Brent Burns

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Yes, you can probably take the Arizona Coyotes seriously now

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Even if you assume that intriguing young defenseman Jakob Chychrun won’t really be healthy until late in 2017-18, the Arizona Coyotes suddenly boast a remarkably promising defense after acquiring Jason Demers.

(Read more about that significant trade here.)

Demers joins a group including stud blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, underrated puck-mover Alex Goligoski, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the best pure “defensive defenseman” in the game.

Jamie McGinn has quietly put together a solid career, yet his kind are easier to come by in the NHL, a league where competent top-four defensemen are at a serious premium. Just ask Coyotes GM John Chayka.

That top four has something for everyone, and generally boasts the sort of mobile, talented defensemen that are coveted in the NHL.

Ask yourself for a moment: how many teams, particularly in the Western Conference, can confidently say that they have a better defense corps than the Coyotes do right now? The Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames are immediate answers, while the St. Louis Blues likely boast a stronger group, too.

Things get a little fuzzier once you reach down the conference’s ranks.

The San Jose Sharks boast bigger strengths on the high-end with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, but the Coyotes might have them beat from a depth perspective. The Winnipeg Jets boast some interesting talent, yet you wonder if Paul Maurice is really harnessing that potential. And so on.

We can quibble over Arizona’s exact place among those groups, yet it’s difficult to dispute that, suddenly, the Coyotes seem respectable in that area.

They have the makings of a team that can make a surge in other areas, too.

If Antti Raanta can covert strong backup work to full-time difference-making (see: Cam Talbot, Martin Jones), suddenly the Coyotes are that much tougher to score against.

Stepan gives that forward group some credibility, while things could get interesting if Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and Dylan Strome take steps forward. And, really, a signing like this might inspire the Coyotes to push to add a little more offense.

(Maybe older guys [who can be more than mere mentors] like Jaromir Jagr or Denis Zaripov deserve at least an exploratory phone call right now?)

There are a ton of “Ifs,” right down to how well Rick Tocchet can mold what, to many, looks like a roster that’s about as polished as a ball of clay.

Don’t be surprised if the Coyotes become a chic dark horse candidate as previews start trickling in, though, either.

Sharks begin 1st training camp without Marleau in 21 years

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) There was something familiar missing in San Jose when the Sharks opened training camp.

For the first time since 1996, the Sharks took the ice for their first training camp practice without Patrick Marleau on the team as the franchise’s career leader in games and scoring left as a free agent for Toronto this summer.

“I’ve spent a lot of years with him. It is kind of strange,” said Joe Thornton, who came to San Jose in 2005. “It’s his birthday today too. It’s a little weird, but he’s going to do great up in Toronto.”

Marleau had been with San Jose since being picked second overall in 1997 but left the Sharks to sign an $18.75 million, three-year deal with the Maple Leafs in July.

Marleau has 508 goals and 574 assists for 1,082 points. He had 46 points in playing all 82 games last season as he rebounded from a disappointing 2015-16 season by scoring 27 goals, including the 500th of his career. He ranks first in San Jose in career goals, games and points.

Only six players in NHL history have played more games with one team than Marleau’s 1,493 in San Jose. The Sharks haven’t played a game without him on the ice since April 7, 2009.

“Obviously Patty has meant so much to this organization and this group,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “Everyone in this room has pretty much played with him and Patty has done something to help them out. He’ll be missed. … Just by committee somebody will step in and fill that kind of hole. That’s what we’ll need.”

The Sharks made no major additions this offseason so will need to replace Marleau’s 27 goals by getting development from younger players like Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Danny O'Regan, as well as bounce-back seasons from veterans like Thornton, Mikkel Boedker and Joonas Donskoi.

Only Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are back after scoring more than 12 goals last season.

“When I look back at last year we had key people either have down years or miss significant time with injuries or coming off injuries,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think if we can stay healthy I think we’ve got a large group of guys that can really take a step this year and I expect a step out of them.”

While the Sharks lost Marleau in free agency, they did manage to keep Thornton by giving him a one-year, $8 million contract despite dwindling production last season and offseason knee surgery.

He scored just seven goals – his fewest in an 82-game season since his rookie year in 1997-98 – and was a key part of a power-play unit that uncharacteristically struggled last season. But he still managed 43 assists, teaming with captain Joe Pavelski on San Jose’s top line.

Thornton missed the final week of the regular season and the first two playoff games with a left knee injury before returning for the final four games of a first-round loss to Edmonton. Thornton then underwent surgery to repair his MCL and ACL after the season but was back skating in August and started ramping it up for training camp two weeks ago. Thornton believes the lower-body work he did in rehab this offseason will pay dividends on the ice.

“They feel real strong,” he said of his legs. “I feel a lot of pop out there. They’re probably as strong as they’ve ever been just because I had to rehab that knee so much.”

 

Connor McDavid might be … really funny?

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Another day, another funny advertisement featuring Connor McDavid.

At first, it seemed like the Edmonton Oilers megastar was merely holding his own in this great set of “shooting challenge” ads with San Jose Sharks star-wookie Brent Burns.

