watch the play by clicking here.

Probably not the type of thing you want to see happening because that looks like a great way to break a bone (or the entire hand) and get sidelined for extended period of time. Niemi said the officials told him there will no longer be an automatic whistle for goalies losing a glove or a blocker, but that one will remain for when they lose their helmet.

The Penguins signed Niemi to a one-year contract this summer as a replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury after they lost him in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Niemi is looking to rebound from a tough year in Dallas. He will serve as Matt Murray‘s backup for the season.

‘A good start’ — Stamkos stands out in preseason debut

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The Tampa Bay Lightning and National Hockey League unveiled the 2018 All-Star Game logo Friday.

Far more importantly for the Bolts this evening was the return of their all-star center Steven Stamkos, as he made his preseason debut in what was his first game in 10 months.

His 2016-17 season was abruptly ended in the middle of November because of a knee injury and subsequent surgery, making it the second time in four years his regular season had been disrupted by a major injury.

It may still take a while before Stamkos feels truly comfortable coming back from this injury.But his performance on Friday proved to be a very promising start for No. 91, the Bolts and their fans in Tampa Bay.

He didn’t score, but he assisted on two first period goals, including a nice set-up to linemate Nikita Kucherov, and the Lightning beat the Nashville Predators by a score of 3-1. Stamkos also received a healthy dose of ice time, playing more than 19 minutes, including 5:32 on the power play.

His pass to Kucherov resulted in a power play goal.

“It was exciting to get out there, I was pretty anxious about it… It was a good start, something to build on,” said Stamkos afterward, per the Lightning. “It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven’t done it in a long time… I was glad with how the first one went.”

Golden Knights assign 2017 first-round picks Glass, Suzuki to junior

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The Vegas Golden Knights continue to make roster moves during their inaugural training camp.

On Friday, the expansion club assigned four players to junior. That includes 2017 first-round picks Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks and Nick Suzuki of the Owen Sound Attack.

The Golden Knights made franchise history by taking Glass with the sixth overall pick and then selected Suzuki at 13th overall. Both players appeared in two preseason games for Vegas, each recording two points in the exhibition opener versus the Vancouver Canucks.

“Nobody is going to rush (the rookies), that’s for sure,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant told the Las Vegas Sun following the club’s 9-4 win over Vancouver on Sunday.

“We are in a position where we want to make sure they are ready to play. They are going to be good players when they’re healthy and strong enough to play in the league.”

Vegas has all three 2017 first-round picks — Glass, Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — signed to three-year entry-level contracts.

Mitchell signed PTO with Blue Jackets — shortly after getting cut by Blackhawks

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When the Chicago Blackhawks announced their roster moves yesterday, John Mitchell was among the cuts.

His professional tryout with the Blackhawks had come to an end, as it did for veterans Mark Stuart and Drew Miller.

It can be an uphill battle to make an NHL roster for veterans on professional tryouts. But for Mitchell, he quickly received another opportunity to attend a camp and try to land a spot, signing a PTO with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Mitchell, 32, has appeared in 548 NHL regular season games with 70 goals and 177 points.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are still without forward and restricted free agent Josh Anderson, as the two sides are stuck in a contract impasse right now. It was reported on Thursday that his representatives have been in contact with Hockey Canada about the 2018 Olympics.