Brent Burns

Joel Ward retires from hockey, reflects on 726 unlikely NHL games

Capping an unlikely playing career, Joel Ward announced his retirement from hockey on Monday. Ward shared the news in a compelling piece at The Players’ Tribune.

Ward, 39, titled that announcement “726.” That represents the number of regular season games Ward played with the Wild, Predators, Capitals, and Sharks. For a lightly scoring player even at the University of Prince Edward Island — a player who went undrafted — Ward realizes how unlikely his journey was.

While Ward received a tryout with the Canadiens before 2018-19, he last enjoyed NHL action with the Sharks in 2017-18. That also represents his last hockey run, as Ward didn’t go overseas.

In retrospect, retiring this way ended up feeling fitting for Ward.

Hockey is a beautiful game, and it works in mysterious ways. Some players, they end on a perfect high, some have it taken from them. But me, I kind of thought it was fitting that I went out the way I came in — without anybody really noticing.

Ward truly took an unlikely path to the NHL, going from the University of Prince Edward Island, jumping suddenly from the ECHL to the AHL, and then making a lasting impact at the highest level. As Ward notes, he even played for Team Canada during the 2014 world championships.

Ward retires from hockey, 2014 world championships
(Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Ward shares details from his career as he retires

Of course, Ward didn’t just play in 726 regular-season games. He also appeared in 83 playoff contests, managing a memorable playoff overtime goal against the Bruins while he was with the Capitals in 2012.

Ward fondly recalls “[Alex Ovechkin], with the biggest smile on his face, flying at me full speed,” after Ward scored the goal, which you can watch in the video above this post’s headline. Ward focused on that memory, rather than the unfortunate, racist reaction from some fans after it.

Despite admittedly not being a smooth skater, a fighter, or a grinder, Ward managed to find a place in the NHL. He scored 133 goals and 304 points during those 726 games, including a 24-goal, 49-point season with the Capitals (2013-14) and a 21-goal, 43-points campaign with the Sharks (2015-16). Ward managed pretty strong playoff numbers, too (22 goals, 52 points), even if he eschewed labels like “clutch.”

Ward picks the Sharks locker room as his favorite, even if memories of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final still sting him today.

I miss that group so much already. I miss how much fun it was to come to the rink every day. That’s what separates San Jose from anywhere else. The atmosphere in that locker room, it’s remarkable. Every day was a blessing there. Patty, Pavs, Jumbo, Burnzy — those guys set the culture and everyone followed. I’m thankful to that organization for the opportunity to have played there, to have been a part of it all.

Really, thank you.

Ward’s Players’ Tribune retirement piece is worth your time, particularly if you enjoyed any of his 726 regular-season games and 83 postseason appearances.

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.

What is the Sharks’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the San Jose Sharks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The San Jose Sharks had a strong core for years that helped lead to consistent playoff appearances over the last decade. But general manager Doug Wilson is looking for the next crop of players to usher in a new era of hockey in San Jose. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns are still around but the organization is relying on Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson and others to lead the franchise for the foreseeable future.

The Sharks stumbled this season through the first 70 games and currently sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. San Jose will not even be rewarded with a top draft pick due to the trade with the Ottawa Senators for Karlsson in September of 2018.

Thornton entertained the idea of waiving his no-movement clause at the NHL Trade Deadline if a true contender wanted to acquire the savvy centerman. There was a lack of interest but if Thornton is interested in chasing the Stanley Cup next season, there is a strong chance he will not be back in the Bay Area.

Despite the horrific season in San Jose, there is still plenty of talent on the roster. Timo Meier led the team in points with 49, Evander Kane was closing in on a 30-goal season and Karlsson still had 34 assists in only 56 games. In addition, Couture and Hertl missed time with injuries and should provide further offensive firepower.

Long-Term Needs

The most glaring weakness for the Sharks has been their play between the pipes. Martin Jones had a sub .900 save percentage and a 3.00 goals against average. The 30-year-old goaltender still has four additional years remaining on his contract and will be a difficult asset to move via trade.

San Jose also has significant cap space tied up in several long-term contracts and has to solve problems from within. Between Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Karlsson, the Sharks have more than $26 million committed through 2024-25.

Looking at the forward group, Couture, Kane, Meier, Hertl all have lengthy contracts and Kevin Labanc will need a new deal after taking an extraordinarily team-friendly agreement last summer. Similar to every NHL team, Wilson and his staff need to find the right pieces at a bargain price to fill out the roster.

