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Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar

Training camps open in about a month’s time, which means it’s time for coaches around the NHL to really ramp up preparation for the new season. Some coaches have a lot of work ahead of them to try and turnaround poor seasons. For Jared Bednar, he’s hoping to build off of the success that his Colorado Avalanche had in 2017-18, improving by 47 points and returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014.

After being at the NHL Draft in Dallas and going through the start of the free agency period and development camp, Bednar was able to get away for some vacation before turning full focus on the 2018-19 campaign.

“For me, I like to stick around at the end of the year, do a bunch of review and take a look at some things and get my plan together,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during his drive from South Carolina to Denver. “Then you get a little bit of time away and you go to the draft and we do our development camp following the draft, so that’s a good week of getting to know some of our new players, but also your coaching staff is all there and the schedule comes out around that time and you can put together training camp schedules and get a lot of that type of work done. And then it’s nice to take a breather and get away from the game for a little bit.”

Bednar is entering his third season as head coach of the Avalanche. Year one, which he described as “horrible,” saw him hired in late August after Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation, something that affected preparation for that season. But year two was much better with a playoff berth and great seasons from Nathan MacKinnon, who was a Hart Trophy finalist, and Mikko Rantanen. He was rewarded by getting a trip to Las Vegas in June as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.

We spoke with Bednar about his growth as a head coach, the plan for his two goalies and his brief time playing in Roller Hockey International with the Anaheim Bullfrogs.

Enjoy.

PHT: How have you seen yourself change in the 10 years since your first professional head coaching job?

BEDNAR: “Well, there’s a lot of ways, I think. I’m more patient now. The experience that you have. I believe I trust my players more now than I did when I first started coaching. Try not to worry as much. I always felt like the preparation was the key to success and still is. A lot of things have stayed the same but I would say I’m a little bit easier to deal with and less riding the roller coaster… Probably a little more calm now than I was as a younger coach.”

PHT: Is there more delegation on your part now?

BEDNAR: “Absolutely. Part of that’s the level of which you coach. In the ECHL you wear so many different hats and your staff is small. I was alone for my first year and then added an assistant my second year, so you’re kind of doing everything hockey related and [also] GM duties and just the things you need to get done for your players. A lot of interaction with your guys at that level, which is nice. But your staff is small so you’re kind of overworked and you have to be real good with your time down there, which is a good thing to learn because it seems like I’m back to that at the NHL level as well.

“You have to really manage your time because you get pulled in so many different directions as a head coach that you have to rely on other people. We’ve got a great staff. My staff has been amazing and they’re all very good at what they do. It’s kind of the more detailed work the higher you go and the bigger the staff you need and more attention you try and give your players, especially nowadays. Players like the back and forth with the coaches, a lot of communication, so it’s real important you have a good staff and a big staff.”

PHT: You’ve won a Kelly Cup (ECHL). You’ve won a Calder Cup (AHL). Was there a trait that those two teams shared and do you see that in this current Avalanche roster?

BEDNAR: “Yes. The leadership both times that I’ve won with was outstanding, and not just coaches. Our players taking over our room and the character of our leadership and the hunger, the willingness to come out and do things right every day… Those teams had it and they were hungry for more. The desire to win was deep and it started with our captain, Ryan Craig in Cleveland, Jaime Sifers, guys like that that kind of forced our team to have this daily mentality that we were going to get better and pay attention to the process.

“I saw it a lot last year in our group. The hunger that we had coming into the season after a horrible first year with me at the helm, I saw our leadership get passed to our young core, our star players, and they were focused and driven and resilient. They got along with each other. Our room was really tight and I think you have to have that in order to win. We still have a lot of work to do, but those are the things that lead you in the right direction and eventually will push you over the top. Hopefully we can continue to grow in those areas. But that’s the main thing, is that leadership and focus and determination that we had.”

PHT: How do you and your staff keep the complacency out after a season that saw huge strides?

BEDNAR: “We’ve talked with our guys, even during the off-season. The hunger has to be there again from our players, from our coaching staff, and I believe it is. Our division, our conference, I think is more competitive than ever and everyone’s building and adding and trying to get better and we’re no different. It comes down to the character of our players wanting to be coached, wanting to be pushed and willing to go the extra mile in order to get it done. We’ve got a talented group. We’re trying to fill in pieces around our core to make our team better. From my conversations with our guys they’re hungry, they want more. They had a taste of it last year and I think we’ve added some nice pieces in there, too.”

