Dan Boyle, Brian Rafalski, Jimmy Howard

The Sore Thumb: San Jose Sharks

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With the Western Conference finals primed to kick off on Sunday night (8 p.m. ET on Versus, to be exact), we have a little more time to explore the two matchups. The NHL’s final four teams have plenty of strengths, but even these squads have a weakness or two. With that notion in mind, we asked: what flaw sticks out like a sore thumb?

To best answer that question, we provided our own hypothesis and also polled a blogger from each team.

Let’s take a look at the San Jose Sharks. (Click here to read the Vancouver Canucks version.)

Our choice: The Sharks’ defensive depth.

From a pure talent standpoint, Dan Boyle is the best defenseman on either the Sharks or Canucks roster. He’s not the world’s best player in his own end (though he’s more than adequate), but he’s one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers from the blueline. Boyle is accompanied by a solid positional defenseman in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and a hard-hitting Swede in Douglas Murray.

Unfortunately, the rest of the defense isn’t so great. Jason Demers has some tantalizing offensive skill, but he’s not necessarily adept at shutting down an opposing offense. Ian White’s been better than expected, but he’s not an elite blueliner by any means. Niclas Wallin is a limited player as well.

I’m not saying the Sharks defense is downright awful, but against a team as good as Vancouver, that group could get exposed.

For a second opinion, we polled Mr. Plank from SBNation’s Fear the Fin.

The San Jose Sharks blueline has long been a concern for many following the team. It’s a unit that doesn’t have a premier shutdown player, relying instead on a strong team defense mentality to keep pucks out of their own net. With the Sedins and Alex Burrows going up against Keith-Seabrook and Weber-Suter in their wins over Chicago and Nashville respectively, I don’t think there’s any real surprise they’ve struggled as much as they have– those are world-class shutdown pairings. The Sharks just don’t have that type of firepower. Although I’ve argued for years that Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the most under-appreciated defensive defenseman in the game today, his partner Jason Demers hasn’t gotten there yet– Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are also two excellent defenseman but both lack polish in their own zone at times.

That being said, where San Jose really flourishes and makes up for those shortcomings is with their forward group. Captain Joe Thornton has really set an example for the team this year with his attention to defensive play, and just about every forward under the California sun has followed suit. With the Sedins cycling the puck as much as they do you have to be sure that everyone is engaged in the play (especially your centerman), collapsing to the front of the net and helping out along the boards. If you don’t do that, the blueliners are going to be running around all night long and changing constantly after a prolonged stint in the defensive zone.

Vancouver’s forward depth isn’t as good as San Jose’s, but those top two lines are something special. No surprise there considering both Henrik and Daniel were nominated for the Hart Trophy in separate consecutive years. If the Sharks can hold the Sedins off the scoresheet I don’t think Vancouver has the offensive horses to run (swim?) with the Sharks depth. It’s just a matter of shutting them down consistently. That’s something that’s going to take a lot of work (and a little luck) to pull off.

***

So there you go, Mr. Plank and I agree: defense might be the Sharks’ biggest question. I’m more concerned with San Jose’s lower ranks while he has concerns about the group as a whole. San Jose has been tested already, but the Canucks present the deepest team they’ll face in the playoffs. We will see how their defense responds.

Van Riemsdyk trying to block out trade talk

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15:  James van Riemsdyk #25 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal against the Boston Bruins during an NHL game on October 15, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Remember those Dougie-Hamilton-to-Toronto trade rumors Brian Burke shot down last week? Well, in case you don’t, a refresher:

The Leafs, reportedly in the market for a defenseman, were reportedly willing to part with a winger — a position Calgary is looking to upgrade — which led many to speculate on a Hamilton-for-William Nylander swap.

Or, a Hamiton-for-James van Riemsdyk deal.

This week, JVR responded to the banter.

“You don’t really worry about it too much,” he said, per the Toronto Sun. “(Blocking it out) comes from experience.

“It tends to eat at you a little bit more (when you’re younger), but now you realize it is completely out of your control and it does not really faze you as much.”

Van Riemsdyk, who leads the Leafs with 11 goals and 20 points through 24 games this year, is fairly tantalizing as far as potential additions go. He’s on a good contract (two years left at $4.25 million per) and has been a pretty consistent scorer for the Leafs, which included a career-high 30 goals in ’13-14.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he’s got solid size and has long been viewed as one of the better power forwards going.