Long-Term Strengths

The Sharks have taken great pride in building a culture that allows players to thrive. Thornton was a key figure in building the foundation, but he has passed on the characteristics of a strong locker room to his teammates.

Trade acquisitions are able to seamlessly fit in both on and off the ice while young players looking to earn their stripes at the professional level feel comfortable right from the beginning.

While Thornton could switch uniforms in the upcoming offseason, it will be up to Couture, Burns and others to make sure that culture isn’t lost.

The Sharks struggled mightily with the departure of Joe Pavelski this past summer but are too skilled to have a second straight dreadful season. If their play in net can improve, and key players can remain healthy, the Sharks could bounce back next season.

MORE ON THE SHARKS
• Looking at the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks
• Sharks biggest surprises and disappointments so far


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

San Jose Sharks: Biggest surprises, disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the San Jose Sharks.

Father Time, defense, and other disappointments for Sharks skaters

Upon hearing about Erik Karlsson‘s new contract with the Sharks last summer, many of us cringed at how an aging San Jose roster might look in the future.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, Father Time showed up uncomfortably early. The thing is, while Karlsson didn’t really look like an $11.5 million defenseman in 2019-20, he wasn’t the biggest problem. If I were running the Sharks, I’d be especially worried about Brent Burns and Marc Edouard-Vlasic.

Karlsson sits atop the Sharks’ xGAR chart at Evolving Hockey, along with expected standouts like Timo Meier. It’s not all pretty for the Sharks, though, particularly among expensive defensemen:

Sharks XGAR disappointments
via Evolving Hockey

The possession stats looked shaky, and so did the counting numbers.

After leading the Sharks (by nine points) with 83 points in 2018-19, Burns managed 45 points in 70 games this season. Rolling with Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts, you wonder how much Burns and Vlasic counted as “net positives” this season:

Burns Vlasic RAPM Sharks disappointments
via Evolving Hockey

When it comes to Burns, it’s OK to take some bad with the good. The key is just to make sure he can generate more offense. The Sharks must hope that this isn’t just the sign of a star on the decline at age 35. No, Burns might not be able to be a beast like in 2016-17, but this season presents at least some argument for a “mulligan.”

One way or another, the Sharks need to find a better balance, even if that means accepting mistakes in hopes of creating bunches of chances. Even amid injuries and the COVID-19 pause, it’s tough to stomach no one reaching 50 points (Timo Meier topped all Sharks with 49).

Disappointments meant a lot of pucks in the wrong net for the Sharks

Look, we can argue about the Sharks’ goals against disappointments until we’re blue in the face. Some will defend Peter DeBoer’s system, thus accusing Martin Jones and Aaron Dell of being humanoid Swiss Cheese. Others may point to issues on defense that doomed their goalies. Such arguments may or may not revolve around the flaws of Karlsson and Burns as aggressive scorers from the backend.

Whatever your hypothesis might be, the bottom line is that the Sharks couldn’t patch up those holes.

San Jose declined in goals allowed per game, going from 11th-worst in the NHL in 2018-19 (3.15) to fifth-worst in 2019-20 (3.21). The biggest difference was that they scored almost a goal fewer per game (2.57) than they did in 2018-19 (3.52).

It’s limiting to score a lot of goals while allowing almost as many, but you can win — ugly — that way. If the Sharks tried to play more conservatively this season, that backfired with worse goals allowed and drastically worse goals-for numbers.

There are a lot of questions that swirl around these issues. One of the most painful is: did Doug Wilson do enough to address these issues? Perhaps there were a lack of options, yet with a bunch of seasoned coaches and impressive goalies likely available, will Wilson make the right moves next time around?

An unexpected surprise for the Sharks

For whatever reason, the otherwise-dreadful Sharks sported one of the season’s best penalty kill units.

The Sharks killed 85.7 percent of their penalties in 2019-20, the best mark in the NHL. Interestingly, being penalized frequently (seventh-most times shorthanded at 224) only soured things a tiny bit when you look at volume. Despite the increased workload, the Sharks allowed only 32 power-play goals (Columbus and Edmonton tied for least allowed at 31).

San Jose even scored seven shorthanded goals, so penalty kills were merely a “net” negative of 25 goals this season.

Unfortunately, an unexpectedly modest power play negated many of those strengths.

It zeroes in on a larger point: the Sharks ultimately failed at even-strength this season, and they ultimately don’t even get to enjoy the lottery pick stemming from their massive disappointments.