“It’ll be a little bit of a different feel this year, but I know that our key guys are hungry for more. Adding players to our roster like Philipp Grubauer, who just won a Stanley Cup; Ian Cole’s won a couple Cups. Having guys that have been through it before and that were able to achieve and win the Stanley Cup are great additions to our team, along with a guy like Matty Calvert, who’s hungry and comes over from the Columbus organization.”

PHT: If Semyon Varlamov shows he’s 100 percent healthy and with Philipp now in the fold, do you have a percentage split in mind for both guys this season?

BEDNAR: “It’s hard to say. I think there’s been some inconsistencies in Varly’s game because of his injury history over the last couple of years, right? We eased him into the season a little bit last year to make sure that he was feeling confident in himself and that he was feeling right, and it worked out. He had a tough break at the end because there’s a collision and he hurts his MCL. I don’t think that you can prevent that as a goalie. He’s there to make the save. It’s not something that was tied to his previous injury. 

“We need Varly to stay healthy and when he’s been healthy, especially last year, as he started to play midseason and go he’s proven that he’s a No. 1. Now you have a guy like Philipp Grubauer coming in and he’s hungry to be a No. 1, he’s pushing to be a No. 1. Certainly last year he took over the net at times in Washington. But at the end of the day it made him a better goalie and it made Braden Holtby a better goalie and he ends up going in and winning them the Stanley Cup. We want the best out of both of these guys and we’ll ride the hot goalie at times, but I’d like to see Varly stay healthy and be able to regain his form because I think he’s trending that way and it’s going to be a matter of health for him. I know he’s one of our hardest working guys and a real hungry guy and I feel like Philipp Grubauer is hungry to prove that he’s a No. 1 as well.”

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PHT: Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention last season and deservedly so, but Mikko Rantanen had a tremendous year playing alongside him. What kind of kid is he and how has it been to coach him?

BEDNAR: “First off, their success goes hand in hand. They play on the same line, the same power play, the majority of their ice time they’re on the ice at the same time. They got a great chemistry, they complement one another. Mikko is a really nice kid, had a breakout season. He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko…

“Certainly, Gabriel Landeskog is part of that line and can’t be overlooked because they all play a different game but they find a way to complement one another and there’s a chemistry there that I’d like to see them continue to grow as a line. Last year, just being the first step, they can continue to improve as individuals and as a line, to be honest.”

PHT: Obviously playing with Nate and Gabe helped him a lot with the point jump in year two, but what areas did you see Mikko take major strides in last season? Was it a matter of playing with those two guys and just another year of experience or was there more?

BEDNAR: “I think there’s more. There’s certainly a comfort level there with Nate and Gabe. I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two. [He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well. I also think that their success, you have to give their teammates some credit, too. We had some depth. We had a checking line with [Carl] Soderberg, [Blake] Comeau and [Matt] Nieto that freed those guys up to play in more offensive situations. I felt like the year before they were doing a lot of the heavy lifting defensively and still we had to try and rely on them to create offense. Last year a lot of the responsibility was split because of the depth we had. We had some secondary scoring with guys coming in like [Alex] Kerfloot and [J.T.] Compher and [Tyson] Jost. It’s also there’s a team perspective to their success as well.”

PHT: Finally, you’re one of a handful of people in the NHL with a tie to Roller Hockey International. How did that opportunity [six games with the Anaheim Bullfrogs in 1995] come up and did the ankle injury prevent you from playing again the following summer?

BEDNAR: “I was playing in the ECHL in Huntington [West Virginia] and Grant Sonier got hired as our coach and we got talking. They invited me out to go play. A lot of ECHL players were doing that. It was a way to stay in shape, to keep training. Heading out to the west coast in LA or Anaheim seemed like a fun idea. Enjoy the beach and train and continue working at hockey and then getting paid for the summer instead of going back home and getting a construction job or something, it was a way to keep training and continue to live like you would during the season and just put more into your training. That seemed like a no-brainer for me and [I] went out there and had a great time, met some great people. I did end up getting hurt, jamming my ankle into the boards and breaking it, so I spent a little time in a cast which set me back but it was just a risk that you take in order to try and continue to get better as a player and be able to train for the summer when you need to make some money and work. 

“I enjoyed it. I just decided not to go back. Because of the injury I was a little bit leery of competing all summer long again when I could put a little bit more time into my training, which it turned out to be a good decision.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.