Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sharks sign Lemieux out of retirement

Well, it's been a whole month since this space was updated, but Bleed Teal makes something of a triumphant return today with groundbreaking news: The Sharks have signed the heretofore retired Lemieux to a contract. Um, that would be Claude Lemieux. Er, and make that the China Sharks, San Jose's Asian affiliate, with the signing. But hey, even still, it's a tad more interesting than the NHL Sharks' current on-ice product. The team's domination resembles a well-oiled machine to the extent that one can be forgiven for mistaking players for robots. With the power play, a weak point earlier in the season, unleashed over the course of San Jose's contests with Calgary and Chicago last week, the Sharks look unstoppable. And, believe me, I'm knocking vigorously on wood as I type that as I'm sure we all remember a team that achieved similar early-season success last season only to stumble in legendary fashion.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Bright Beginning
Sharks 4, Ducks 1

Despite some comforting constants -- an in-arena electrical malfunction, decrepit ice conditions -- Thursday's home opener was evidence enough that the San Jose Sharks are an entirely different team under Todd McLellan compared to the club's previous incarnation during the Ron Wilson regime. Implementing an aggressive shot-blocking defensive strategy instead of encouraging players to make like flamingos on the penalty kill, having the power play take more shots than Sarah Palin on a caribou-hunting expedition rather than hoping for a miracle pass from a stagnant Joe Thornton dwelling on the right-wing half wall, imploring the team to respond to a late Anaheim goal with a tally of their own as opposed to sitting on their hands watching the clock run out -- it's crystal clear from just a 60-minute sample of McLellan hockey that the former Detroit assistant has already left an indelible mark on this hockey club. This isn't necessarily to criticize Wilson (who's currently being treated as the Messiah in Toronto after leading the Leafs to a 3-2 opening night victory over the Wings), but no one can deny change needed to occur and, so far, that change looks to be for the better. Some quick observations from Thursday's contest:

--The groin "strain" that kept Joe Thornton out of the third period of the Sharks' 3-2 loss during an exhibition game in Vancouver on Oct. 2 as well as the exhibition finale against the Kings in Salt Lake City Oct. 5 appeared to still be nagging the Sharks center in the opener. Despite racking up an assist on Cheechoo's second goal, Big Joe was not his usual dominant presence, leaving Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi to pick up much of the slack for the top line (although they did so admirably).

--Speaking of Setoguchi, his allegedly extensive off-season workout regime seems to have exponentially improved his game. Criticized during his draft year for the lack of an NHL-caliber first step, Gooch appears to have exorcised any lingering skating demons, demonstrated during several junctures of the game, including a 2nd-period breakaway from the red line in and an impressive 1st-period streak down the right wing.

--The expectation was that Rob Blake would find a happy medium this season between his past two forgettable campaigns in Los Angeles and the elite resume he compiled during his days with Colorado, but if Thursday night's performance was any indication, the second Norris Trophy winner to ever don a teal sweater should enjoy a year much more in line with the latter. Seven shots by a Sharks defenseman is unheard of and while it's very much a product of the aforementioned McLellan Doctrine, it takes considerable skill to get those shots through and that skill was on full display by No. 4 against the Ducks and he was rewarded with two assists.

--The Sharks' other prize off-season blueline acquisition Dan Boyle was expectedly still getting his feet under him after an injury-plagued season last year in Tampa. Boyle enjoyed a similar debut to that of Brian Campbell when he came over from Buffalo last season -- picking up an assist, showing good offensive awareness, but not really doing anything that elicited a "wow." It did seem as though Boyle paid somehting of a sarcastic homage to Soupy when he attempted a spin-o-rama in the neutral zone early in the game. It failed miserably, but I'll give him full marks for effort.

With Dallas, Detroit and Anaheim all falling in their season openers, the Sharks have a chance to jump ahead to a stranglehold on the Western Conference lead with a relatively light schedule for the next week featuring back-to-back games against Los Angeles, the first of which takes place tonight at the Tank, and a tilt with the Blue Jackets Tuesday night. Despite the apparent easiness of these games, I agree with McLellan that they present a formidable test of whether or not the team will be complacent to rest on their laurels or the club's leadership will take charge and convince the players to put the same effort into the upcoming three contests as they did for Thursday's opener against the Ducks. So far, so good for the Sharks in the Todd McLellan era.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008-09 NHL Season
Fearless Predictions

For starters, I predict that will happen again.

