If Grier, Sharks refuse rebuild, Brunette should be next head coach

If Grier, Sharks refuse rebuild, Brunette should be next head coach
L, Brunette (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images); R: Grier (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The great, downright-inspiring (if a bit late?) news is that Mike Grier became the first Black man to hold a GM position in NHL history. The bad news is that, in running the Sharks, Grier faces one of the toughest GM jobs in the NHL — and arguably in all of professional sports.

From managing a salary cap mess to finding a new head coach after much of the market’s been settled, this might not be a sinking ship. This seems closer to rescuing and restoring an already-sunken vessel.

Mike Grier indicates Sharks won’t go into full-blown rebuild mode

No matter who became San Jose’s next GM, the question would be inevitable. Will the Sharks institute a rebuild?

Mike Grier indicated that he won’t institute a full-blown rebuild as his first course of action as Sharks GM.

“We’re not looking to tear this down, like Arizona (Coyotes) or some teams have done in the past,” Grier said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “Yes, there are some challenges with the (NHL) salary cap, but I think the majority of the League is dealing with the flat cap and they have the [same] issue. So for us, we’re not looking to rebuild … there are a lot of ‘R’ words you could use.”

“For us, there might be a few bumps in the road ahead and we might have to step back a little bit to go forward, but we’re going to try and get better and try to make the roster better.”

Normally, this sort of comment would inspire foreboding feelings. You might even cue up Bowser-style imposing “boss battle” music.

Rebuild options might be limited for Sharks, anyway

Yet, when it comes to a rebuild, it may already be too late. (In Mario terms, the Sharks heard the “running out of time” music but can’t recover.)

When the contract ‘is its own no-trade clause’ but it also has an actual no-trade clause

For starters, the Sharks’ salary cap isn’t just saddled with bad/bloated/expensive contracts. Most of those players either boast no-trade or no-movement clauses, too.

You can joke that bad contracts are their own no-trade clauses. It’s especially bad when they check both boxes.

Now, it’s wise for Mike Grier to give the Sharks some room to gesture at a rebuild. (Specifically, “we might have to step back a little bit to go forward.”)

In plenty of cases, we see players waive no-trade or no-movement clauses. Ryan McDonagh did so after the Lightning awkwardly asked him. Veterans like Brent Burns may be more flexible if it becomes clear that the Sharks can’t compete, even if they want to.

If things line up, maybe the Sharks could trade some of the contracts they’d need to really jumpstart a rebuild. Perhaps that path is blocked off, but could open up with time? (Obviously, you’d still need someone to want some of those contracts — but never say never in the NHL.)

Already taking questionable paths at forks in the road

As bad as Erik Karlsson‘s contract is, at least you could understand the Sharks’ thinking at the time it was signed. This was a team that competed at a high level, and wanted to take that next step.

The toughest failure to take might just be the most recent one. Yes, it would’ve been painful to trade a player as talented (and sometimes underrated) as Tomas Hertl. A self-aware franchise would swallow that bitter pill. Instead, the Sharks added another risky long-term contract to what was already a terrifying, gigantic mound of poor spending.

It’s the sort of decision that complicates other choices.

In many ways, the Sharks are in a similar place with 25-year-old power forward Timo Meier. Do you trade Meier during his contract year, or add what would likely be a Hertl-style contract to the mix? Mario Ferraro is about to become an RFA. Do you trade a sturdy 23-year-old defenseman, or do you decide you can’t afford to remove one of your younger cornerstones?

Previous sunk costs muddy those decisions. Thus, it’s easier to understand if Grier hopes the Sharks can somehow figure this out.

Blame Boughner?

If the Sharks indeed refuse to rebuild, then they hang on a shaky hope: that Bob Boughner wasn’t the right choice as head coach.

Realistically, you can only blame Boughner for so much. But maybe the Sharks can talk themselves into a turnaround.

Consider that, in 2018-19 (an abbreviated season with Peter DeBoer, with Boughner taking over in December) the Sharks were a mostly-strong team from an underlying perspective. Their Evolving Hockey Team RAPM backed up thoughts that this was a good team undermined by bad goaltending.

