Three reasons why this year’s San Jose Sharks team is different

If you ask me, it’s ridiculous to make a Stanley Cup victory the only barometer for a successful NHL season. Yet that’s the way it is with some hockey fans and pundits, at least when it comes to teams who have a reasonable chance at success.

Fair or not, the San Jose Sharks – and their frequently critiqued captain Joe Thornton, in particular – have been dismissed as paper regular season champions who fold once playoff time comes. Perhaps that’s the price they pay for consistent success at the “wrong” time.

Still, with the Sharks claiming their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title, experts are starting to wonder if this might be the San Jose team that breaks through. With that in mind, I thought I’d look at the biggest reasons why this Sharks team is different from previous, some-might-say disappointing editions.

1. Improved scoring depth

While people practically trip over their own feet rushing to blame Thornton for the latest “collapse,” those same folks often overlook the fact that hockey is a team sport. Maybe depending so much on one player – particularly a playmaker whose passing lanes clog up considerably in the postseason – isn’t such a great idea in a time when teams can dedicate far more time to getting matchups right.

Thornton is still a go-to guy in San Jose, but their offense isn’t leaning on him as much as years passed. Jumbo Joe only has 68 points in 2010-11, his lowest total since 01-02 (when he was 22 years old).

Beyond stalwarts Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks are generating more offense from lower lines. While Joe Pavelski was a well-respected two-way forward among knowledgeable hockey fans, he truly burst onto the scene during a red-hot 2010 playoffs run.

Beyond “The Big Pavelski,” the Sharks are also reaping the rewards of trusting rookie center Logan Couture. He’s an odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy for his offensive ability (31 goals and 54 points), but distinguishes himself for being a superior all-around player. Devin Setoguchi is another wild card at the wing position, giving the Sharks a more robust set of options when they need a goal.

Add this extra versatility with a roster that was already jam-packed with big, talented players and you have a team that could go all the way.

2. A new workhorse goalie

When reporters took a break from blaming Thornton, they turned their sights on former franchise goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Honestly, those criticisms were often a bit more reasonable, especially judging by the Sharks’ frustrating 2009 playoff series defeat to the Anaheim Ducks.

He began his Sharks career with a shaky start, but San Jose is clearly sold on Antti Niemi as their goalie of the present and future. Niemi has flourished with the increased security of being the clear No. 1 in the middle of the season. He is on a run of starting 34 consecutive games and won 25 games in that span, leaving him with 34 overall.

Of course, Niemi also provides something the Sharks desire almost as much as his steady netminding: the clout that comes with having a Stanley Cup ring.

3. Maybe a bit less baggage?

There will likely always be a segment of the hockey media and fans who won’t let the Sharks off the hook until they raise the Cup. That being said, making it to the Western Conference finals last season (and beating the Detroit Red Wings in the second round) probably validated the team’s efforts to some extent.

They also won’t go into the playoffs as the biggest favorites, being that the Vancouver Canucks are the Presidents’ Trophy winners and the top seed in the West. Sure, San Jose isn’t likely to slip under the radar, either … but maybe a little less pressure will help them succeed.

***

The Sharks aren’t a perfect team. There are still some concerns about their depth on defense and some worries about the health of burly forward Ryane Clowe.

Still, there are reasons to think this San Jose team might have the juice to make some serious noise in the playoffs. Does that mean they will be able to silence their loudest critics or will they just make those points echo louder? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Blackhawks adjust to returns of Saad, Sharp (and no Hossa, Panarin)

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The Chicago Blackhawks’ summer conventions are a time for fans to get a look at players, and sometimes, for people to get adjusted to new arrivals and departures.

Even with that in mind, that theme seemed to play a big role in Friday’s proceedings, as the Blackhawks wondered how Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp would fit back into the lineup … thanks to holes caused by Artemi Panarin being traded and Marian Hossa being unavailable.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville rattled off a long stream of possibilities, as CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers reports.