Hey, at least that PK was killer, though. *awkward laugh*

MORE ON THE SHARKS:

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: Players that missed the cut

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament. The first teams created were a 23-and-under, players in their prime and players 30-and-older.

While the other teams in this mythical competition secured the best players from each age bracket, there were still plenty of high-impact players available to form another super team. This roster was able to take a unique combination of characteristics from players of all ages and create a team that is very well-balanced. They have the star power to skate stride for stride with the other teams in the tournament, and the depth to not only survive a long series but potentially thrive.

Line Combinations

First line: J.T. MillerSteven StamkosVladimir Tarasenko

Thoughts: It was surprising to slide Miller onto the top line, but he has finally lived up to his potential playing with elite talent on the Vancouver Canucks. He is 17th in the league with 72 points this season and skating alongside two highly skilled players should only increase his offensive production. Tarasenko has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury but his body of work speaks for itself.

Second line: Anders LeeJohn TavaresPhil Kessel

Thoughts: Lee had his only 40-goal season playing alongside John Tavares two years ago with the New York Islanders and has remained one of the league’s best net-front presences since No. 91 signed with Toronto. Patrick Kane echoed Mathew Barzal’s suggestion that Lee was one of the best puck tippers in the entire NHL. Kessel should also add an element of speed and an ability to score to balance out this dangerous trio.

Third line: Elias PetterssonAleksander BarkovWilliam Nylander

Thoughts: All three of these players are on the cusp of being superstars and each one should have a sizeable chip on his shoulder. This tournament would be a perfect opportunity for these players to elevate their status from up-and-coming players to established stars. Barkov has the entire skillset to bring out the best in each of his linemates on both ends of the ice.

Fourth line: Ondrej PalatSean CouturierTom Wilson

Thoughts: Wilson was an interesting player to include in this tournament, but he has proven in the past that he possesses the offensive skill to go along with his tough style of play. Couturier has become one of the top shutdown centers in the league and will be a contender for the Selke trophy for years to come. All three individuals understand the commitment it takes to be sharp in their own end of the ice without diminishing their offensive abilities.

First D pairing: Quinn HughesShea Weber

Second D pairing: Ivan ProvorovErik Karlsson

Third D pairing: Miro HeiskanenBrent Burns

Thoughts: There is not much else you need on a blueline but the biggest question facing this collection of defensemen: is Hughes is ready to handle top line minutes against the high-scoring lines from the opposition? If not, Provorov and Heiskanen are more than capable of sliding up the lineup and the group has more than enough talent to compete against any combination of forwards.

Starting Goalie: Carey Price

Backup Goalie: John Gibson

Just Missed (again): Nicklas Backstrom, Brock Boeser, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Suter, Jonathan Toews

Captain: Shea Weber

Alternate captains: John Tavares, Steven Stamkos

Coach: We have not had this category for our other teams, but is there a better coach in the league to motivate players passed over than John Tortorella? He didn’t have much success with Team USA in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but his performance behind the Blue Jackets’ bench this season has been superb after the departure of several key stars.

Analysis

Even though these players missed the cut for the initial rosters, this group of misfits is still a formidable team that could stand its ground against the competition. Whether its firepower, depth, size, speed, skill, toughness or any other critical characteristic a team needs to compete, this group of players is not lacking in any department. Without the restrictions of players fitting into a certain age bracket, this team has a strong mix of diverse skillsets.

One characteristic that stands out amongst this group is their size. Each line has a strong net-front presence and the ability to pin a team in their own zone for long stretches of time.

Despite the collection of prolific talent there are a few questions up front. Was Miller a one-hit wonder in Vancouver playing on the top line or can he replicate his production from this past season alongside Stamkos and Tarasenko? Will Tavares and Lee instantly find their chemistry?

Similarly to the 30-and-over team, can the third line win matchups against the top lines from the opposition? In addition, can the veterans on the blueline bring out the best in the three young lefties in the defensive group?

Even though there are plenty of questions and these players were pushed aside from the original rosters, this group has a legitimate shot to win the tournament.

Surprising omissions

Brock Boeser: It was a close call between him and Nylander for the third-line right-winger position, but the Canucks forward has not established himself as an elite winger just yet. In a few years this could be a very different discussion but at the current time, Nylander has been the more dynamic player.

