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.

What is Alex Galchenyuk’s future in Montreal?

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Alex Galchenyuk is already a good player.

The question for the Montreal Canadiens is, can he be great?

Galchenyuk, the third overall draft pick in 2012, is coming off a decent regular season with 17 goals and 27 assists in 61 games. However, it wasn’t as good as last year’s 30-goal campaign, and he didn’t score a single goal in the playoffs.

“Hopefully he took a step back this year so he can take two forward next year,” GM Marc Bergevin said Monday at the Canadiens’ season-ending press conference.

Three assists were all Galchenyuk could manage in six games against the Rangers. More importantly, after more than 300 NHL games of experience, the 23-year-old is still not an everyday center, on a team where center depth is by far the biggest concern.

Habs defenseman Shea Weber thinks Galchenyuk still has a ton of potential.

“I think we’ve seen glimpses of it,” Weber said, per NHL.com’s Arpon Basu, “but I don’t think he’s tapped into how good he can be. One day he’s going to realize it, like all young guys do, he’s going to get it.”

Of course, not all young guys do get it. And at times, there have been questions about Galchenyuk’s competitiveness.

To play center in the NHL, you have to compete all over the ice.

“Ideally, we would love to have him play center,” head coach Claude Julien said. “But I think he realizes the same thing we realize right now. As a centerman, it’s one of the toughest jobs there is because you have to be all over the ice, and you’ve got to be able to skate. As a centerman, you have to be good at both ends of the ice, and you have to be responsible. Right now, he’s not at that stage.”

The kicker in all this is that Galchenyuk can become a restricted free agent this summer. He’s already signed one bridge deal, and he’s at the age now where many young stars sign for big money and a long term.

So, does he want to sign long term in Montreal?

He ducked the question today.

“My season just ended a couple of days ago,” Galchenyuk told reporters. “I honestly didn’t give it too much of a thought yet.”

Kunitz cleared for contact, available for start of Caps series

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The Pens may get back one of their most veteran skaters for their second-round series against Washington.

Chris Kunitz, who missed the last five regular season games and all of Pittsburgh’s Round 1 win over Columbus, has been cleared for contact (per the Tribune-Review) and could return from his lower-body ailment for Thursday’s opener at Verizon.

Kunitz, 37, finished the year with nine goals and 29 points in 71 games, averaging 15:31 TOI per night. It was a down season offensively, but the Pens are hopeful he can reclaim some of the form shown last spring, when he racked up 12 points in 24 games en route to the title.

A three-time Cup winner, Kunitz skated on the fourth line at today’s practice with Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnackl.

In other health news, the Pens also declared d-man Chad Ruhwedel a game-time decision for Thursday, after he was sidelined with an upper-body injury. Carl Hagelin, out with a lower-body ailment, has continued skating and head coach Mike Sullivan said the team is hopeful Hagelin can play at some point against Washington.

DeBoer praises ‘courageous’ Thornton for playing with torn ACL, MCL (Updated)

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In a fairly stunning admission on Monday, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that Joe Thornton played in four of San Jose’s six playoff games versus Edmonton with a significant knee injury.

Thornton, who was hurt against Vancouver late in the regular season, suffered tears to both his left MCL and ACL.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said, per the club’s Twitter account. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton, 37, missed the first two games of the series to rest his knee, before suiting up for the final four. He averaged 18:50 TOI per night and finished with a pair of assists, numbers that are pretty remarkable given the severity of his ailment.

Jumbo wasn’t the only unhealthy Shark during the first-round playoff ouster. Logan Couture‘s face/mouth injury was well-documented and, today, DeBoer also revealed that Tomas Hertl was playing with a broken foot, and Patrick Marleau with a broken thumb.

Looking ahead, Thornton’s knee injury might cloud what’s an already murky future. He’s a pending UFA, and there have been no clear signals from the organization on how they’ll address his potential return. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp was looking for a three-year deal.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has time on his side. It’s understood the club probably wouldn’t act on an extension for Thornton until after the June expansion draft, which could give the Sharks enough time to better gauge his health.

Update:

Per NBC Sports California, Wilson confirmed Thornton is undergoing surgery today to repair the ligaments.

 

 

Online bookmaker: Caps are Stanley Cup favorites

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The Washington Capitals got a bit of a scare in the first round, but they’ll go into the second round as the Stanley Cup favorites.

Per online bookmaker Bovada, here is the full list of Stanley Cup odds for the eight remaining teams:

Washington Capitals   7/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    17/4
Anaheim Ducks             11/2
Edmonton Oilers          11/2
St. Louis Blues              13/2
Nashville Predators     7/1
New York Rangers       8/1
Ottawa Senators           10/1

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the postseason as 4/1 Cup favorites at Bovada. Of course, the ‘Hawks were then swept by the Preds, who’ve gone from 25/1 long shots to 7/1 heading into their series with the Blues.

The Caps’ odds actually dropped to 13/2 after they fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. But three straight wins, two in overtime, clinched them a spot against the Penguins in the second round.

The Ottawa Senators are the long shots of the bunch now, despite having home-ice advantage over the Rangers in the second round.