Yes, I'm well aware the season has already started, but anyone who had the misfortune to waste a pair of perfectly good weekend mornings watching the European premiere could tell you those contests felt more like exhibition games anyway. And, besides, if the MSM is allowed to wait until the North American inception of the campaign to unveil their predictions, I should be allowed to as well. So, without further ado, I unleash upon thee, my extensive reader base, predictions for the 2008-09 NHL Season:

Western Conference

1. Detroit -- Enough print has been spent discussing the allegedly indomitable Red Wings, so it's probably best to wait until the season begins to see whether the Cup champs can defend their title. My guess is they'll capture the President's Trophy once again in a division that, despite Chicago's resurgence, remains weak, but a second consecutive chalice is not in their future. Breakout player: Johan Franzen.

2. San Jose -- Once again, it will be a question of whether the Sharks can get over the postseason hump, as their blueline additions to an already formidable lineup should make the regular season relatively easy. Breakout player: Joe Pavelski.

3. Edmonton -- The re-tooled Oilers, relying heavily on an uber-talented crop of young stars including Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson, Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert, should be an offensive powerhouse with decent enough goaltending to distinguish themselves from the pack in a surprisingly mediocre Northwest. Breakout player: Sam Gagner.

4. Dallas -- Zubov's injury stings, but with arguably the deepest defense corps in the West, the Stars should be able to absorb the blow and remain in contention for the division title all season long. Breakout player: Stephane Robidas.

5. Anaheim -- Take the Ducks' '07 championship squad, replace Andy McDonald with Brendan Morrison and Dustin Penner with Brian Sutherby, and you've got this year's incarnation of the club. Suffice to say, the rest of the conference should be very afraid. Breakout player: Kent Huskins.

6. Chicago -- While the addition of Campbell will hamstring the team financially a few years down the road when they're attempting to re-sign young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the move was clearly completed for short-term gains and short-term gains there will be in the Windy City. Still, the gaping hole at second-line center in the wake of the Robert Lang trade should probably be filled by someone other than Dave Bolland. Breakout player: Dustin Byfuglien.

7. Minnesota -- The replacement of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra with Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan isn't what hurts the club, it's the improvement of several formerly lesser teams that sink the Wild this low in the standings. Still, expect Marian Gaborik to have a monster year in this, his contract season. Breakout player: Mikko Koivu.

8. Phoenix -- While many are dismissing the Desert Dogs this season, their offensive corps is absolutely laden with elite young talent. The likes of Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal and rookies Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov in conjunction with huge offseason acquisition Olli Jokinen and long-time captain Shane Doan should ensure the Coyotes are never hard-pressed to score goals this year. While their defense remains suspect, Ilja Bryzgalov should again be a star in net. Breakout player: Zbynek Michalek.

9. Calgary -- It's the ultimate paradox. Despite boasting potential Hart Trophy candidates at every position in Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames' appalling lack of depth -- a problem that won't be solved with the addition of Todd Bertuzzi and Mark Giordano -- and Coach Mike Keenan's apparent alienation of the aforementioned Kiprusoff will likely keep the Flames out of the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Breakout player: Matthew Lombardi.

10. Colorado -- When your season rests squarely on the shoulders of a 26-year-old wildly inconsistent Slovak netminder, you know you're in trouble. The defections of Andrew Brunette, surprisingly prolific during his time with the Avs, and Kurt Sauer, quietly among the top defensive defensemen in the league last year, along with Peter Forsberg's retirement, are of no help to the offense or defense of this club either. Breakout player: Wojtek Wolski.

11. Vancouver -- The Canucks are weird. With arguably the best goaltender in the league and one of the deepest bluelines in the West, one would think the 'Nucks would be in contention for the division title, but an abysmal offense which won't be helped greatly by the additions of the out-of-shape Steve Bernier and the over-the-hill Pavol Demitra irreconcilably hamstrings this club. Breakout player: Alex Edler.

