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Did the San Jose Sharks improve during this off-season?

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Unless you judge success by Stanley Cup victories alone, you’d probably agree that the San Jose Sharks had a solid season, so it was surprising to see the team make such splashy moves this summer. Most instances of dynamic change occur when a) contenders need to shed contracts to stay under the cap ceiling or b) pretenders realize that they’re going nowhere and decide to blow shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start fresh.

Now, it’s true that the Sharks feature many of the same top players. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle are still standout veterans while young players like goalie Antti Niemi and center Logan Couture provide important contributions.

Yet while many of the core members remain the same, some significant supporting roles have changed. Here’s a quick snapshot of their major moves during this summer.

Out

Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ian White, Kyle Wellwood, Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin, Jamal Mayers, Ben Eager and Scott Nichol.

In

Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus, Colin White, Jim Vandermeer, Andrew Murray and James Sheppard.

Sharks players were as taken aback as anyone else as news of the moves circulated this summer, as they told the Mercury News. The ultimate takeaway is that the franchise took action instead of remaining idle – especially in their biggest area of need: defense.

“It shows that we’re not satisfied,” captain Joe Thornton said. “We want to get to the Finals and win the Cup. We’ve fallen short. But with these moves, I’m really excited to see this team play.”

(snip)

“What we did is not a Band-Aid situation,” McLellan said. “Brent Burns is going to be around for a long time. We hope Colin White and Jim Vandermeer can play for awhile here, too.”

Then again, the Sharks are a little biased when it comes to their own team, so let’s take a temperature of their offensive and defensive units to see if they’ve really gotten better. We’ll skip goaltending because they’ll employ the same Finnish duo as last season (although I must say that it would be surprising if Niemi avoids a regression after his red-hot second half of 2010-11).

source: APForwards

On paper, trading Heatley for Havlat is a clear downgrade, especially since Heatley has two 100+ point seasons on his resume. The thing is, many believe that Heatley’s best days are behind him and Havlat might be a little bit more versatile. Then again, Havlat’s injury history suggests that he comes with his own risks.

The Sharks might actually miss hot-and-cold winger Setoguchi more – at least in some ways. This move leaves Joe Pavelski as the only major Sharks forward who sports a right-handed shot.

Wellwood was actually a pretty solid fit for San Jose, so it was disappointing to see him go … until they signed strong defensive forward Handzus. The Sharks should be very familiar with the Czech-born center since he played all but one game in the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. Adding Handzus was one of the most underrated moves of this summer, as he’ll give the Sharks yet another effective center. He’ll slide into the Manny Malhotra role from 2009-10.

Offensive outlook: Slight downgrade (Havlat is the wild card).

Defense

Burns is a lot like Boyle in that he’s adequate in his own end but earns his paychecks thanks to his offensive prowess. It’ll be interesting to see if the two right-handed attacking defensemen pair up with each other very often (beyond power play situations or when the Sharks are down a goal).

While Burns is the highest profile addition, White is a nice value. His foot speed and decision making can be concerns, but he’s a hard-hitting minutes eater with two Stanley Cup rings. That’s not bad for $1 million, which is the same amount they’ll pay middling addition Jim Vandermeer.

The Sharks have an interestingly dichotomous group of D-men. On one side, there’s the graceful guys (Boyle, Burns, Jason Demers and Marc-Edouard Vlasic); on the other, you have the plodding bruisers (Douglas Murray, White and Vandermeer). If you ask me, Burns and White are two shrewd additions that might not make the Sharks a top defensive group like they claim, but an above-average corps nonetheless.

Defensive outlook: Substantial upgrade.

***

If you ask me, the Sharks should be a slightly better team on paper next season, although the phrase “on paper” has haunted the franchise for years now. What do you think, though? Are they better, worse or did they just make a lateral move? Let us know in the comments.

Avalanche’s new head coach Bednar is at least saying the right things

jaredbednaravalanche
via Colorado Avalanche
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Look, there are exceptions, but new head coach press conferences feature the same basic terms and buzzwords.

After witnessing the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins skate opponents ragged on their way to the 2016 Stanley Cup, any reasonable coach would throw “speed” into their phrasing.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche have been so deeply buried by even the most basic of modern measurements that you had to wonder: would they learn from Patrick Roy’s struggles? Can someone come in and at least attempt to keep up with the pack?

We won’t know for sure anytime soon, but hey, at least Jared Bednar seems to be saying the right things as he transitions from the AHL to the Avalanche’s head coaching gig.

When discussing his hire with NHL Network, Bednar seemed confident that his style in the AHL – “Up-tempo, aggressive style in all three zones of the rink” – will translate well in Colorado.

That interview hits the beats you’d expect from job interviews beyond hockey. There’s even a “detail-oriented” bit.

(If you space out, you might just assume there’s a mention of thinking outside the box, like every corporate interview in human history.)

Still, it’s OK to settle for baby steps, especially considering the tough situation Patrick Roy created in abruptly skipping town. For many, it might just be comforting to note that Bednar doesn’t outright dismissive “analytics” or “fancy stats.”

Mile High Hockey brings up a great point: if nothing else, the spotlight will shift from the Avalanche’s flamboyant head coach to the talented core of young players.

So, not only is Colorado bringing in a coach who is as savvy with spreadsheets as he is with the wipe-off board, but he’s going to allow the players to crawl out from under Roy and finally earn their own accomplishments. This is every bit as important as fixing the breakout play or eliminating the Collapse-O-Rama™ defensive system.

