Author: Mike Halford

Vancouver Canucks v San Jose Sharks

Looking to make the leap: Mirco Mueller


Like most things in San Jose last year, Mirco Mueller’s progression didn’t go exactly to plan.

Mueller, the 20-year-old blueliner San Jose took 18th overall in 2013, started out the year in the NHL as part of GM Doug Wilson’s “tomorrow team” movement, only to see his ice time dwindle by early December.

From there, he was loaned to Team Switzerland for the World Juniors and, upon returning, was shuffled back and forth between San Jose and the club’s AHL affiliate in Worcester, before a thumb injury in late March ended his year.

All told, Mueller appeared in just 39 games for the Sharks, three for Worcester and six for Switzerland — not a ton of hockey for a youngster that needs all the reps he can get.

Which begs the question — where will he get them this year?

On paper, Mueller appears to be part of the club’s six-man defensive unit, along with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and newly acquired Paul Martin. But the Swiss rearguard will have some pretty heady competition for that spot, particularly in the form of Matt Tennyson, who appeared in a career-high 27 games last year, and Dylan DeMelo,  a 22-year-old prospect who, according to AHL bench boss Roy Sommer, is ready to make the leap himself.

Speaking of the American League, it could end up being the place where Mueller starts this season.

There were worries San Jose rushed him to the NHL last year and it’s important to remember that, of all the d-men taken in the first round in ’13, only Seth Jones and Rasmus Ristolainen have emerged as regulars; some have argued that Nikita Zadorov, taken two spots ahead of Mueller, was also rushed to the NHL (and has since been traded to Colorado).

What’s more, the likes of Philly’s Samuel Morin (No. 11), Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey (No. 13) and the Islanders’ Ryan Pulock (No. 15) have yet to even make their big-league debuts.

Mueller knows that, based on his age and number of players looking to stick with the Sharks, this fall’s training camp will go a long way in deciding his fate.

And he knows the challenge will be difficult.

 “It’s always competitive,” he said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “A lot of jobs are on the line.”

Hall of Famer Al Arbour passes away

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Islanders

Al Arbour, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, died on Friday at the age of 82.

Arbour is best known for leading the Islanders dynasty teams of the late 70s and early 80s to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, and for trailing only Scotty Bowman for the league’s all-time mark in wins (782) and games coached (1,607).

“Al will always be remembered as one of, if not, the greatest coaches ever to stand behind a bench in the history of the National Hockey League,” Islanders President and General Manager Garth Snow said in a statement. “The New York Islanders franchise has four Stanley Cups to its name, thanks in large part to Al’s incredible efforts.

“From his innovative coaching methods, to his humble way of life away from the game, Al is one of the reasons the New York Islanders are a historic franchise. On behalf of the entire organization, we send our deepest condolences to the entire Arbour family.”

Arbour’s coaching days came after a fairly distinguished playing career in which he won a pair of Stanley Cups — one with Chicago, and one with Toronto. Arbour also went down in history as the first-ever captain of the St. Louis Blues and the last player to wear glasses while playing, with those spectacles eventually becoming part of his signature look.

It is on Long Island where Arbour really made his mark, however.

After his stellar run, quartet of championships and an amazing streak of 19 straight playoff series wins, he retired from coaching to take a front office position with New York in ’86, only to return to the bench a few years later.

Arbour’s second stint coaching the Isles was highlighted by the playoff run in ’93, in which the team knocked off Washington and the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins before bowing out to Montreal.

In 2007 — at the age of 75 — Arbour returned to the Islanders’ bench one final time, in order to hit 1,500 games coached with the organization. Fittingly, New York won, 3-2 over Pittsburgh — and to honor the achievement, the club raised a new banner to the rafters in Arbour’s honor.

Arbor captured the Jack Adams as NHL coach of the year in 1979, the Lester Patrick Trophy for contributions to U.S. Hockey in ’92 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’96.

He is survived by his wife Claire and children Joann, Jay, Julie and Janice.