12. Columbus -- Acquiring Michael Nylander, reportedly placed on the trading block by over-the-cap Washington sometime last week, would really change my perspective on this team but, alas, clubs just don't make the playoffs with third-line wingers centering their top unit. Breakout player: Kris Russell.

13. St. Louis -- The Blues won't be as bad as everyone expects them to be, but the loss of Erik Johnson to a freak injury certainly spells the end of any playoff hopes. Still, the team will be able to break in all sorts of young talent like Patrick Berglund, TJ Oshie and Lars Eller, which will do wonders for the future of the club. Breakout player: David Perron.

14. Nashville -- The loss of Alex Radulov is obviously a huge hit to the team's already weak offense, but in conjunction with the inexplicable trade of Marek Zidlicky to Minnesota, the club's power play may have been dealt a death blow. The off-ice financial collapse of the team provides plenty distractions as well. Breakout player: Ryan Suter.

15. Los Angeles -- Matt Greene should not be on the top pairing of an NHL team. That tells you just about all you need to know about this year's Los Angeles Kings. Breakout player: Jack Johnson.

Eastern Conference

1. Philadelphia
-- A recent injury to Ryan Parent further debilitates an already thin blueline, but with the obscene amount of scorers in the Flyers' arsenal, it's unlikely the club will have to play much defense to win many games this season and, should worst come to worst, they'll still have Biron to bail them out. Breakout player: Braydon Coburn.

2. Montreal -- Mats Sundin would make them Cup favorites, but even without the Big Swede and despite the defection of prolific power-play pointman Mark Streit, the Habs have what it takes to win in the East: loads of goal-scorers and a good enough goalie to hold the fort. Breakout player(s): The Kostitsyns.

3. Washington -- Even if Michael Nylander is shed to create cap space, the Caps have arguably the most lethal offense in the Eastern Conference on top-end strength alone. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are only going to be better this year (though one wonders how much better Ovechkin can possibly be) and Jose Theodore is certainly a palatable replacement for the departed Cristobal Huet. What remains to be seen is whether a greener-than-grass defense corps will be this club's Achilles' heel. Breakout player: Eric Fehr.

4. New Jersey -- It's the Devils, Loophole Lou is still in charge and Martin Brodeur is still tending goal. Move along, nothing to see here. Breakout player: Paul Martin.

5. Pittsburgh -- Injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney have the potential to be devastating blows to a team already missing two-thirds of its top line from a season ago. It's blasphemous to believe a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can outright miss the playoffs, but stumble they will. Breakout player: Kris Letang.

6. Boston -- With one of the more potent one-two punches at center in the NHL, a solid defense featuring behemoth Zdeno Chara and a respectable goaltending platoon of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez, it's puzzling as to why many mainstream outlets have pegged the Bruins to finish out of the playoffs. Breakout player: Milan Lucic.

7. NY Rangers -- With the kind of roster overhaul the Rangers went through during the offseason, the team will undergo some bumps and bruises, but the Blueshirts still have the makings of a playoff team, particularly if Nikolai Zherdev can build on a surprisingly solid campaign. Breakout player: Marc Staal.

8. Tampa Bay -- Steve Stamkos is the real deal, but Jussi Jokinen, Vladmir Mihalik and March Recchi most certainly are not. Even still, in an overwhelmingly mediocre Eastern Conference, the Bolts have enough scoring to break away from the pack, provided Mike Smith has more performances like Saturday against the Rangers. Breakout player: Andrej Meszaros.

9. Buffalo -- The Sabres still have the makings of a postseason-worthy club and the contract extension tendered to Ryan Miller shows the front office has learned from their mistakes, but the Sabres remain frustratingly average in every category and the departure of Brian Campbell at last year's trade deadline leaves them without a viable No. 1 defenseman. Breakout player: Drew Stafford.

10. Ottawa -- After 11 consecutive years in the postseason, the Senators appear to be done. It's hard to doubt a team whose top line is comprised of three of the top-15 forwards in the NHL, but with a defense that immobile and a goaltending situation that decrepit, Jason Spezza's annual golf invitational is likely to be held a bit early this year. Breakout player: Nick Foligno.