(Collapse-O-Rama, huh? Can we stash that term for future use regarding another coach or two?)

Bednar isn’t a retread, so we only know so much about what to expect.

There are positive early signs. Roll your eyes all you want, we have seen more than a few successful transitions from AHL glory (Bednar just won the Calder Cup) to the NHL.

He’s not necessarily anti-information and seems at least interested in implementing modern, attacking systems. Attacking systems that, theoretically, would best suit the talents of a gifted-but-flawed group.

It all feels a little vague, but then again, it’s not even September yet. So far, so good.

One way or another, Al Montoya will be important to Canadiens

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 02:  Goalie Al Montoya #35 of the Florida Panthers looks on in the second period against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on February 2, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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This is part of Canadiens day at PHT …

Here’s an unsolicited opinion: a good backup goalie is often underrated.

Yes, getting a quality Plan B is easier said than done – goalies are an unpredictable lot – but it’s simple to see when it pays off.

(There are plenty of examples, but Matt Murray winning a Stanley Cup for the Pittsburgh Penguins is the shiniest one.)

Even if injuries aren’t a big issue, a No. 2 goalie is a pretty safe bet to play 20 games for a given team. In that regard, Al Montoya could be a significant upgrade over Mike Condon, and that could be important.

Waning workhorses

In 2015-16, no goalie played 70 regular season games. Jonathan Quick was the workhorse of the NHL with 68, while only 10 played at least 60. So, more than two-thirds of last season’s teams needed at least 24 games from their lesser-paid goalies.

Even in Carey Price‘s dominant 2014-15 campaign, he played 66 games while Dustin Tokarski was in net for 17.

Let’s ponder the outlook for a variety of scenarios as Price hopes to rebound from injury:

If Price resumes Vezina-caliber form

As PHT notes, Price seems confident that he’s at 100 percent.

That’s great … but what else is he going to say? Knee injuries can beguile just about any athlete.

He does admit that he’s getting up there in age a bit – relative to the sport, mind you – at 29. Earlier this summer, the Hockey News went over Montreal’s plan to scale Price’s workload a bit, injured or not.

So, even in a dream scenario, Montoya and/or Condon will still see plenty of reps.

If Price falters

The Canadiens are expected to live or die by Price. Let’s not kid ourselves.

The leash might not be very long for Michel Therrien if Price really falls on his face, however. A Condon-led Habs team stumbled terribly, but what might we see from Montoya being thrust into the spotlight for performance reasons?

  • With a .909 career save percentage, Montoya’s experienced his stumbles in the NHL. Montreal has to hope he follows more of the path from strong showings in 2013-14 (13-8-3, .920 save percentage with Winnipeg) and 2015-16 (12-7-3, .919 save percentage with Florida).

Long story short, there were flashes of the brilliance you’d expect from a guy who went sixth overall in 2004.

  • The good news is that he’s accustomed to a fairly heavy backup duty. He set a career-high with 31 games played and 26 starts with the Islanders in 2011-12. Including that season, he’s enjoyed 20+ appearances in five of his last six seasons.
  • The bad news is that he hasn’t ever even carried half of a season’s workload so …

Yes, a Price re-injury would be disastrous

Montoya hasn’t been “the guy” before, certainly not in a pressure-cooker like Montreal. Condon’s opportunity didn’t go especially well.

One can understand ownership giving Therrien and GM Marc Bergevin something of a “Price pass” after 2015-16, but would there be the same level of acceptance if they couldn’t thrive without their star goalie again? You’d have to ask about lessons learned.

***

Long story short, Montoya matters to Montreal. The Canadiens just have to hope that he doesn’t matter too much.

 

Ducks lock up 2016 first-rounder Max Jones

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Max Jones poses for a portrait after being selected 24th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Anaheim Ducks handed their 2016 first-round draft pick Max Jones an entry-level contract on Friday.

Anaheim selected Jones 24th overall. It looks like he’s getting a pretty typical rookie deal, according to reporters including NHL.com’s Curtis Zupke.

In PHT’s “Get to Know a Draft Pick” series, THN’s Ryan Kennedy described Jones as “a power forward who can make you look silly with his offensive moves or simply plow you through the boards.”

Jones was one of three London Knights players who went in the first round in 2016, following Olli Juolevi (fifth overall) and Matthew Tkachuk (sixth overall). He certainly seemed to enjoy the team’s Memorial Cup victory:

You never really know for certain, but one would imagine that Jones may take a season or two to make it to the NHL level with the Ducks. From the sound of things, he’s in the sort of power forward mold that the team’s had a lot of success with.

With Lehner injured, Enroth will be in Sweden’s goalie mix at World Cup

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 04: Jhonas Enroth #1 of the Buffalo Sabres and Robin Lehner #40 of the Ottawa Senators warm up to play at First Niagara Center on October 4, 2013 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) Sweden has selected Jhonas Enroth to replace injured goaltender Robin Lehner on its World Cup of Hockey roster.

Lehner was bothered by an ankle injury last season while playing for the Buffalo Sabres. Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said Lehner had not recovered 100 percent.

Enroth, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, joins Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks as the goalies on Sweden’s roster.

The 28-year-old has a 2.80 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 147 career NHL games. Enroth was on the Swedish team that earned a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, though he never appeared in a game.

Enroth started for Sweden at the 2015 world hockey championship.

The World Cup begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.