Antti Niemi, Roberto Luongo

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.

***

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.

Who might be the next Artemi Panarin?

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks poses after winning the Calder Trophy named for the top rookie at the 2016 NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Even in an information age where boundless information lies a few clicks away, talented players slip through the cracks.

Jamie Benn won the Art Ross in 2014-15 and came in second place last season, yet 128 players were selected before him in 2007. No-brainer Vezina Trophy-winner Braden Holtby was selected in the fourth round.

We haven’t even covered quality players who weren’t even drafted.

Artemi Panarin stands as an especially mind-blowing example. He went from undrafted free agent to the 2016 Calder Trophy winner after developing – and eventually breaking through – overseas.

As we learned from Vladimir Tarasenko‘s recommendations to the Blues, Panarin was readily available in the summer of 2015, making his 30-goal, 77-point season burn plenty of executives and scouts.

While there are examples of players who fall through the cracks, Panarin feels pretty unusual. Still, NHL Tonight sets out to name a few international players who could make a Panarin-type impact … and, of course, one of those players could suit up for the Chicago Blackhawks:

Interesting stuff.

If you choose not to watch the video, two of the names highlighted were Michal Kempny of the Blackhawks and Nikita Zaitsev of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As defensemen, both overseas signings aren’t likely to make a Panarin-type splash on the scoreboard, but they remain interesting names to watch.

Not quite a Panarin parallel, but …

Allow for a comparison that breaks the rules quite a bit: Alex Radulov stands as likely the biggest impact import of all.

As the 15th pick of the 2004 NHL Draft and with a very high profile, he won’t slip in under the radar like Panarin did last summer.

Still, this is a player who already has 102 points to his name at the NHL level (in 154 regular season games), and despite the playoff drama with Nashville, he also has 14 career playoff points in 18 NHL postseason games.

Honestly, the Radulov signing might be the best move Montreal made during a turbulent off-season.

If any other import can compare to Radulov or Panarin, that team should be very, very happy.

Chances are, we won’t know who to expect, but feel free to name your own choices.

Oilers sign defenseman Matthew Benning, nephew of Canucks GM Jim

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 23:  Matt Benning #5 of the Northeastern Huskies skates against the Boston University Terriers during the first period of the 2015 Beanpot Tournament Championship game at TD Garden on February 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Even with Adam Larsson added to the mix, the Edmonton Oilers’ organization is short on right-handed defensemen.

It remains to be seen how long it will take for Matthew Benning to make the NHL jump, but the Oilers took a step in the right (right-handed defenseman) direction by signing him to a two-year deal on Saturday.

In case you have some jokes at the ready … yes, Benning is related to Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning. The occasionally lampooned executive is his uncle. His father Brian also enjoyed an NHL career.

*Nervous laugh*

The Edmonton Journal’s Bruce McCurdy views the move as the equivalent to landing a “free draft pick.” It might be a nice perk for Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli to land Benning being that he was a 2012 sixth-rounder of the Boston Bruins.

McCurdy indicates that Benning, 22, could rank fairly high among the Oilers’ defensive prospects right off the bat, even if scarce options play a role along with whatever the blueliner brings to the table:

This is the fourth free agent signing of an NCAA player by the Oilers this off-season, though the first involving a defenceman. Previously, highly-regarded forward Drake Caggiula had signed along with right winger Patrick Russell and netminder Nick Ellis. All four are in age 22-23 and well-positioned to make an impact on the pro ranks in the near future, even as their NHL potential is an open book. But collectively they add some meat on the bones of a franchise whose organizational depth has been questionable. 

Interestingly, McCurdy notes that the Canucks were in the running for Benning’s services.

(Waits for a few more Jim Benning jokes.)

Seems like the Northeastern University product received a decent deal, relatively speaking:

Flames management enjoys a rare luxury: a clean slate

CALGARY, CANADA - FEBRUARY 27: General manager Brad Treliving of the Calgary Flames address the media before the trade deadline prior to the team's NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at the Scotiabank Saddledome on February 27, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

During the waning days of the Jarome Iginla/Miikka Kiprusoff years, the Calgary Flames ranked as one of the worst things a sports team could be: both expensive and uninspiring.