11. Carolina -- When "injury-plagued" is the adjective most commonly associated with your team, you know you have problems. The injury bug has already struck the 'Canes this season as star winger Justin Williams appears to be spending the opening months of the season on IR. The addition of Joni Pitkanen is nice, but goaltender Cam Ward has done nothing since the '06 playoffs to prove that postseason run was nothing more than an aberration. Breakout player: Tuomo Ruutu.

12. Florida -- Trading Olli Jokinen was the right move, but it leaves the Panthers with an abysmal offense that will rely heavily upon youngsters Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton. Still, a defensive top four of Jay Bouwmeester, Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe and Nick Boynton is nothing to scoff at, and with Tomas Vokoun's goaltending, the Cats have a better chance than you'd think. Breakout player: David Booth.

13. Atlanta -- With the advent of Mathieu Schneider, the Thrashers may actually have the best defensive top-four in the Southeast Division, but, alas, that statement is comparable to being the tallest pygmy. Kari Lehtonen has proven absolutely nothing to suggest he's capable of carrying a team and with the supporting cast around him, you can forgive Ilya Kovalchuk if he jumps ship once his contract is up. Breakout player: Tobias Enstrom.

14. NY Islanders -- Rick DiPietro is literally the only thing going for this team. An offense of Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie and nine journeymen/rookies won't win you a beer league championship and the addition of Mark Streit does nothing to help a defense that bled 2.93 goals per game last season. Breakout player: Kyle Okposo.

15. Toronto -- I'm not one for hyperbole, but one can be excused for wondering whether the Leafs' offensive depth chart belongs to an AHL team. A nosedive for the chance to draft superstar-in-the-making John Tavares is the only course of action for the 'Buds. Breakout player: Anton Stralman.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Find McLaren A Home

It isn't exactly common practice to intentionally and deliberately hold an ostensibly injury-free player out of all training camp scrimmages without having clear-cut plans to trade said player, especially when the team in question is just over the league-mandated salary cap. So one can only deduce that Kyle McLaren has either developed some sort of rare and ironic allergy to ice or the hip-checking Sharks defenseman is on the trading block. Disallowed from participating in any of the team's three scrimmages thus far at Sharks Ice in addition to tonight's Teal and White Game, it has become fairly evident that McLaren will not be donning teal or white come opening day. Er, at least not in conjunction. So as we bid adieu to one of the last links on the current roster to the Dean Lombardi regime, it's only fitting that we handicap Big Mac's likely destinations.

Los Angeles Kings

Speaking of Lombardi, we all know the Sharks GM loves his ex-players. First it was Alyn McCauley, then Scott Thornton, then Brad Stuart, then Tom Preissing and soon enough the Kings' clubhouse served as a virtual garbage bin for Sharks retreads. The Kings also remain under the salary cap floor (albeit with key RFA Patrick O'Sullivan still unsigned), but you wonder whether Deano would be keen to help a division rival escape their cap troubles. At the end of the day, however, Lombardi has to do what's best for the Kings and with a defense corps greener than a rabid environmentalist's utopia (I know, my metaphors are amazing) it stands to reason that the team would like to shore up their blueline with a veteran addition.


Atlanta Thrashers

Although the Thrash have been mentioned as potentially active participants in the Mathieu Schneider Sweepstakes (can a player so unwanted that he clears waivers in late September really engender a "sweepstakes"?), the team already has two palatable power-play quarterbacks in Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey. And it's almost guaranteed Ilya Kovalchuk returns to his customary position on the left point of the team's man-advantage unit. So while Atlanta is in need of defensemen (rushing Zach Bogosian to the NHL at age 18 would have severely detrimental consequences down the road), desirable skill sets among those blueliners would include more hitting and sandpaper than passing and shooting. Kyle McLaren certainly fits the bill, but with knee injuries having slowed him the past few seasons, one wonders if K-Mac could hold up in the high-flying Southeast Division.

