What Went Wrong: San Jose Sharks

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Another year, another playoffs ends with the San Jose Sharks getting bounced out unceremoniously in the Western Conference finals. This time the Sharks were bounced out in five games by the Vancouver Canucks and while it didn’t play out like the butt whooping a five game series might dictate it to be, the Sharks still had their share of problems that forced them to miss out on another opportunity to make the Stanley Cup finals. Making it this far in the playoffs is an accomplishment, but for San Jose they’re continued bridesmaid status in the West is getting a bit old. So what went wrong for the Sharks? We’ve got some ideas.

1. They couldn’t stop the Sedin line
Their first problem and their biggest problem was that they couldn’t do anything to contain Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Alex Burrows. Those three combined for 24 points in this series alone with Henrik getting 12 of them (one goal, 11 assists). Getting picked apart essentially by one line and one defenseman (Kevin Bieksa and his four goals this series) shows that either those guys were that much better or a total lack of defensive ability and accountability to keep up with those guys.

Then again, getting beaten by your opponents best players when they’re the better team shouldn’t be that big of a deal but given how the Sedins were shutdown by Nashville (Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were indeed that good), perhaps a little more videotape scouting would’ve worked for the Sharks.

2. Defense not nearly physical enough
One major issue for San Jose is that they flat out weren’t physical enough to slow down the Canucks. While Douglas Murray served to be an imposing figure and dished out some monstrous hits of his own (18 in the series to be exact) the next few players that got physical were forwards. Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi each were credited with 11 hits while Dany Heatley and Jamal Mayers were credited with ten each. The next best defensemen with hits were Niclas Wallin with nine and Marc-Edouard Vlasic with seven.

That lack of physicality along the blue line proved to be a problem in their own end because when you give guys like the Sedins the time and space to cycle they’re going to find ways to beat you. Sure enough that’s just what they did. Visions of the Sedins passing and skating circles around the Sharks zone should be enough to give Sharks GM Doug Wilson nightmares enough to do something about that during the offseason. Douglas Murray can do a lot of things but he can’t contain twins on his own.

3. Thornton and Marleau step up while others stepped back
It’s eerily similar how things played out in this year’s Western final as compared to last year’s that saw the Sharks bounced in four games. Last year Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle were the only two Sharks players to do anything against the Blackhawks with Marleau scoring five goals and adding one assist while Boyle had five assists. This year it was all about Marleau, Boyle, and Joe Thornton.

Marleau had five goals and two assists against Vancouver while Thornton had a goal and five assists while Boyle had a goal and four helpers. Everyone else? Virtually non-existent.

Dany Heatley was an abject nightmare offensively adding just one assist during this series. He was so bad he was bumped down to the third line where he played better as a checking forward than he did as a guy meant to score goals. Considering he makes $7.5 million a year, he’s brutally overpaid to do that kind of work. Joe Pavelski has had his struggles since the first round and had just three assists against Vancouver. Devin Setoguchi only found the net once in this series after terrorizing the Red Wings and it took a risky play from Roberto Luongo to help make that happen. Rookie phenom Logan Couture was invisible for most of the series and even playoff-long hero Ryane Clowe had just two goals against the Canucks. With that sort of erratic help, it was the guys with the most belabored reputations that were left hanging once again in the Western Conference finals.

Marleau and Thornton historically get crap thrown their way for not playing big in the playoffs, but this time around they were let down by their teammates. For Marleau it’s especially painful as he took a beating for not playing big enough against Detroit for the second year in a row only to be one of the only guys to show up in the following round. Life is tough that way.

4. Antti Niemi wasn’t good enough
It’s tough when a goalie doesn’t have a lot of action to face over the course of a game and that’s certainly the case for Antti Niemi against Vancouver. Over the five games in the series, Niemi faced 153 shots, good for just over 30 shots per game. While that amount of work might seem healthy, the last few games saw Niemi lulled to sleep by the patient Vancouver attack. Niemi faced 38 shots in each of the first two games, 30 in Game 3, 13 (!) in Game 4, and 34 through four and a half periods in Game 5.

Niemi allowed 20 goals in the series giving him a 3.68 goals against average and an abysmal .869 save percentage, including seven goals against in Game 2. Those kinds of numbers aren’t going to win you anything in the playoffs. For as good as Niemi was against the Red Wings, he reverted back to the form he had against the Kings in the first round. That sort of play nearly cost the Sharks that opening round series and against a superior Canucks team, the writing was on the wall.

