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.

Erik Cole retires as a member of the Hurricanes

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Erik Cole has officially retired.

The Carolina Hurricanes made the announcement on Wednesday, stating that Cole signed a ceremonial contract with the NHL team and retired as a member of the Hurricanes.

Now 38 years old, Cole played 892 regular season games in the NHL, scoring 265 goals and 532 points. A number of his best seasons occurred while he was with the Hurricanes, reaching 30 goals with the 2005-06 Stanley Cup winning team.

His best season came with the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12, as he scored 35 goals and 61 points.

His last season was in 2014-15. He began the year in Dallas and was moved to Detroit at the trade deadline, but a spinal cord contusion essentially meant an end to his playing career.

From the Detroit Free Press in April, 2015:

Cole revealed Wednesday that he has a spinal cord contusion severe enough doctors have cautioned him not to play again this spring.

“It stems back from my neck injury in 2006,” Cole said. “When I ran into the player in the Arizona game, I bruised my spinal cord. A spinal contusion is something that you have to let heal and obviously, it’s a pretty serious occurrence. Doctors feel I need to look out for my well-being as a person, not just as a hockey player.”

Cole is now a team ambassador for the Hurricanes.

Eriksson looks to bounce back after ‘tough start’ with Canucks

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The Canucks signed Loui Eriksson last summer, with the hopes he’d help give them a boost in scoring.

It didn’t quite turn out that way — at least not during Eriksson’s first year of a lucrative six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks.

He scored only 11 times with 24 points in 65 games. The previous season in Boston, he scored 30 goals and 63 points in 82 games, so, yeah, it was a drastic drop in production in one year for the veteran winger, who started the year with a 13-game scoring drought.

“It was a tough start,” said Eriksson, per The Canadian Press. “I had to work uphill through the whole season.”

Read more: Under pressure: Loui Eriksson

That’s a difficult start for any player, but especially for one at the beginning of an expensive new deal in a new market.

“I’m anxious to see Loui. I’m confident that he’ll have a good season. We’ve talked about that … about the transition from Boston to Vancouver,” coach Travis Green said at the start of training camp. “He knows he has to have a better year than he had last year. I think he’s more than capable of it.”

The Canucks were active this summer, too, signing a number of free agents. Again, the hope is the additions they made heading into the new season — Sam GagnerThomas Vanek and Michael Del Zotto among them — could help give them a spark offensively, particularly on the power play.

Eriksson’s season ended in early March because of a lower-body injury. Now he’ll look to rebound from a disappointing season at the age of 32.

Panarin trying to ‘find chemistry’ with new teammates in Columbus

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Artemi Panarin faced his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday.

It was only preseason and Panarin didn’t register a point in just over 22 minutes of ice time, and 8:17 on the power play.

But there was an interesting nugget to come from his media availability following the game — Panarin’s first against his old team following this summer’s blockbuster trade between the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Panarin was loose and comfortable, occasionally chatting in English and frequently devolving into giggle fits with teammates Vitaly Abramov and Matiss Kivlenieks, who tried in vain to interpret for him. In fact, Panarin said he was ‘‘glad’’ to be with the Blue Jackets, where he’ll have more creative control on the ice. As dynamic as he and Patrick Kane were as linemates, Kane is basically a center playing wing, dominating the puck.

With the Blue Jackets, Panarin can be that guy.

‘‘I can play a little bit more with the puck,’’ Panarin said through the interpreters. ‘‘Just kind of express myself on the ice a little bit more.’’

In two NHL seasons, both with Chicago, Panarin has been a scoring threat, reaching the 30-goal mark twice. Now with Columbus, Panarin is on a two-year contract worth a total of $12 million and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when this deal concludes, per CapFriendly.

With the Blackhawks, Panarin spent plenty of time alongside Kane and it appears there has been suggestions that his offensive production was inflated as the result of playing on a line with Kane.

That suggestion has annoyed Panarin. Still, he joins a Blue Jackets team already equipped with a strong nucleus of young players that made considerable progress with a franchise-setting regular season in 2016-17.

“We’ll see how the season will go,” Panarin told the Chicago Tribune. “Beginning of the season maybe I’ll need to make some adjustments, but I just try to find chemistry with my new partners. It’s still in progress.”

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”