Sharks entering key stretch with playoff race, brutal schedule, Hertl contract situation

San Jose Sharks
Ezra Shaw, Getty Images

The Pacific Division playoff race is wide open right now thanks to a couple of rebuilding teams exceeding expectations (Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose) and a couple of teams that were supposed to be playoff contenders being mild (Calgary, Vancouver) to major (Edmonton) disappointments.

With Vancouver’s recent surge under new coach Bruce Boudreau pretty much every team in the division outside of Seattle has at least some reason to believe they might still be in it for the time being. One of the more fascinating teams in the race is the San Jose Sharks, a team that entered the season with almost no expectations after being one of the league’s worst teams the past two years.

The Sharks spent the offseason overhauling their goalie situation (bringing in James Reimer and Adin Hill, but only minor tweaks elsewhere on the roster. They were mostly banking on returning players having bounce back years and the goaltending being better. So far, pretty much all of that is happening.

After having some of the worst goaltending in the league over the previous three seasons, Reimer and Hill have teamed up to at least give them a league-average performance, while several high-priced veterans have had bounce back years including Timo Meier, Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, and Brent Burns. If nothing else, it has at least made them a bubble team in the playoff race and given fans a reason to pay attention to the standings at the halfway point, which is more than can be said over the past couple of years.

[Related: Which teams still have realistic chance to make the playoffs]

Speaking of those standings, the Sharks are currently in the second Wild Card spot based on raw point totals but nearly everybody has games in hand on them.

Here is where things stand based on points percentage (current point pace in parenthesis).

  • Vegas Golden Knights: .615 (101)
  • Los Angeles Kings: .592 (97)
  • Calgary Flames: .588 (96)
  • Anaheim Ducks: .549 (90)
  • Edmonton Oilers: .543 (89)
  • San Jose Sharks: .538 (88)
  • Vancouver Canucks: .487 (79)
  • Seattle Kraken: .324 (53)

Expand that to the Wild Card race, and Central division teams Winnipeg (95 point pace) and Dallas (89 point pace) are also teams for them to watch.

So, not an ideal situation to be in, but still somewhat in it.

Also not idea is their schedule over the next two months between now and the NHL trade deadline.

Between Monday and March 18 the Sharks have 18 games scheduled. Of those 18 games they play 10 games against teams that are currently in the top-11 league-wide in points percentage (Tampa Bay twice, Florida twice, Colorado, Carolina, Washington, Vegas, Boston, and Nashville) and another five games against teams they are directly competing with in the Pacific Division for a playoff spot (four against Los Angeles and one against Anaheim). The only three games they play during that stretch against bottom half teams are two against Seattle and one against the New York Islanders (a team that is starting to play a little better).

This is not only a make-or-break stretch in the playoff race, the schedule itself is absolutely brutal filled with the “four point game” (Los Angeles and Anaheim) and a ton of Stanley Cup contenders.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Panthers keep embarrassing teams; Shesterkin carries Rangers]

We are about to learn a lot about the Sharks and whether or not they are a serious contender for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. If they can win some of those games against Los Angeles and Anaheim, and maybe just keep their heads above water against those top contenders, they will be able to stay in this.

While all of that is taking place, the Sharks have another situation to watch as they continue to deal with Tomas Hertl — one of their best players — who continues to play out the final year of his current contract and is a pending unrestricted free agent after this season. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported this past week that with Evander Kane no longer in the picture the Sharks might be willing to circle back on contract talks with Hertl. Does the combination of some additional salary cap space, combined with the fact the Sharks are hanging around in the playoff race, change their plans?

Hertl also has an extremely limited no-trade clause that gives him almost complete control of where he would go if the Sharks decide to deal him.

Hertl, 28, is having a great season and is currently on a 40-goal pace for the Sharks. If they were to put him on the trade market there would be no shortage of potential buyers (assuming Hertl would okay the trade) while he would also be one of the top potential free agents this summer.

Between that, the schedule, and their hope of staying in the playoff race the Sharks are going to be one of the more intriguing teams to watch over the next couple of weeks.

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

    mark stone surgery
    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

    brunette dui
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.