St. Louis Blues

Of all the ways to sustain a season-ending injury, "golf cart accident" might just rank up there with skate blade wrist-slitting as among the strangest. Obligatory and unoriginal jokes linking the Blues to frequent golfing aside, the loss of presumed No. 1 defenseman Erik Johnson is huge and likely spells the end of what minimal playoff hopes the franchise harbored for the upcoming season. While the aforementioned Schneider would probably be a better fit as a Johnson replacement due to his special teams skills, the unreliability of Jay McKee's groin suggests that St. Louis could use a minute-munching, physical, penalty-killing veteran d-man in their lineup. Unfortunately, such a player is not on the market, but the Blues can settle for the next best thing in McLaren. And, besides, what team is better acquainted with K-Mac's hip-checking skills?



My point exactly.

Regardless of his last rather forgettable, injury-riddled campaign, McLaren's newfound status as the franchise's first cap casualty is regrettable as K-Mac has represented the team well and been nothing short of a class act since arriving in San Jose from Boston (when he infamously went from being Ray Bourque's partner to...Mike Rathje's partner). Thanks and good luck, K-Mac, we'll miss you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mitchell Out 8 Weeks With Leg Injury

Some disheartening news from the training camp front earlier today as David Pollak reports that two-way center Torrey Mitchell will be out for the next eight weeks after injuring his leg in a collision with the goal post. This after Rudy Kelly named Mitchell his "Langdon Alger" (as a commenter of that post astutely noted, perhaps Rudy should assign that distinction to a J-S Giguere or Chris Pronger). While Mitchell's myriad talents will be sorely missed, particularly on the penalty kill, this can be seen as a glaring window of opportunity for the likes of Steve Zalewski, Riley Armstrong and even Logan Couture -- bubble prospects who had little chance of making the team prior to TM's injury. While it says here the most likely scenario is Jeff Friesen making the team and Marcel Goc subsequently being shifted to occupy Mitchell's third-line center role, training camp just got a lot more interesting with a roster spot now legitimately up for grabs. Still, for the good of the team, hopefully Mitchell's recovery is as quick as his skating.

****

Perhaps this is a rather petty complaint, but is there a logical reason why no Sharks preseason game is televised by CSN-BA and only two (!) games are even broadcast on local radio? This isn't exactly a startling development as, to the best of my memory, no Sharks presesason game in franchise history has ever been televised by the local Fox Sports affiliate, but with most other teams, including several south of the 49th, broadcasting at least a handful of their preseason contests on television, it would only follow that the Sharks step into the 21st century sooner or later and do the same. Regardless, jockeying for roster position takes the next step Wednesday when the Sharks open their 6-game preseason schedule against the Anaheim Ducks. We should have a full-fledged season preview/predictions up here at Bleed Teal within the next week or so.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sharks Camp Opens

Photo courtesy Sharkspage

After four long months of debating personnel movement, mulling over potential lineups and prognosticating endlessly, a palpable feeling of optimism, joy and delight is emanating throughout. As the leaves change color, the sky begins to gray and ominous clouds materialize, the uninitiated begin to dread the upcoming seasonal shift. Fall, they call it. Autumn, others say. But puckheads across the globe know what is really imminent: hockey season. With Sharks training camp opening earlier today at Sharks Ice in San Jose, we're a mere 19 days away from San Jose's season opener against the Ducks (who, coincidentally, signed Teemu Selanne this morning to a pro tryout. Mirtle wonders if he'll make the team). Which, of course, means 19 more days of debating personnel movement, mulling over potential lineups and prognosticating endlessly. At least now we have tangible, physical evidence to base such postulation upon. Exhibit A: The venerable David Pollak presents Todd McLellan's decidedly rudimentary assemblage of the team's top four lines. For those too lazy to click on the link, here they are:

Marleau--Thornton--Clowe
Michalek--Pavelski--Cheechoo
Goc--Mitchell--Grier
Plihal--Roenick--Setoguchi

Um, yeah. Not exactly what I expected, either. As Pollak notes, RW often resorted to the "eggs in a basket" plan -- placing Marleau and Thornton on the same line -- to no avail. But who knows? Perhaps it'll work seamlessly under McLellan's purportedly offense-geared system (optimism, remember?). Anyway, it's good to have hockey back and it'll probably feel even better when the preseason begins this Wednesday. I'm likely attending tomorrow's scrimmage at Sharks Ice so I'll try and report on what I observe there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sharks extend Vlasic

The Sharks announced earlier today that burgeoning young defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, still under his rookie contract through the 2008-09 season, has been signed to a four-year extension that will keep him in teal through the 2012-13 campaign. Financial terms of the deal are as of yet undisclosed.

