Offseason acquisition Brent Burns raises the expectations in San Jose

Expectations are pretty high in San Jose these days. Back-to-back trips to the Western Conference Finals will do that for a team. Then in the offseason, they went out and acquired the best defenseman they could get their hands on when they traded for former Minnesota Wild all-star Brent Burns. It didn’t take long for people to start asking Burns if he was feeling comfortable with his new team.

“Is this a chemistry question?” Burns said with a laugh before his second game. “Do I feel like a Shark? I have all the gear. I hope so. Yeah, it’s going to take a while, but it’s been great.”

Good thing it’s been a good start with his new teammates, because he signed a 5-year contract with San Jose before playing a single game. It was a big life decision for a guy who was only a year away from unrestricted free agency.

“It was pretty easy,” Burns said about the decision to sign an extension. “Me and my family didn’t know much about the city or the organization for that matter. I knew that it was tough to play against them and they had a great team. But right after we got traded, it can be a pretty devastating thing for somebody. The organization was just awesome. It almost takes me back to when I was 18 and pumped up to get one-piece sticks for the first time! The organization does everything they can to make sure you are ready to win—that’s all you have to care about. So it was a pretty easy decision once we started to see all the little things the team did. It was a no-brainer.”

Now that he’s in San Jose for the next six seasons, Burns should start getting used to the expectations. They’re the only team in the league that has been to the conference finals in each of the last two seasons. Before that, they were the #1 seed in the Western Conference before bowing out to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. The team has plenty of talent all over their roster—but until they take the next step in the playoffs, there will always be doubters (whether its warranted or not).

With Burns, the organization adds even more talent to a team that sent more players to the Olympics than most countries.

“Another puck-moving, active defenseman in the rush,” Sharks’ head coach Todd McLellan said. “[He has a] Great shot. Huge man, he’s our biggest defenseman and can play physical. In and around the blue paint, we feel that we’re stronger in that area.”

He’s not the only player who can play in the tough areas of the ice. Douglas Murray knows his way around the crease as well—and he’s excited about Burns joining the team.

“He’s an elite player,” Murray said. “He brings that extra dimension offensively and he has a big body too. He’s physical. Danny Boyle has done the heavy lifting as far as offense, so it’s great to have another high-end, top defenseman as well.”

Expectations are sky-high for the Sharks each season. Another trip to the conference finals may be a great season for most teams around the league—but it’s only the first step for San Jose. Not only do they want to make it back for the third straight season, but they want to break through this season. Everyone around the team has hopes that this could be the year it finally happens.

“I think he’s a big piece to the team,” Sharks play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn said about Burns. “If you look at the teams that win the Stanley Cup: last year, Zdeno Chara—a big defenseman. You go down the line of teams that win the Cup and almost every team that wins the Cup has that big-time, big man on the back end. Taking nothing away from Dan Boyle, he’s a tremendously gifted player with and without the puck, but he doesn’t bring the size.”

Pacific Division foes know that Burns is going to fill a big void for one of their rivals. Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle says Burns brings something the Sharks were missing last season.

“I thought that they had missed Rob Blake type of player and they look to have that element back on their backend,” Carlyle said. “That’s what Brent Burns brings. He’s a big man that can move, he jumps in the rush, big shot, plays big minutes, so I think that’s their mandate [for bringing him in.]”

Sharks head coach Todd McLellan expounded on Carlyle’s take:

“Maybe more with all due respect to Blake, because he has younger legs and can go a little bit more,” McLellan said. “But the same shot, the same tenacity, not quite the same maturity level obviously, but he does replace some of those assets lost when Blake retired.”

Carlyle and McLellan aren’t the only ones who think Burns can bring the “Rob Blake” presence either. Sharks play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn admitted that he thinks the team actually found an upgrade when asked about Burns replacing Blake’s productivity:

“With them not having to play together as a pair,” Hahn continued, “it gives the Sharks two sets of D [pairings] now that can truly dominate on the ice. That’s an element that even when Rob Blake was here, we didn’t quite have. No disrespect to Rob, but he was at the end of his career. We’ve never had this element that Brent Burns gives us with Boyle on one pair and him on a second pair. It makes us WAY tougher to match-up against.”

Take note: people around the Sharks think they’ll be “way tougher” to match up against than last season. This is a team that finished with the second best record in the Western Conference, won the Pacific Division crown for the fourth consecutive season, and eliminated both the upstart Los Angeles Kings and perennial power Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.

We’ll know how much better they are when April and May roll around. But if they are, the Eastern Conference better start preparing themselves.

Stepan: ‘I’ve stunk since the playoffs started’

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Derek Stepan knows he’s not playing very well, and he knows he’ll have to be better if the New York Rangers are going to make it past the Ottawa Senators.

With just one goal (an empty-netter) and one assist in seven playoff games, Stepan’s offensive production has fallen off a cliff after a respectable 55-point regular season, which included 38 assists.

“I’ve stunk since the playoffs started,” Stepan said, per NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “I’ve been not very good with the puck.”

An all-situations center, Stepan is more than just an offensive type. But he’s produced in previous playoff runs, and the Rangers need him to produce now — especially against a tight-checking Sens team that boasts a 2.00 goals-against average in these playoffs.

