Los Angeles Kings v Phoenix Coyotes

Kopitar brings his all-around game back to the Kings

Anze Kopitar doesn’t look like a guy who is recovering from the first serious injury of his career. These days he looks like a normal, healthy hockey player. He’s taller than most, he’s visibly stronger than most, and his mop top is curlier than most. The little tell-tale signs that clue outsiders that he’s an imposing professional athlete. Just looking at him—is this really the guy who suffered a gruesome injury towards the end of the regular season last year?

He looks exactly as you’d expect a professional athlete to look. Yet simple visuals don’t tell the entire story of the last six months of his life, the lost expectations that followed him to the locker room on that fateful Saturday afternoon last March, or the expectations that now sit on his healthy, broad shoulders.  By all accounts, Anze Kopitar is just another healthy NHL player this preseason looking to get his season started on the right foot (no pun intended). Kings head coach Terry Murray has said that Kopitar has put in the offseason work that the organization expected as he recovered from his injury:

“Kopitar is coming back off of a very serious injury and he looks great,” he said. “He spent a hard summer again with the conditioning program. He looks good in the first few days of the training camp. He’s a great player and he just keeps getting better as he gets more mature and experienced in the game.”

Despite seeing his season cut short, Kopitar still managed to score 25 goals and 72 points in 75 games. The seven games he missed at the end of the season were the first games he had missed since his rookie year in 2006-07. But it wasn’t just the games he missed—it was the timing of his injury.

Kopitar recently spoke about watching his team perform in the playoffs without him. “Yeah, that was definitely tough. The timing of my injury was bad and obviously missing the playoffs was [bad]. Just not being able to help them on the ice, it was tough to watch.”

The casual observer sees Kopitar, the flashy offense, and the point-per-game stats and understands that losing their #1 center created a huge void in the Kings lineup. But people around the team will tell you that it wasn’t the offense that the Kings missed the most during their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. In the six playoff games without their star center, the Kings still managed 20 goals. Instead, it was Kopitar’s two-way ability and presence in the important moments of a game that the Kings missed most.

“Last season was probably the best season I’ve had as a two-way player,” Kopitar said. “The stats came out a little better than previous years. I just want to build on that. I don’t want to be just pushing the offensive side right now because we have Mike [Richards] coming in and [Jarret] Stoll being our third guy. But the game isn’t going to change for me.”

He has the skill of a small, talented player. He has the defensive awareness of a man with half his skill. And has the maturity of players twice his age.

Over the course of the preseason, Kopitar will look to regain the timing that made him an all-star last season. Management and the coaching staff have both acknowledge that he’s 100% and Murray has explained that he has no hesitation to put him out in any situation. The head coach went on to admit that, instead of protecting Kopitar in the preseason, he expected to push him a little harder to “get him back into it.”

For the Kings to accomplish all of their lofty goals this season, they’ll need a healthy Kopitar to continue to grow into the true #1 center that he’s shown signs of becoming. The team is deep down the middle with new acquisition Mike Richards and the versatile Jarret Stoll, but Kopitar still sits at the head of the class. As far as 1-2 punches go, the Kopitar/Richards duo is as formidable as any in the Western Conference.

The next step is to show the league they as good on the ice as they are on paper.  A healthy Kopitar will go a long way towards exhibiting their strength for the entire league to see.

Poll: Will the Sharks make it back to the Stanley Cup Final?

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 25:  Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly presents the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to Joe Pavelski #8 and the San Jose Sharks after their 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 25, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Not many people expected San Jose to be in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16, but with expectations at an all-time low, they did it.

San Jose has put together some talented teams and before last season, they weren’t able to get over the hump. But now that they’ve gotten over the hump, expectations are back up.

How realistic are these expectations though?

On paper, the Sharks are still loaded. They didn’t lose much this off-season and managed to add speedster Mikkel Boedker in free agency.

Still, when you’re dealing with a number of veterans, you never know when their production will start to dip.

Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski are all over 30. Marleau and Thornton are 36 and 37-years-old and they’re entering the final year of their contracts.

The Stanley Cup hangover is real. Although the Sharks didn’t win it, those veterans went four rounds and played in some grueling games along the way. Will they be in tip-top shape come October?

On a more positive note, those veterans are surrounded by some good young players. Logan Couture has developed into a go-to guy, Tomas Hertl proved to be a difference maker at times last year, Joonas Donskoi scored some big goals in the playoffs and prospects like Mirco Mueller, Nikolay Goldobin and Timo Meier are on their way.

The team also has some remarkable depth on defense, as Burns is joined by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Martin, Justin Braun and a few other key contributors.

Between the pipes, Martin Jones‘ first season as a starting goaltender went pretty well.

“A special group,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after losing in the Stanley Cup Final, per the team’s website . “But only one team can win. That doesn’t take anything away from what those guys accomplished. I don’t think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. I think it’s been misplaced for a decade.

“I would hope they answered some questions. Let’s be honest. Not many people had us making the playoffs. Not many people had us beating [the Los Angeles Kings in the first round]. On an on. I thought a lot of questions were answered by that group.”

It won’t be easy for them to make it back to the final. They’ll have some stiff competition in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville and any other team that might surprise.

So, can this “special group” do it all over again next season?

Time to vote!

Under Pressure: Patrick Marleau

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 04:  Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on April 4, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 5-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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This is part of Sharks day at PHT…

Before the 2016 playoffs, there had been a lot of disappointment in San Jose and Patrick Marleau has been there for all of it.