“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”

Yes, that’s a versatile set of options. It’s also plausible that Jonathan Toews could enjoy a nice boost with Brandon Saad back on his wing, yet let’s not assume that it’s a slam-dunk victory in everyone’s eyes.

Who knows how things will ultimately shake out, but at the moment, you wonder if Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov suffer a bit with Panarin out of the mix.

Still, as explosive as Kane + Panarin was at times for Chicago, they ultimately couldn’t get the job done. Kane acknowledged as much on Friday.

Can they do better next time around? Well, with Sharp and Saad back in the mix, at least they have more players who’ve cleared those playoff hurdles before.

Myers has more at CSN Chicago.

Red Wings’ cap future after Tatar signing: should they buy out Ericsson?

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In a vacuum, the Detroit Red Wings handing Tomas Tatar a four-season deal that carries a per-year cap hit of $5.3 million makes a lot of sense. Tatar ranks as one of their deadliest scorers, and at age 26, the contract likely takes up the final years of his prime.*

Still, it must be mentioned that Tatar’s contract reminds us that the Red Wings may no longer stand as an obvious contender, yet they sure spend like one.

Yes, Johan Franzen‘s near-$4 million will go to LTIR, but this Cap Friendly reading still stands as a reminder that there isn’t much breathing room, especially with Andreas Athanasiou needing a contract. Detroit figures to have a little less than $1 million minus Franzen:

OK, so there are a few options. Winging it in Motown brings up an intriguing idea: what if the Red Wings buy out defenseman Jonathan Ericsson‘s contract?

They used Cap Friendly’s tool to show that a cap hit of $4.25 million would be spread out over six seasons in this setup. Each year, the actual cost would be a bit less than $1.39 million.

The bright side is that, for the next two seasons, the Red Wings would see real savings:

2017-18: save $2.61 million
2018-19: save $2.86 million
2019-20: save $2.86 million
2020-21 and 2021-22: would cost them about $1.39 million

Naturally, that would be quite the price to pay to get a player to not play for the Red Wings, yet it would also help Detroit squeeze under the cap. More on that conundrum here.

Let’s leaf through most of the Red Wings’ structure to see which deals are good, bad, and ugly.

(Note: As usual, Cap Friendly was highly helpful in putting this together.)

Dicey defense

  • Obviously, Ericsson’s health issues and struggles make him a tough guy to keep around at 33 and with a $4.25M. He’s merely the most obvious defensemen who’s an issue for this team.
  • Mike Green presents an interesting situation. He still has his use, yet at 31 and with his $6 million cap hit to expire after next season, the Red Wings must ponder his future. If they don’t want him back, could they send him somewhere else, whether that be now or in-season? Salary retention would likely need to be a consideration, especially if they wanted to move him earlier. That said, their already dicey defense would experience a painful loss if they traded Green.
  • Danny DeKeyser‘s $5 million cap hit through 2021-22 would be very difficult to move. At least he has … some proponents in the organization?
  • Niklas Kronwall‘s been a great solider for DRW, and the positive news is that his $4.75 million cap hit will evaporate after two seasons. Much like Ericsson, health is really hampering what he can do in the present, though.
  • Trevor Daley was just signed this summer. While he brings some strengths to the table, you have to wonder if the 33-year-old will slip enough that the $3.16 million could be an annoyance rather soon.

Forwards

  • Tatar ($5.3 million) becomes the second-highest-paid Red Wings forward behind Henrik Zetterberg, who makes just over $6 million. Zetterberg quietly enjoyed a strong 2016-17, and you can bet that he delivered at far higher a value than $6 million through the earlier years of his contract. Still, he’s 36 and that cap hit runs through 2020-21, the same year Tatar’s ends. Not ideal.
  • That Franzen headache expires after 2019-20.
  • Frans Nielsen is a nice player, and he had a strong debut season for Detroit. Still, he’s somehow already 33 and his $5.25 million cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22. One would think that, if the Red Wings wanted to move him, now would be one of the better times since his value is probably still reasonably high. Of course, savvy teams will balk at that term. Maybe, like DeKeyser and some other players, the Red Wings would need to move a “problem” (Nielsen’s term) for some other team’s issue.
  • Moving on, there are bit players getting too much. Justin Abdelkader‘s term (2022-23) and $4.25M cap hit give off an albatross vibe. Darren Helm, already 30, at $3.85M per year seems shaky. Even Luke Glendening‘s reasonable but maybe unnecessary $1.8M cap hit argues that Red Wings management might be overvaluing supporting cast members.
  • Then you have young players who may cost more soon. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha could see big jumps with breakthrough contract years as their ELC’s expire. Will Athanasiou be on a shrot deal, too?