Already a key cog on the Sharks' blueline, Vlasic is undoubtedly a critical component of the team's future and, with the contracts being doled out to young defensemen the past two summers, should receive somewhere in the ballpark of $3.1 million a year. Assuming those figures, the Sharks now have a respectable top three of Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff and Vlasic on the back end locked up long-term at the reasonable annual rate of $13.1 million. The extension of Vlasic now, as opposed to next summer when the 21-year-old officially hits the restricted free agent market, is also a wise move, reducing the number of contracts Doug Wilson will have to deal with in the 2009 offseason when the likes of Torrey Mitchell, Ryane Clowe, Rob Blake, Mike Grier and Douglas Murray attain various levels of free agency.

EDIT
It's quite possible that I am prescient. Or I peruse abysmally inaccurate hockey rumor blogs often enough to gauge information from one of them that miraculously sticks to the wall. Regardless, my estimate of $3.1 million was accurate as TSN reports that the 4-year deal is worth a grand sum of $12.4 million.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Report: Jeff Friesen still alive, invited to camp

The dog days of summer roll on with humidity peaking and hockey news scant. So, naturally, any semblance of puck-related happenings deserve to be mercilessly extrapolated and have their admittedly slim significance shamelessly overblown. Thus, it's with great pleasure that I direct you to an entry by Sharks prospect observer extraordinaire Max Giese on his blog Unfiltered Sports in which he claims a source close to the organization has confirmed that ex-Shark Jeff Friesen has received a training camp invite from San Jose. The source is unnamed, which is generally a red flag, but, hey, it's August, journalistic integrity has never been a hallmark here at Bleed Teal and as Against Me! once said, unsubstantiated rumors are good enough for me to base my life upon. After a prolific junior career with the Regina Pats of the WHL in which Friesen utilized his breakaway speed to rack up obcsene point totals, the left wing was selected 11th overall by the Sharks in the '94 draft and was widely viewed as a beacon of hope for the future. Things never really panned out and Friesen was finally shipped to the Ducks in the infamous Teemu Selanne deal in 2001.

But enough about the past. As far as present ramifications go, there really isn't a whole lot. First of all, even if the Sharks like what they see from the perennial Game 7 hero, the team is still in the neighborhood of $200,000 over the salary cap, which begs the question WHAT IS KYLE MCLAREN STILL DOING ON THE ROSTER, DW?!?! Ahem. Excuse me. Anyway, assuming K-Mac is shed, the Sharks would have the cap room to sign Friesen to serve as this season's career-resuscitation challenge. These experiments are largely hit or miss -- or, more appropriately, Roenick or Ozolinsh -- but at 32, it's certainly not outrageous to believe the former 30-goal scorer still has something left in the tank. Operating under the McLaren-out, Friesen-in assumption, the Sharks' depth chart looks something like this:

LW: Marleau, Michalek, Clowe, Friesen, Shelley
C: Thornton, Pavelski, Mitchell, Roenick, Goc
RW: Cheechoo, Setoguchi, Grier, fire hydrant (?)
D: Boyle, Blake, Ehrhoff, Vlasic, Murray, Lukowich, Joslin
G: Nabokov, Boucher, Greiss

Apart from the gaping hole at fourth-line right wing, which will likely be filled by moving Roenick over to the right side (although apparently pugnacious prospect Riley Armstrong, brother of Thrashers forward/Marian Hossa trade bait Colby, has the potential to make some waves at camp), the Sharks' roster looks rather set, indicating that a Friesen signing could very well be in the cards, at the very least as a replacement (read: upgrade) for Tomas Plihal. In other Sharks news, we are old.