Poll: Who will be San Jose’s next captain?

Joe Thornton

After a year in which playing without a captain proved to be a massive distraction, the San Jose Sharks are reversing course for 2015-16 — in fact, one of the first things new head coach Peter DeBoer confirmed upon getting hired is that someone would wear the “C” this year.

Probably a good idea.

Last year’s saga, you’ll recall, began with the club stripping Joe Thornton of his captaincy, then implementing a four-man alternate captain/leadership group comprised of Patrick Marleau (who had his “A” stripped, then given back), Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic… and Joe Thornton.

Yeah, I know. Crazy it didn’t work out!

The situation festered throughout the season, reaching a boiling point in late February and early March. After McLellan went on radio and said the Sharks were “better led” without a captain — which some saw as a shot at Thornton — GM Doug Wilson told a group of ticketholders that Thornton was stripped because the “pressure and stress” of serving as team captain caused him to lash out at people.

Thornton responded, quite appropriately, by lashing out at Wilson.

“I think Doug just needs to shut his mouth. I think that’s the bottom line,” he said. “All I’ve got to say is I’ve been here every day working hard. I haven’t taken a sabbatical.

“He just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth.”

This Tet-a-tet forced owner Hasso Plattner to intervene and tell all parties to quit airing the team’s dirty laundry. After missing the playoffs, the Sharks and McLellan “mutually agreed to part ways,” but not before Thornton took a parting shot at his (now former) head coach.

Soooo… does this pretty much rule Thornton out as the next captain?

One would have to think so. Jumbo turned 36 in July and will be a free agent after next season, so the Sharks will likely look to the future, continuing that “tomorrow team” notion that Wilson seems to have stopped talking about entirely.

The team also has candidates ready to make the leap to captain. Pavelski and Vlasic top the list, and McLellan previously talked up Logan Couture as a leader-in-the-making.

With that said, let’s get to the vote. Feel free to add additional candidates in the comments section.

Under Pressure: Martin Jones

Canada v Germany - 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship

ESPN called him the Sharks’ most important player.

GM Doug Wilson said he was “at the top of our list of players that we had targeted.”

He was acquired at a steep price (first-rounder in ’16), signed to a big raise (three years, $9 million) and will enter this season as a (projected) No. 1 goalie for the first time in his career.

So needless to say, there’s a fair bit of pressure on Martin Jones — not that he’s fearful of the challenges ahead.

“I think I’m ready to definitely take that step and play more hockey games,” Jones said earlier this summer, per CSN Bay Area. “It’s been a big couple years in my development I think, and I’m looking forward to a new challenge.”

Jones is high on promise and potential. He’s only 25, has good size (6-foot-4) and a ton of experience at the American League level, with nearly 150 games over the last five years.

There’s just one catch: He’s a bit of an unknown at the NHL level.

Stuck behind workhorse No. 1 Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles for the last two years, Jones made a grand total of 34 appearances for the Kings and while his numbers have been good — .923 save percentage, 1.99 GAA — it’s still a pretty small sample size.

Of course, the Sharks had an advantage of scouting Jones, thanks to playing in the Pacific Division. Jones has faced San Jose four times in his career, which included a 31-save effort in a 4-1 win at the start of the 2013-14 campaign — a game in which he was named first star.

“This is a guy we’ve seen,” Wilson said upon acquiring Jones, per CSN Bay Area. “We know a lot about him. It’s his style, his size – he’s a big goalie and highly competitive. You probably have more information on a player like this than you do a guy that you’d be drafting.”

There’s just one more wrinkle to all this.

Jones isn’t heading to any old team for the first starting gig of his career — he’s going to San Jose, a team coming off one of the most dysfunctional seasons in franchise history. The Sharks are determined to get back to the playoffs (Logan Couture all but guaranteed a return) and made two big veteran free agent splashes in Joel Ward and Paul Martin to help get back.

As such, Jones will carry additional weight in ’15-16.

Pressure’s on.

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?

St. Louis Blues v Pittsburgh Penguins

For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”