From 2019-20 (Boughner’s first full season as Sharks head coach) and on, the team’s basically bounced between mediocre and an absolute disaster.

Realistically, it would be foolish for the Sharks to pin it all on Bob Boughner. Really, just look at that roster, and you’d likely at least admit that it would probably need to “outscore its problems.”

Even fully optimized, this isn’t the sort of team that could lock down opponents in a way that would draw Barry Trotz out of his sabbatical.

Maybe the key is to lean into the Sharks’ strengths, and hope you could either hide weaknesses, or overcome them? That might be where you start to pick at Boughner. Shouldn’t a Sharks team create more offense, even if it means taking more risks? Consider this timid heat map of their 5-on-5 offense from last season, via Hockey Viz:

That’s not to say the gameplan for 2021-22 was totally outrageous. The Sharks were likely trying to mitigate risks (their defense showed significant improvement).

Sensible enough. However, maybe the Sharks need mad science. Perhaps the Sharks need to try their own version of what the Florida Panthers have been attempting the past two years?

And it just so happens that a mad scientist could be available …

Andrew Brunette could be Sharks’ best hope as head coach

Again, the Sharks enter the coaching market much like they played too many games in 2021-22: from behind. They fired Bob Boughner really late in the game, when other coaching jobs were being cemented.

With limited options in mind, maybe it’s not shocking to see a “meh” option like David Quinn emerge as a possible Sharks head coach. There’s even the chum factor.

Instead, I’d argue that there might be some serendipity to the Sharks’ timing. What if they stumble onto a solution in Andrew Brunette, who entered the coaching market thanks to the Panthers’ own strange process?

Maybe there isn’t the same chum factor between Mike Grier and Andrew Brunette. You could argue that they’re both kindred spirits based on their playing days. Both were barely drafted (Brunette: 174th overall in 1993; Grier: 219th[!] overall that same year). Each needed to use their smarts and hard work to carve out careers of more than 1,000 NHL games played.

Really, though, it’s Brunette’s success (and hopefully, style) that should appeal to the Sharks.

It’s not very fair for Grier to inherit this Sharks mess as GM. It also wasn’t fair for Brunette to get fired after being thrust into an interim job with the Panthers where he churned out a Presidents’ Trophy season and became a Jack Adams Award finalist.

If you want to win now, wouldn’t you give someone a chance coming off such great success?

Bring the Florida formula to San Jose?

To reiterate: the style fit could make serious sense, too. The Panthers attacked relentlessly off the rush, accepting the bad because they believed it was outweighed by the good. MacKenzie Weegar, a right-handed defenseman with a hearty risk:reward factor, was a big catalyst for that attack.

Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are both right-handed defensemen who, ideally, create so much offense that it paints over defensive shortcomings. Heck, it’s possible that if Ryan Merkley is a fixture for the Sharks soon, he’ll fit that description too. It may even make sense for the Sharks to occasionally roll out two right-handed defensemen, as the Panthers often did with Weegar and Aaron Ekblad.

By modern NHL standards, that was an unusual pairing. It was also one that was wildly successful. Yes, even in the playoffs.

Leaf through Jack Han’s Hockey Tactics Playbook, and you’ll note that the Sharks probably need to experiment to get the most out of Erik Karlsson. A lot of that may boil down to having Karlsson handling the puck in the neutral zone, and creating potential rush opportunities.

While the Sharks may not possess the foot speed of the Panthers, they might still be able to echo Florida’s larger rush philosophies.

Seems like it’s better to “shoot from everywhere” than live in the “zone of pain.” (via All Three Zones/Corey Sznajder)

Maybe that wouldn’t work. Perhaps nothing would work, and the Sharks are destined to tank voluntarily or involuntarily.

Ultimately, if Grier and the Sharks don’t rebuild, then their best bet is Brunette as bench boss (or at least someone similar).

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    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

    Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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    PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

    The break ended shortly thereafter.

    Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

    The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

    All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

    “I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

    Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

    While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

    Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

    Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

    Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

    “I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

    Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

    Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

    Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

    Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

    In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

    He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

    Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

    Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

    Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

    “Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”