This, of course, is the exact reason why Toronto would want to keep van Riemsdyk. It’s important to remember that he only turned 27 in May, and could easily be a part of the core group of Nylander, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri et al.

Despite winning record, Rangers ‘very aware’ they must be better

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Head coach Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers leaves the ice following a 5-0 defeat against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 21, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The New York Rangers may be winning, but their head coach, Alain Vigneault, knows they need to be better.

Hmmm…this feels familiar for some reason.

Oh right, that’s because it was the same story last season, when the Rangers got off to a great start before tailing off then fizzling out in the playoffs.

The Rangers head into tonight’s game in Brooklyn with a record of 17-8-1. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad — in five of their last six games, they’ve been held to 25 shots or fewer. On the season, their score-adjusted Corsi has fallen to 26th in the league.

“We’re very aware and very conscious of the areas we need to be better at,” Vigneault said, per the New York Post. “We’re playing a team that’s playing real solid hockey.”

Indeed, the Islanders are 3-0-1 in their last four, including wins over Pittsburgh and Washington.

To be fair to the Rangers, they’ve been without Mika Zibanejad for the past seven games, and he was a big part of their early success. Tonight, they’ll also be without Michael Grabner, who’s gone back to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral.

     Read more: The new-look Rangers are dangerous on every line

But the Rangers aren’t looking to make excuses. They’re looking instead to get back on track.

“It’s definitely a five-man thing for us and communication and just getting on the same page again,” forward Jimmy Vesey said, per the Daily News. “It’s definitely something we need to get back to, and I think that’s kind of like the recipe for being a good team down the line and in the playoffs.”

After waiving Enroth, Toronto signs Ramo to AHL deal

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Kari Ramo took another step in his return to the NHL on Tuesday, signing a PTO with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Marlies.

The deal, first reported by TSN, comes one day after Toronto placed backup netminder Jhonas Enroth on waivers.

“Obviously, wasn’t going good enough,” head coach Mike Babcock said of the decision to waive Enroth, per TSN. “We’re just in a situation where we’re making a change.”

(Enroth cleared today, FYI.)

As for Ramo, he’s an interesting figure. The 30-year-old suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Calgary this past February and, at the time of the injury, led all Flames netminders in starts, with 33.

Prior to that, he’d rebounded from a poor start to the year — which included Calgary waiving him — and, in January, then-head coach Bob Hartley called Ramo “probably one of the hottest goalies in the league.”

So it’s easy to see why Toronto would be interested.

Of course, Ramo is coming off a major knee injury and has basically been shelved for 10 months. He’s been practicing with the Leafs, but this ATO with the Marlies will give him a chance to test the knee in a game situation, and knock off some of the rust that’s surely accumulated.

Ramo is believed to be close to receiving medical clearance for a return to action.

Justin Schultz is having a pretty good season

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 20:  Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in the first period during the game against the San Jose Sharks at PPG PAINTS Arena on October 20, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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It was Justin Schultz‘s kind of game last night in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins beat the Senators, 8-5, in a fun, back-and-forth affair.

Schultz was in on a pair of Pittsburgh goals, scoring one and assisting on another. The 26-year-old defenseman now has three goals and eight assists in 26 games. And on a good team that can put him in a position to succeed, he’s a plus-13.

Schultz, of course, joined the Penguins last season in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. He won a Stanley Cup in June, then re-signed for one year and $1.4 million in July.

     Read more: Justin Schultz quietly making big impact on Penguins power play

“He deserves a lot of credit for the effort, the commitment level he’s shown,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Friday, per the Post-Gazette.

Sullivan too deserves credit, for playing Schultz to his strengths and bringing out the best in an imperfect player. An offensive defenseman, Schultz is not being asked to do much of the heavy lifting defensively. He starts a lot of shifts in the attacking zone, and he doesn’t play very often against the opposition’s best.

Last night, Schultz displayed his offensive instincts and abilities, jumping up in the rush to take a pass from Evgeni Malkin, then burying it for the go-ahead goal.

Schultz ended up logging 19:54 of ice time, including 16:20 at even strength, the most among Penguins d-men.