Over the last 18 seasons, Marleau has been the most productive Shark during the regular season. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the players that’s received the most criticism during San Jose’s playoff failures.

Last season, the 36-year-old saw his point total dip for the third straight year. Marleau was still productive (25 goals and 48 points in 82 games), just not as productive as he had been in previous seasons.

It’s no secret that Marleau’s been the talk of trade rumors for years. Even at the beginning of last season, it was reported that he submitted a list of three teams he was willing to be traded to.

“I’ve been here forever and it’s been a great place to play,” Marleau said last November, per CSN Bay Area. “I’m not going to get into specifics or anything like that. There’s always been rumors in my career. I don’t really want to feed into it anymore or comment on it. I don’t want it to become a distraction or anything.”

The Sharks held on to Marleau, and even though the rumors have died down, his days might still be numbered in San Jose (for real this time).

Marleau will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and although he’ll probably make less than his current $6.66 million AAV, it could be the end of the line between these two sides.

The Sharks have younger players like Tomas Hertl, Mikkel Boedker and a number of prospects like Nikolay Goldobin, who will be ready to jump into the lineup soon.

With an aging core, Marleau might be the first veteran San Jose cuts ties with because Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are still performing at a high level.

Also, the fact that Thornton and Brent Burns both need new contracts after next season certainly doesn’t help Marleau’s case. And in two years from now, Tomas Hertl will be looking for a bump in pay as well.

The odds seem to be stacked against Marleau. If he wants to remain a Shark, he’ll have to take a significant pay cut or have a huge bounce back season.

Looking to make the leap: Nikolay Goldobin

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 05:  Nikolay Goldobin #82 of the San Jose Sharks in action against the Florida Panthers at SAP Center on November 5, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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This is part of Sharks day at PHT…

Earning a roster spot on a veteran team that just went to the Stanley Cup Final won’t be easy, but Nikolay Goldobin will give it a shot.

The 20-year-old was drafted in the first round, 27th overall, in 2014. He has speed and skill and could be ready to make an impact at the NHL level as soon as this season.

Goldobin got his firs taste of NHL action last season, as he scored a goal and an assist in nine regular season games with the Sharks between Oct. 16 and Nov. 22.

Although his agent Igor Larionov admitted that his client wasn’t ready for the NHL last season, it’s a different story this time around.

Goldobin now has a full year of pro hockey under his belt and he his time in the AHL certainly helped too.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent CSN Bay Area article about Goldobin:

Headed into camp, Goldobin may be penciled in to start the season with the Barracudas, but I would imagine he’ll be given every opportunity to shine in some preseason games. As a skilled winger he’ll need to be on a line with a top center, so perhaps he gets a look with Joe Thornton or Logan Couture. There is always the chance Goldobin could push someone like Tomas Hertl, Melker Karlsson or Matt Nieto down the lineup, or maybe even a veteran like Patrick Marleau. It may not happen right away, but if Goldobin starts the year in the AHL and is tearing it up, he won’t have to take a cross-country flight on a recall. That should make some current Sharks a bit nervous.

In his young career, Goldobin has already a little success playing with Thornton:

The Sharks currently have 13 forwards on the roster, but that includes the two-way contracts of Joonas Donskoi, Chris Tierney and Micheal Haley.

Although Donskoi’s job appears to be safe, the other two players could become victims of Golbodin’s training camp success.

With everyone healthy, the Sharks likely won’t have a top-six roster spot Goldobin, but potential injuries could fix that problem too.

It’s San Jose Sharks day at PHT

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  The San Jose Sharks shake hands with the Pittsburgh Penguins after losing Game Six 3-1 and the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After years of falling short despite often ranking among the NHL’s pre-season favorites, the San Jose Sharks made their deepest run one year after not even making the playoffs at all.

That thought probably explains why, for many, the pain of falling two wins short of a first-ever Stanley Cup victory is dulled by the Sharks being (gasp) overachievers.

You could call the Sharks a lot of things since Joe Thornton was traded over to sunnier climates from Boston, but rarely were expectations low enough for them to over-achieve.

They did just that in their first season under head coach Peter DeBoer, however.

While their turnaround made less noise than the team that beat them in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks echoed the Penguins in finishing the 2015-16 season on a roll. They didn’t let a troubling 18-18-2 mark (as of Jan. 7) derail their season, managing to grab the third spot in the Pacific, exorcising some Los Angeles Kings demons and going on a memorable run.

Off-season

Here’s another Penguins parallel: the Sharks didn’t really lose anyone of note this summer.

When you get that close to winning it all, standing pat isn’t so bad, although GM Doug Wilson didn’t totally snooze on the job. He added a burst of speed with winger Mikkel Boedker, whose flaws are easier to ignore considering the team’s need for speed and a reasonable $4 million cap hit.

The Sharks also added respected defensive depth in David Schlemko, giving the team an enviable D corps.

Still, there are some lingering questions.

Can Martin Jones back up a strong first season as a No. 1 goalie? Will anything come from yet another round of Patrick Marleau trade rumors? Will a fairly old core of Joe Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski (already 32) and others get creaky after that playoff push?

The Sharks are an interesting case because they boast so much talent in those veterans plus Logan Couture and Brent Burns, yet age and a tough West inspire plenty of questions.

PHT will address quite a few of those queries on a Sharks Sunday.