Goalies

The netminder situation is pretty cloudy as well.

Jimmy Howard‘s contract is worrisome, although at least that $5.3M only runs through two more seasons. Petr Mrazek‘s a baffling situation, though maybe a team would take him from Detroit if the Red Wings retained some of that $4M? Would that even be a smart move considering Mrazek’s still-considerable potential?

***

Yikes, that entire outlook is almost entirely dismal. It’s not easy to say what the Red Wings should do next, especially if you’re not in the “blow it all up” camp.

(Note: Ken Holland doesn’t seem to be in the “blow it all up” camp.)

* – Of course, he could defy the general odds by having a longer run of prime years.

Marcus Foligno aims for 20 goals in first season with Wild

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Marcus Foligno has left the leap behind in Buffalo.

That doesn’t mean his offensive production can’t or won’t continue to rise in Minnesota.

Coming off a career-high 13 goals for the Sabres last season, the 25-year-old was acquired by the Wild to bring some needed grit and strength to the left wing position on the third or fourth line. He’s capable of putting the puck in the net, too, though he has so far been more of a sporadic scorer in the NHL.

“Definitely, 20 goals is something I envision myself to reach, and I hope to do that in a Wild jersey,” Foligno said. “Playing with some big centermen, playing on a well-rounded team, I think I can do that. I felt last year that my offensive side was getting there, and I’m looking to improve on that this season.”

Foligno was acquired with right wing Tyler Ennis and a third-round draft pick next year from the Sabres for right wing Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella, the only significant move made by the Wild this summer. General manager Chuck Fletcher said the day the deal was done he’d been pursuing the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Foligno for two years.

Foligno had his inconsistencies during five-plus seasons in Buffalo, but his 2016-17 performance was promising. He played in a career-most 80 games, with a minus-1 rating and 73 penalty minutes.

“It’s great for the confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Foligno said on Friday, his first appearance in Minnesota since the swap. “You’ve got to realize that Buffalo traded you, but you’re going to a team that really, really wants you and wants you to succeed. I’m put in a great position now.”

Foligno’s family is a small hockey factory . His older brother, Nick, is a 10-year veteran of the league and captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. His father, Mike, tallied 247 goals over 15 seasons in the NHL, including a full decade with the Sabres. His goal celebration was a two-legged leap straight up in the air from the ice, a signature move that Foligno adopted once he arrived in the league in the same city where his dad’s career took off.

The next time Foligno scores a goal, however, he’ll settle for a simpler move.

“I’ve just got to put the puck in the net and put my hands up. That’s how I’ve got to make sure I do it,” Foligno said. “If I do that 20 times, it’s a good thing.”

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Flames ink first-rounder Juuso Valimaki to rookie contract

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The Calgary Flames signed Finnish defenseman Jusso Valimaki to a three-year, entry-level contract on Friday.

Valimaki, 18, was the 16th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. He was selected in that spot after a nice year with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, scoring 61 points in 60 regular-season games and then added an assist in four playoff contests. He also played for the Tri-City Americans in 2015-16, putting up 32 points in 56 games.

Apparently he’s capable of at least one nifty shootout move, too:

People are pondering how Valimaki may fit into the Flames at the end of a three-year window Johnny Gaudreau recently cited. That seems a little far-reaching, although this nugget makes you wonder if Calgary might want to drag a little extra value out of his rookie deal:

Interesting. Either way, the Flames locked up a future piece, whether he can make an NHL impact sooner or later.