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.

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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.

NHL 17 goes deep on customization, right down to Bautista’s bat flip

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 14:  Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays flips his bat up in the air after he hits a three-run home run in the seventh inning against the Texas Rangers in game five of the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre on October 14, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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More and more, it seems like EA Sports’ upcoming NHL 17 is about bolstering all the substance with some style.

While the biggest hopes for on-digital-ice changes seem to hinge on much-needed tweaks to goaltending, plenty of focus revolves around what your players will be wearing and where they’ll be playing.

Polygon provides a great breakdown for some of the tweaks:

Even more exciting is EASHL’s brand-new arena editor, which is a massive step up from last year, when the only things you could add to your team’s rink were championship banners if you won them. Your club will now make its way upward through five different arenas — a small community rink, a larger community rink, a Canadian Hockey League-size venue, an American Hockey League-size arena and an NHL arena — and you’ll be able to customize the last four venues in that progression.

Maybe most interestingly, you can relocate teams to one of 20 other hockey-friendly locales, whether it means bringing the NHL to Las Vegas a year early, rebooting the Hartford Whalers or a number of other possibilities.

(Does this mean the dream of “The KC Masterpiece” could come true?)

The increase in goal celebrations has been touched upon, yet seeing the fruits of such labor is another thing entirely. Hockey Twitter was delighted to learn that Jose Bautista’s memorable “bat flip” is included in the mix:

Nice nod to Toronto Maple Leafs fans, who can use such an animation after forcing the Tampa Bay Lightning to trade Steven Stamkos “home.”

Need another trailer for the game? Why not:

Pacioretty on losing ‘friend’ in Subban trade

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 02:  (R-L) P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his goal with Max Pacioretty #67 in the second period against the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on January 2, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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P.K. Subban‘s relationship with now-former Montreal Canadiens teammates has been dissected for some time, but captain Max Pacioretty insists that he lost a “friend” in the trade.

At least, that’s what he’s saying publicly, as Sportsnet reports.

“I’d been with him for nine years, so it’s going to be very strange to come into the locker room and not see P.K. there, joking around with him all the time,” Pacioretty said.

He added that, in the Subban-for-Shea Weber trade, the Canadiens “lost a friend and hopefully gained another.”

Again, there’s been plenty of speculation that Pacioretty and other Habs viewed Subban as anything but a pal. Jacques Demers ranked among the many who believed that Montreal suffered from a “divided room,” with some believing that it came down to Subban vs. Pacioretty.

Pacioretty dismissed the claims back then:

While Subban responded in a way we’ve come to expect, wondering if he’d have to “make out” with Pacioretty to prove doubters wrong.

That Pacioretty passage might just sum it up the best: you can be friends with someone while (gasp) also occasionally being annoyed by their antics. Really, have you enjoyed a lengthy relationship – business or personal – that never had those moments of minor friction?

Chances are, such chemistry issues were really just a distraction from the more important issues, such as Montreal depending far too much upon Carey Price.

The good news for “Patches” is that he won’t field nearly as many questions about Subban now that P.K.’s plying his trade in Nashville.

The not-so-good news is that he’ll be an obvious target for blame if Montreal’s fate doesn’t change with Weber replacing Subban.

We’ll find out soon enough if Pacioretty has enough help from his friends.

Related

Owner stands behind Marc Bergevin’s moves, Subban trade included

Michel Therrien on his relationship with Subban (when they were still employed by the Habs)

Subban: This is a business

Senator says Bettman, NHL are ‘in denial’ about concussions, CTE

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media during a press conference prior to Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This isn’t the first time Gary Bettman denied or downplayed the link between concussions and CTE; it also isn’t the first time that someone has been stunned by his stance.

Even so, it’s difficult to look away from the bank-and-forth between the NHL’s commissioner and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, most recently spotlighted by Sports Illustrated.

It began with Blumenthal’s letter to Bettman and the NHL, dated June 23, which cited the NFL acknowledging a link between football and CTE. He then asked Bettman nine questions related to how the NHL handles brain injuries and how it might be different from the NHL.

The New York Times passes along a response dated July 22, Bettman described the science linking CTE to concussions as “nascent” and reasserted his previous stance:

“The relationship between concussions and the asserted clinical symptoms of C.T.E. remains unknown.”

Blumenthal was “appalled” by Bettman’s take, according to Sports Illustrated and the Senator himself.

Perhaps you could chalk this up to a public relations battle of sorts, although TSN reports that this latest round of comments might provide fuel for lawyers working on a concussion lawsuit against the NHL.

“We should have the chance now to walk him through some of his denials and find out why he has made his statements and ask him what makes him so sure,” Lead counsel Charles Zimmerman said. “Why is he so willing to go against conventional science which says repeated blows to the head cause damage to the brain?”

As familiar as some of this might feel for those following the way the league is handling concussions, it could mean that the NHL will follow in the NFL’s footsteps in a costly way.

At minimum, it’s been a mess for the league, and it doesn’t seem like things will get easier anytime soon.

Rangers want Kreider to become a ‘nightmare for defensemen’ again

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 19: Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers moves in on Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at at Madison Square Garden on April 19, 2016 in New York City.  The Penguins defeated the Rangers 3-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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If Chris Kreider is penciled in to finish with about 20 goals and 45 points each season, the New York Rangers got a solid deal for the 25-year-old.

That nice $4.625 million cap hit could become a steal if Kreider blossoms into the 30-goal force the Rangers were hoping for, however.

NHL.com details how the Rangers hope he returns to the form that, to quote assistant Scott Arniel,* made him “a nightmare for defensemen.”

“I remember we had a conversation asking him about what kind of player did he think he was, and he didn’t say I’m a toe-dragging, stick-handling guy who can beat guys 1-on-1,” Arniel said. “He knew what he was. He said it. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and it was five things that a true power forward needs to do every game. Then he got away from those things [last season].”

As New York Newsday notes, Kreider shares that viewpoint, aiming to be “big, strong, fast, mean, imposing” and to play a “power forward game.”

(If you’re playing Power Forward Buzzword Bingo … yes, Kreider also talks about his north-south game.)

How much room is there to grow?

The biggest question circles back to the beginning; how much higher is Kreider’s ceiling than what we’ve already seen?

Kreider indicates that a strong finish to 2015-16 salvaged his numbers, but the end result is near-identical production compared to 2014-15. He spoke of pucks not going in early in the year, yet his shooting percentage was a career-high 13.5.

About the only difference that really stands out does possibly denote a dip in physicality, as his 58 PIM were low in comparison to 2014-15 (88) and 2013-14 (72). The Rangers probably don’t want him off the ice and in the box more often though, right?

Earning opportunities

Really, the big thing for Kreider might just come down to opportunities.

Despite becoming more experienced, he’s still averaging just under 16 minutes of ice time per game.

The key, then, might be for Kreider to convince Alain Vigneault to deploy him more frequently, which might come down to bring that physical edge more often.

* – That story is an interesting little peek into how the Rangers handle and develop players like Kreider. Arniel almost seems quaint at times in the piece, bringing to mind Dan D’Antoni’s inspirational notes to Leondaro Barbosa.