There were a lot of bloated contracts connected to those days, but when you look at sites like Cap Friendly or General Fanager, the slate looks a lot cleaner heading into 2016-17.

OK, so maybe you could also argue that there are still a few troubling deals to get rid of.

Dennis Wideman‘s $5.25 million salary cap hit, Ladislav Smid‘s $3.5 million mark and Deryk Engelland‘s bewildering $2.917 million cap hit all expire after next season. Chances are, you have an issue with one or maybe all of those deals, so the Flames must be giddy to close in on all that extra breathing room.

And, yes, there are some deals that Flames GM Brad Treliving may regret. Just consider today’s earlier post about Troy Brouwer.

Still, the point is clear: whatever mistakes or strokes of genius that come, at least those moves will be Treliving’s to make.

Consider some of the important calls that await:

  • Such as, how will they sort out Johnny Gaudreau‘s lingering RFA situation this summer?

The easiest path might be to try to convince him to take a deal that is identical to the one Sean Monahan received, but one or both sides likely want something different.

  • Despite bringing in both Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the goaltending future beyond 2016-17 is murky for a simple enough reason: neither netminder is signed beyond that point.

Elliott is receiving a bargain $2.5 million and is currently 31. Johnson, 30, barely comes in behind him at $1.7 million. It’s highly likely that Calgary will spend more money on its goalies in 2017-18, but who might be back?

And how much will the Flames need to see from Elliott and/or Johnson before trying to hammer out extensions?

The good news for Flames management is that they’re not saddled with a goaltending decision they might not have made. The scary part is that, if it doesn’t work out, it’s on them … and could cost someone a job.

  • The Flames ultimately have the power to determine who’s a marquee player and who is a part of the supporting cast.

Gaudreau is key, but it’s unclear if he’ll sign a long deal like Monahan or opt for a “bridge” deal. In addition to Monahan, the Flames signed these players to fairly long deals: Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Brouwer and Michael Frolik.

Yes, you can quibble with Brouwer and maybe another name, but plenty of teams would be jealous of that list overall.

***

Many general managers must navigate minefields of someone else’s mistakes. There are a lot of challenges to the job beyond that, but Treliving & Co. get to make their own.

It’s a luxury that is unlikely to last, but the Flames stand as an interesting team for armchair (and real-life) executives to follow.

Yahoo’s fantasy hockey position tweaks signal end of a very specific era

WINNIPEG, MB - FEBRUARY 11: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets prepares for the faceoff in second period action in an NHL game against the Boston Bruins at the MTS Centre on February 11, 2016 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
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Few things deepen your hockey geekery quite like playing fantasy hockey.

For sports haters and the sports-oblivious, it’s probably bad enough to see grown adults wearing hockey sweaters out in public. What about when someone is obsessing (and sometimes muttering profanities) about a team that only exists to about 8-15 people?

Still, this is the Internet, where niche obsessions can go really deep. Just fall down a rabbit hole about Star Wars extended universe if you want to get a taste.

Us fantasy hockey nerdy dorks got some understandable but still sad news today: it appears to be an end of an era for Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Burns being considered eligible as both right wings and defensemen.

NHL.com trotted out a list of changes to Yahoo’s popular format on Saturday, and the tweaks generally make total sense.

It’s a bit of a bummer, though, as being eligible for a forward and defensive position provided another example of the unusual natures of both Byfuglien and Burns. Luckily, there are about 1,000 Exhibits for each, especially true oddball Burns.

(The debate regarding where either player should line up has largely died out, though.)

Another thing of interest in NHL.com’s list is the most prominent players who can be placed in all three forward spots. That could be a good thing to keep handy if you’re the last-minute preparation type:

The six tri-eligible players among NHL.com’s top 200, Joe Pavelski of the Sharks, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, Ryan O'Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres, Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Patrick Sharp of the Dallas Stars and Jussi Jokinen of the Florida Panthers, have had their eligibilities reduced. Forsberg and Jokinen, who are now only eligible at LW, took the biggest hits from that bunch.

Forwards Robby Fabbri (now C/LW), of the St. Louis Blues, and Sam Reinhart, (now C/RW) of the Sabres, are the two players who have gone from single to dual eligibility in Yahoo leagues.

Check out the full article here.