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The Sharks have a good thing going there but they’ll need to make some small changes to be able to get out of the Western Conference next year. They’ll need to get a little tougher on defense, they’ll need to find a way to properly motivate Dany Heatley into being a full time scoring threat. Perhaps a little heart-to-heart with Patrick Marleau there would do wonders as Marleau, outside of the Detroit series, was great all season long. People will want to fully blame goaltending but Antti Niemi is solid there and more than capable of leading a winner. The Sharks will be back next year and while the playoff loser tag will hang around them, someday it’ll all come together.

PHT on Fantasy: Tools of the trade

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So far in this weekly space, I’ve been aiming to help out fantasy hockey players who might lean more casual or intermediate. The debut bit is the easiest example, as it’s basically a guide to being reasonably competitive without putting in a lot of work.

The painful truth is that the devil is often in the details with fantasy hockey.

Now, sure, you can burn yourself by getting too deep in the muck.

Sometimes tinkering to an extreme might prompt you to accept a bad trade because you feel burned by Brent Burns, or maybe you’d drop a guy worth keeping because you’re trying to grind out every rotisserie point or head-to-head battle.

There might be some wisdom to taking a zen approach, but what if you want a mix? And what if you’re an intermediate type who wants to ratchet the intensity up a level or two? This post aims to share a few tools that could help you if you feel the urge to push a little harder.

Naturally, the Internet is a cornucopia of different options, so this is an especially strong case of speaking up in the comments section regarding your own suggestions (just don’t let your league opponents see it). If the responses between that, email, and Twitter replies end up being robust, perhaps we’ll even follow up on this in the future with another set of tools.

Anyway, while this isn’t comprehensive, here are a few things that might help you get an edge. Some are pretty simple, others might be new to even the more obsessive out there.

Drop down, climb up

Apologies to ESPN fantasy owners, as I haven’t been in one of those leagues in a few years, but I’d imagine that their tools boast some similarities.

In this specific instance, allow me to shout out Yahoo’s drop-down categories, which you can peruse by clicking on “Players.”

There’s a lot of jelly in these donuts, and it seems to me that the information becomes more robust with each year. The best stuff can be found under “Stats.” One category that’s either new or I hadn’t previously noticed is “opponents,” which lists each player’s schedule for the next two weeks. If you want to get really granular with things, or you’re in a league where it makes extra sense to live week-to-week, at least with your fringe players, that opponents tool could be your buddy.

Over the years, I’ve really found some value in cutting the season into chunks to identify who’s on a hot streak, who’s cold, and sometimes which players might be getting a boost in ice time.

Yahoo gives you the option to sort by “Last 7 days” and “Last 14 days,” which could be useful in cases of injuries and so on. Personally, the 30-day option probably gives you the best sample size, and this becomes increasingly useful as you get deeper into the season. Maybe an AHL call-up is quietly gaining more confidence with his coach? Perhaps an early-season cold streak obscures a talent who’s regained their status?

Recency bias can be an issue whenever you’re parsing through results, but here’s the thing: coaches suffer from recency bias, so you might as well see who might be the apple of their eye, even if it’s a flavor of the month thing.

Some references

It’s a great idea to gather “cheat sheets” for drafts, but quick references are helpful during the season, too.

Rotoworld NHL boasts a slew of great features, but allow me to single out Michael Finewax’s Week Ahead feature. It’s like the “opponents” bit from the above section, only Finewax goes deep to provide more context on each team.

Daily Doses are great too, yet another gem is Rotoworld’s injuries page. It might be the best single-page source for injuries, if you’re in a hurry or just want to look at the league as a whole from a health standpoint.

Now, there are some references that come down to habit or preference, as a lot of sites provide options along these lines.

For what it’s worth, I often go to Goalie Post for starting goalies, but feel free to share your preferences in the comments, as many sites provide their own updates.

Along similar lines, Left Wing Lock is a handy guide for line combinations, as they share regular, timely updates. They also provide tools to check power-play units and you can go back and see which line combinations were most common during the season and other stretches. Such considerations might help you identify a forward who has higher odds to stick with high-level linemates versus a guy who merely is getting a fleeting audition.

This is more esoteric, but NHL.com’s team power play stats can be a quick way to sort which teams have played a lopsided amount of home games (sort by “Home GP”) and the same with road (sort by “Road GP”). If you need a tie-breaking mechanism when pondering an add/drop, it might come down to which player’s team has more home games remaining.

