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.

Early thoughts – and praise – for Capitals landing Kevin Shattenkirk

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Jaws dropped around the hockey world when news broke that the Washington Capitals landed Kevin Shattenkirk in a blockbuster trade. Heads were then scratched as people tried to make sense of the “conditions” of a conditional second-rounder involved in the move.

With a little time for the smoke to clear and with the assets revealed, here are some scattered thoughts.

PHT will likely cover more of the fallout on Tuesday and beyond, though, so stay tuned.

Brian MacLellan deserves consideration as a top GM

Judging an executive can be really tricky; while a GM of the Year award is easy to justify, it’s also easy to mock. Even the best managers inherit a roster (aside from MacLellan’s predecessor George McPhee, who will build one in Vegas), so you have to credit some successes to the guy who came before.

And, yes, McPhee helped put together a core that includes Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom.

Even so, MacLellan evokes Stan Bowman in masterfully adding tremendous electrons to a fantastic nucleus.

He added Matt Niskanen (and, admittedly, flubbed it with Brooks Orpik) to beef up a defense to help the shrewd hiring of Barry Trotz as head coach. Trotz seems like he’s ending what was a busy procession of shaky bench bosses.

MacLellan really nailed it the next summer, trading for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a bargain deal. A year later, the Capitals added a fantastic third-line center option in Lars Eller via a smart trade.

And now this. It’s not clear where Kevin Shattenkirk will fit in the Capitals’ lineup, but either way, he boosts an already formidable group.

Misc.

Let’s lightning round some other thoughts.

  • Scottie Upshall joked about all the one-timers Shattenkirk is primed to set up for Alex Ovechkin … but he has a point.
  • It’s difficult to imagine the Capitals re-signing Shattenkirk, putting continued emphasis on the talk of Washington being in the last season of a “two-year window” to make their greatest push for a Stanley Cup. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of problem contracts beyond Orpik’s in Washington, so the plus side is that MacLellan can also show how he might be Bowman-like in making the right calls in who to bring back. Make no mistake about it, getting Shattenkirk is about now, not later.
  • Oh yeah the Capitals also got a nice sneaky bonus in landing Pheonix Copley, who better have the nickname “typo.”

All things considered, it’s no surprise that the Capitals are excited.

There’s at least a chance Shattenkirk might be able to suit up for Washington as soon as Tuesday’s game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, but either way, this sure looks like a slam dunk.

Wild just wouldn’t stay down, edge Kings in OT

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Don’t blame Ben Bishop if, deep down, he was glad that he didn’t make his Los Angeles Kings debut on Monday.

After seeing the kind of speed, drive and all-around electric play displayed by the Minnesota Wild, you can understand a goalie shuddering at the often wide-open action. Despite falling behind four times against the Kings, the Wild ultimately edged Los Angeles 5-4 in an overtime thriller.

Mikael Granlund‘s 20th goal of the season ended it in OT, and quickly. And it was beautiful:

…. Unless you’re Jonathan Quick and the Kings, that is.

Granlund is absolutely on fire right now.

Ryan White made a great first impression for the Wild, scoring a goal and an assist (while displaying great flow). Martin Hanzal wasn’t able to score, though he did make his presence felt with five hits. And, again, Bishop might have secretly been relieved to put his Kings debut on hold.

Marian Gaborik turned back the clock a bit to his Wild prime, scoring a goal and an assist. He generally made quite a bit happen for Los Angeles.

It was a tough one for Anze Kopitar, meanwhile, who was unable to generate offense and suffered a -3. He wasn’t able to stop Granlund in OT, though who could?

The Wild still must worry as mumps sidelined at least Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, but for now, they’re battling on. Just ask the Kings how resilient this group really is.

Sell this: Kucherov, Lightning put trades behind them, blast Senators

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The Tampa Bay Lightning might be in sell mode, but that doesn’t mean their players are quitting on this season.

After shipping Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle out of town, they could have rolled over against a hungry Ottawa Senators team. Instead, they blew them out, winning 5-1 on Monday.

Nikita Kucherov was the biggest standout, collecting a natural hat trick, which you can watch above. (He also generated an assist.)

Jonathan Drouin had a big night in his own right, assisting on all three of Kucherov’s goals. Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson generated two assists apiece, as well.

And, yes, Andrei Vasilevskiy inspired at least a few “Ben who?” jokes by making 39 out of 40 saves, including this beauty:

As you can see, Ottawa actually had a 1-0 lead at that point, so it could have been a different game if the agile goalie did do the splits there.

The Lightning are still five points out of the final wild card spot, trailing Boyle’s new team in the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Senators, meanwhile, find themselves slipping a bit out of the race to win the Atlantic Division, especially considering Montreal’s comeback win against New Jersey.

Tampa Bay may may not be done making moves and recognizing painful truth that the odds are against them rallying to a playoff spot. That said, nights like these make you wonder if a run is at least possible.

Canadiens’ big guns trigger comeback OT win against Devils

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 27:  Max Pacioretty #67 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates the game winning power play goal by Alex Galchenyuk #27 at 2:54 of overtrime against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 27, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.  The Canadiens defeated the Devils 4-3 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Things were looking a little grim there for the Montreal Canadiens on Monday.

The New Jersey Devils had, at one point, a 2-0 lead. At least in some corners there were murmurs about a bad start for Claude Julien. Then their big guns swung the game.

The comeback started with Alex Radulov, though the drama was just beginning:

Travis Zajac made it 3-1 for the Devils on the power play, only for Radulov to assist on two Max Pacioretty goals to send the game to overtime.

From there, Alex Galchenyuk scored the overtime-winner for Montreal on the man advantage. Radulov got yet another secondary assist – he ended up with four points tonight – while Shea Weber nabbed the primary helpers on the last two tallies.

Long story short, the Canadiens biggest names came through, allowing Julien to maybe utther a sigh of relief.