Stepan has 45 points (18G, 27A) in 92 career playoff games.

To be fair, he’s not the only Ranger who needs to get going offensively. One of the Blueshirts’ big strengths during the regular season was their balanced scoring, with all four lines contributing — and that’s not happening right now.

No Bieksa for Anaheim tonight, but Vatanen could return

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The Ducks will be without their most veteran skater on Friday as they look to even up their series with Edmonton.

Kevin Bieksa, who exited Game 1 with a lower-body injury following a collision with fellow d-man Shea Theodore, has been ruled out for tonight’s Game 2. It marks the first tilt the 35-year-old will miss this postseason.

Bieksa was enjoying a pretty good playoff prior to getting hurt. He racked up four assists in five games, while averaging just under 17 minutes per night. Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle is holding out hope Bieksa could return later in the series.

While this is a loss for the Ducks, it goes a long way in illustrating how much defensive depth they have.

While Carlyle wouldn’t confirm, all signs point to Sami Vatanen drawing in for Bieksa. Vatanen has been out since Game 1 of the Calgary series with an upper-body injury, but has resumed practicing and sounds like he’s ready to go.

“It’s always nice when a player is closer to coming back and you can potentially put them back in the lineup,” Carlyle said of Vatanen.

Anaheim dressed a blueline of Bieksa, Theodore, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour in Wednesday’s 5-3 defeat. If Vatanen can’t draw in for Bieksa, the club still has Korbinian Holzer in reserve.

 

 

Ducks say they’ve allowed Draisaitl too much freedom, too much fun

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Given the nicknames bestowed on Leon Drasaitl recently — the German Gretzky, Certified Duck Killer — it’s safe to assume the big Oilers forward is having a pretty good time.

That’s something Anaheim wants to put to an end, starting tonight.

“He’s a power forward and we’re allowing him too much freedom. He’s having too much fun,” Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle told the Journal, after Drasaitl went off for four points in Wednesday’s series-opening win.  “I don’t know how I can put it any simpler.”

The 21-year-old has made a habit of tormenting Anaheim this season. He has goals in five of seven career games at the Honda Center and, in his last 11 tilts versus the Ducks, has racked up an whopping 17 points.

Coming into this second round series, most of the focus was on how Carlyle and company would shut down Connor McDavid.

But now it appears they have another matchup issue on their hands.

Carlyle’s most logical choice is to put out the Ryan Kesler line against McDavid, given Kesler’s stout defensive play and ability to shut down opposing centers. But in terms of straight matching, that puts plenty of responsibility on Kesler’s wingers — especially Andrew Cogliano — to deal with Draisaitl. He has good size (6-foot-1, 216 pounds) and has been bolstered by McDavid’s playmaking ability.

As such, there’s a fascinating game-within-a-game to watch this evening. Carlyle has the benefit of last change. The forward matchups will be worth monitoring, but so will the defense — veteran blueliner Kevin Bieksa is doubtful after exiting Game 1 with a lower-body injury, but Sami Vatanen could return after sitting out since Game 1 of the Calgary series.

 

 

Canucks could really use Patrick or Hischier

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The Vancouver Canucks are hoping for better luck in tomorrow’s draft lottery. If they receive it, they may get a player who can step right into their lineup, and stay there for years to come.

The top two picks in the 2017 draft are expected to be centers Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.

It remains to be seen who will go first overall. Patrick was the consensus pick for a while, but Hischier started to gain ground with an impressive showing for Switzerland at the World Juniors.

“I think the top two players in this draft have the potential to maybe step in and play next year and be productive players at the NHL level,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “But I think the next three players, whether you’re looking at a play-making center, or potentially a power-play defenseman, there’s good choices there too.”

Gabe Vilardi, Casey Mittelstadt, and Cody Glass are centers the Canucks could select if they fall out of the top two. Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and Timothy Liljegren are options on defense.

But getting Patrick or Hischier would be a huge win for a team that will soon have to replace Henrik Sedin, who turns 37 in September.

Benning says Patrick offers a combination of size (6-3, 198), skill and hockey sense, with “no real weakness in his game.”

As for Hischier, it’s his speed that really stands out.

“He’s built for today’s game,” said Benning. “His speed going through the neutral zone is fun to watch.”

The Canucks have the second-best odds to win the draft lottery. The furthest they can fall is to fifth.

Last year, Vancouver fell two spots from third to fifth, with Winnipeg and Columbus moving up. The Canucks drafted Finnish defenseman Olli Juolevi with their selection.

Draft lottery odds

Colorado Avalanche 18.0%
Vancouver Canucks 12.1%
Vegas Golden Knights* 10.3%
Arizona Coyotes 10.3%
New Jersey Devils 8.5%
Buffalo Sabres 7.6%
Detroit Red Wings 6.7%
Dallas Stars 5.8%
Florida Panthers 5.4%
Los Angeles Kings 4.5%
Carolina Hurricanes 3.2%
Winnipeg Jets 2.7%
Philadelphia Flyers 2.2%
Tampa Bay Lightning 1.8%