Allow me to admit some guilt in possibly not giving McDavid enough credit for his half of that CCM haul, as he sure seemed to chirp Burns quite well. You could argue that he got the better of one of the oddest, most enjoyable players in the league in Burns.

The bigger question might be if McDavid is worthy of an “SNL” hosting gig, as this spot/bit he did for “NHL 18” was truly inspired work.

Dropping “Corsi” and dressing up as a fancy stats kid was the highlight:

Now, after a couple years of McDavid giving monotone interviews that seemed to come straight from the Sidney Crosby School of Cliches, it was tempting to write him off as the next, bland star.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see McDavid continue that trend, at least with the traditional press. After all, what motivation does McDavid really have to go too deep, especially since certain media members might be more eager to criticize him than others? (Heavens forbid if McDavid likes hot dogs and the Oilers happen to lose some games.)

Even if we must only savor these moments in commercials, they’ve been great. And, hey, McDavid was also a great sport once this awkward photo went viral, so maybe we’ll get more from the speedy center than many expected.

Hey, he already inked that $12.5 million deal. That’s as close as you’ll see to “hockey tenure,” so maybe that will prompt McDavid to continue cutting loose?

Brent Burns vs. Connor McDavid in funny, destructive ‘shooting competition’

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Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid might be bland during interviews, but given the right time and place – and maybe, the right company – he shows that he can be fun, too.

You really can’t ask for much better company than San Jose Sharks defenseman/wildebeest Brent Burns, so kudos to CCM for putting together these great “shooting competition” spots.

The “CCM Carnival” features the two players aiming at a variety of amusement park-themed targets, with some great barbs thrown back and forth. Burns says that he’s heard all about McDavid’s speed, but what about his accuracy?

McDavid gets the better of the milk bottle portion, but the two stars evoke “Beavis and Butt-Head” in their wanton destruction of plates here:

(Someone, somewhere needs to make sure that “McDavid losing popcorn” moment becomes a situational GIF.)

The two continue the carnival theme with Oilers and Sharks teddy bears, along with a dunk booth moment that should be savored:

It’s sort of like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson bonding while filming a Converse sneaker commercial, only it doesn’t really seem like McDavid and Burns ever really hated each other (or even “sports-hated” each other).

In less comical Sharks news, the team added Brandon Mashinter via a one-year contract on Monday. Mashinter’s second stint with the Sharks will likely serve as either a depth forward on the main roster or a guy who would serve as a reliable call-up from the AHL.

No word on how well he can shoot at milk bottles.

(H/T to Fear the Fin.)

Penguins want Letang to make calculated decisions to avoid taking unnecessary hits

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Kris Letang is one of the absolute best defensemen in the NHL. There are maybe only one or two defensemen in the league that can match his skating, he is a force offensively and he is a 25-minute per night player — being used in every situation — for the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

When he is on the ice he is a total game-changer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and one of their most important cogs. When he was sidelined for the second half of last season and the entire postseason due to a back injury there was some very real and legitimate concern that it would negatively impact their chances of repeating. They ended up repeating anyway, but weren’t quite as dominant and played noticeably different than they did the year before with Letang in the lineup. His absence was still big.

The biggest drawback for him as a player is that he tends to miss a lot of games due to injury. Since the start of the 2011-12 season he has appeared in more than 51 games just two times in six seasons, and never played in more than 71 during that stretch.

Some of it has been bad luck (the health scare that sidelined him during the 2013-14 season) but some of it comes from his style of play. He is aggressive, he plays big minutes, and he is pretty fearless on the ice, doing everything he can to make every single play, even if it means taking a big hit. And he takes a ton of hits.

When it comes to the latter part, the Penguins are looking for him to use better judgement to avoid taking some of those hits.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said over the weekend, via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he would like to see Letang recognize when there isn’t a play to be made and not expose himself to a potentially dangerous hit.

Here is Sullivan, via the Post-Gazette:

“We would like him to recognize those situations when he might have to use the glass and make a simple play and not put himself in vulnerable situations,” Sullivan said. “He’s a courageous kid. He’s brave. That’s part of what makes him as good as he is. And there’s going to be opportunities where he’s going to have to take hits for us to make plays. We don’t want him to change that aspect of his game.”

The Penguins are not looking for Letang to play a more conservative game overall or take away his creativity, they just want him to take some steps to help preserve himself physically so he can remain on the ice.

Sullivan added that he thinks all of the time Letang spent in the press box this past season will give him a different vantage point on the game and help him recognize the situations where he could potentially avoid a hit.

Letang only appeared in 41 games for the Penguins during the 2016-17 season but still recorded 34 points. That point-per-game average was fourth among all defensemen that appeared in at least 40 games, putting him behind only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman.

He has averaged 0.85 points per game since the start of the 2011-12 season, a mark that puts him behind only Karlsson among the league’s defensemen. When you combine that offensive ability with his play in his own zone and the way he can almost single handedly dictate the pace of the game when he is on the ice it should be clear why the Penguins want to do everything they can to protect him physically. He was arguably their best player during their 2016 Stanley Cup run.

He is quite simply a very rare and special player.