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Again, many thing in the “references” section come down to personal taste, as many sites provide robust options if you want to geek out to get the most information possible.

If you really want to spelunk in that fashion, just tinker in ways that you can stand/entertain you. I’m not the type to drum up a spreadsheet unless it’s for work, but if you are, then have at it.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Matt Beleskey and the risks of NHL free agency

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Four years ago Matt Beleskey came out of nowhere to score 22 goals for the Anaheim Ducks.

It was a perfectly time breakout season because it just so happened to take place in what was a contract year for Beleskey and made him one of the top free agents on the open market the following summer. Not only was he a big forward that could play a tough, physical game, but now there was some offensive production to go along with it. He was the type of player that general managers were going to love.

He ended up signing a five-year, $19 million contract with the Boston Bruins.

On Monday, with still two-and-a-half years left on the deal at $3.8 million per season, he was placed on waivers.

Clearly, things have not gone as either side had planned.

Since signing that contract with the Bruins, Beleskey has not been able to consistently match that production from his final year in Anaheim. He came close to it in his first year, but things have rapidly declined in the two years since.

This season has been especially tough for Beleskey as he has yet to record a point in the 14 games he has played.

Given how much is remaining on Beleskey’s contract, as well as his lack of production the past two seasons, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will claim him, opening the door for him to perhaps be sent to Providence of the American Hockey League once he clears.

Beleskey’s situation in Boston does give us another reminder to the risks of free agency and signing players to long-term contracts off of what amounts to one big season.

Had he been able to repeat his 2013-14 performance, or at least come close to it, his $3.9 million salary cap hit would have been a perfectly reasonable deal for that level of production and play.

But the issue was always whether or not he was going to be able to repeat it, and there were a lot of red flags that he probably would not be able to.

Prior to his 22 goal season with the Ducks (which came in only 65 games) he had only once scored more than 10 goals in a singe season and never scored more than 11.

His breakout season with the Ducks was the result of a career-high 15.2 percent shooting percentage  Based on that he was a clear candidate for a significant regression and there was a significant amount of risk with such a long-term contract. It’s one of those areas where analytics can play a big role in helping to avoid a costly mistake and why they can be a great complement for scouting and the eye test. When you have a player that performs that far above his normal career levels it’s worth taking an extra look at that to determine if it’s something that can be repeated or if it’s something that was simply a one year outlier.

In Beleskey’s case, it is becoming increasingly clear that one year in Anaheim was an outlier.

The problem with free agency is that by the time players hit the open market they are often times in one of two situations: They are either past their peaks years of production and teams end up getting into bidding wars and paying top dollar for players that have already played their best hockey for somebody else, or they are players in Beleskey’s situation that had a well-timed career year that may not be repeated.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Watch the first episode of Sabres-Rangers ‘Road to the Winter Classic’

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We’re less than two weeks away from the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers meeting on a hockey rink at CitiField in New York for the 2018 Winter Classic.

This is the 10th anniversary of the game, typically played on New Year’s Day, and features one of the teams that took part in the inaugural event against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. The Penguins would win that one 2-1 after a shootout during a snowy day Ralph Wilson Stadium. Memories were created that afternoon in Buffalo, but so was a staple event on the NHL’s annual calendar.

With participation in the Winter Classic comes the requirement of starring in the all-access show that follows both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game. This season, “Road to the Winter Classic” has moved to NBCSN. The first episode premiered Wednesday night and will air each week NBCSN, Sportsnet and NHL Network.

You can watch the first full episode here

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NBCSN (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings
Episode 2 – Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Detroit Red Wings-Philadelphia Flyers
Episode 3 – Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Washington Capitals-New York Rangers
Episode 4 – Sunday, Jan. 7 at 11 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Pittsburgh Penguins

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on Sportsnet (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Thursday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.
Episode 2 – Friday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.
Episode 3 – Thursday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.
Episode 4 – Friday, January 5 at 7 pm (SN1)

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NHL Network (all times Eastern)

Episode 1 – Sunday, Dec. 17 at 10 p.m.
Episode 2 – Sunday, Dec. 24 at 10 p.m.
Episode 3 – Sunday, Dec. 31 immediately following live World Junior Championship coverage (approximately 10:30 p.m.)
Episode 4 – Monday, Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

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Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

“Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

“I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.