Ryan Suter: A solid minutes-eating defenseman is an ingredient any roster could use during this tournament, but the other three left-handed shot defensemen were harder to omit. Suter’s veteran presence will be missed but Hughes, Provorov, and Heiskanen have developed into elite defenseman faster than anticipated.

Jonathan Toews: The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks has justifiably developed a reputation as one of the top two-way centermen in the NHL. He was within striking distance of crossing the 70-point mark for the second consecutive season. Toews was a very tough player to leave off the roster, but Couturier and Barkov are just a cut above.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Should Sharks stick with Boughner, who’s ‘planning on being back’ as head coach?

Should Sharks keep Bob Boughner as head coach?
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The “pause” to the 2019-20 NHL season leaves a destroyed sweater’s worth of loose threads, and one of them involves whether the Sharks will keep Bob Boughner around as head coach.

One of the few obvious answers is that … yes, Boughner is hoping he can keep the gig. He told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz as much in a piece that’s absolutely worth your time (sub required).

“I feel good about it,” Boughner said. “I think that given a fair chance, that I’m the guy for this team. And I think Doug believes that, from what I know. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m planning on being back, I’m planning on putting a plan in place for next year, and trying to look forward.”

Grading Boughner as interim head coach

If you look at pure standings results, the impact has been negligible.

The Sharks languished with a 15-16-2 record over 33 games when they fired Peter DeBoer in December. In 37 games under Boughner, the Sharks remain mediocre (14-20-3), and actually saw their points percentage drop (.485 to .419).

Naturally, this is where it’s fair to repeat Boughner’s phrase of a “fair chance.”

For one thing, the Sharks had to feel bummed out that they played poorly enough to get DeBoer fired. Some might have believed that this season was over, which already stacks the deck a bit against an interim head coach.

Boughner also suffered through some personnel challenges. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl both suffered significant injuries in January, while the Sharks had to pull the plug on Erik Karlsson‘s season in February. Subtract more players from the mix during the trade deadline, and you could argue Boughner never had a “full deck.”

If you look at Natural Stat Trick, you can see improvements in advanced stats under Boughner. The Sharks look more formidable from expected goals standpoints, for example. Boughner mentioned that during his interview with Kurz, actually.

“We did a really good job of bringing the high-end scoring chances down, not giving up as much and creating more at the other end,” Boughner said. “I’m not saying that’s related to more goals scored or anything like that, but the chances that we were producing, our possession time, we were better defending off the rush. Things like that. So, analytically, I thought there were a lot of improvements made. Those are really your foundations of your system and what’s working and what’s not. There were some good things happening behind the scenes.”

Context counts

Still, not every sign was positive.

It’s understandable that Boughner would lean more on Brent Burns. After all, he was a) coaching for a job and b) dealing with injuries to the team’s defense.

Even so, it’s tough to stomach the Sharks handing a heavier burden to a 33-year-old who they were better off keeping fresh. That’s what happened with Burns, who averaged 24:31 TOI under DeBoer, and then 26:12 per night with Boughner.

My general takeaway is that Boughner getting another “fair” crack at an NHL head coaching job is understandable. The Sharks just don’t seem like that right opportunity, because their window is closing — and that’s assuming 2019-20 was a bump in the road, not the window already being shut.

If this is your last real shot, does Boughner have the steadiest aim? Maybe in a shallower pond than the Sharks will be swimming in.

Sharks have rich group of coaches to choose from

For all we know, Boughner is the best option for the Sharks. That said, the job market presents Wilson with a wealth of unusually strong alternatives.

  • Bruce Boudreau strikes me as the best choice of all.

To start, it would just be thematic fun. Boudreau is the “coach who couldn’t win the big one” who would take on a team that’s been a regular contender but couldn’t get over the hump. C’mon, that’s already pretty fun.

He’s also versatile. Boudreau went from the high-flying Capitals to adjusting on the fly in Anaheim to clamping down to helping the Wild suffocate opponents on defense. The Sharks’ roster presents a challenge between risk and reserve in a defense-focused league, but if anyone can find the balance, it’s Boudreau.

  • Gerard Gallant would obviously be fun, too.

How surreal and yet hockey would it be if the two coaches in that wild Game 7 ended up swapping teams? Peter DeBoer is already on the Golden Knights’ bench, so what about Gallant in San Jose?

  • Peter Laviolette might be a decent fit.
  • Wilson is bold enough to hire Mike Babcock, too.

The more you look at that list, the more you wonder if Boughner … well, has a “fair chance” to keep his gig as Sharks head coach.

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.