Monday, August 18, 2008

McLellan's day with the Cup

Reason #7158 why the Stanley Cup is vastly superior to any other trophy in the wide world of professional sports: Each of its victors is awarded an entire day in full possession of the silver chalice. While this tidbit may not rank as high on the list of evidence stressing the Cup's irrefutable superiority to all other constituents of the sports trophy landscape as the fact that the team captain, not some moribund owner fresh off their fourth botox who couldn't give a rat's ass about their team's performance as long as it generates revenue, is the first to touch the Cup, it's still yet another unique tradition firmly entrenched in puck lore. Today was Todd McLellan's day with the Cup and the Red Wings assistant turned newly anointed Sharks bench boss elected to spend it in his hometown of Saskatoon, where it appears he received a parking ticket from an officer who had the veracity to subsequently request a photo with Lord Stanley (those crazy Canadian cops!) and had lunch at the Sheraton Cavalier with the mayor of Saskatoon.

Yes, if you haven't noticed, news indeed is that slow around the hockey world. But fear not, fellow puckheads: the preseason is a mere 34 days away! In news of a tad more consequence (albeit not much more), The Hockey News remind me why I canceled my subscription to their fine publication by posting their standings predictions. I'll have my own predictions a little closer to the season when questions regarding Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic and Martin Havlat's groin are (presumably) answered, but THN's projection of the Wild as Northwest Division champions is just one of many absurdities perpetuated by the magazine. Also, our good friends at The Battle of California inform us that the Golden State might as well be the Rickertale State as far as Versus (God's gift to upper-tier cable sports programming) is concerned. Finally, I realize I'm a little late to the boat on this one (that's an expression, right?), but as evident in this gameplay clip, it appears that our very own Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda are lending their broadcasting talent to 2K Sports' NHL 2K9 video game (the redheaded stepsister of hockey videogaming).

Friday, August 1, 2008

Sharks re-sign Ryane Clowe

According to the Sharks' page at NHLPA.com, Ryane Clowe has been re-signed with a salary of $1.6 million being reported for next season. Although no official statement has been made by the team, the Player's Association website has been notorious for breaking deals all offseason long. All that remains to be seen is the length of Clowe's term, which is unspecified by the PA. I'll save my unparalleled insight (which, undoubtedly, is what keeps you, my expansive reader base, from offing yourselves) for when the signing becomes official and we are aware of the contract length. However, if Clowe's cap hit over the term of the deal is in fact the $1.6 million he will be tendered next season, the Sharks will be ever-so-slightly under the cap although you know they'd still like to shed themselves of McLaren's contract in order to have the option of making a splash at the deadline.

UPDATE I lied. According to NHLSCAP.com, the Clowe contract -- assuming it averages a $1.6 million cap hit, a largely unsubstantiated postulation at this point -- actually puts the Sharks exactly $225, 834 over the league's $56.7 million cap, making the divesting of McLaren a necessity rather than a convenience.

UPDATE part deux It's official. And it is a one-year deal, meaning the cap hit is indeed $1.6 million and the above cap space-related information still stands. Coming off a season drastically shortened by injury, a one-year deal makes sense for Clowe, who will have a longer period to prove himself and perhaps score a wealthier contract next offseason when he will once again have RFA status.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Duck Season Begins Early

Who's going to pulverize unsuspecting Ducks rookies now, DW? WHO??

First things first, the Sharks traded some guys for some other guys. They also signed this other guy, got rid of these guys, re-signed some guys and have yet to re-sign this guy. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's discuss more pressing matters, such as a legitimate reason to whip out those "Puck Fronger" t-shirts and Selanne catcalls (assuming the Finnish Flash doesn't retire) a bit early this year. The NHL released its schedule for the 2008-09 season today and revealed, among other things, that the Dan Boyle-Todd McLellan era will begin in San Jose against a familiar foe: the Sharks' much-loathed rivals to the south, the Anaheim Ducks. Of course, that's just one of many games at the Tank this year that promise to be memorable. Here's my list of the top 10 games at the Tank this year, ordered backwards in order to inject some much-needed suspense into your mundane lives.

10) 10/25/08, 4:30 PM, v. Tampa Bay Lightning: Hockey's version of the circus rolls into town, bringing ex-Shark Matt Carle with it. Dead last in the NHL last season, the Bolts, under the undoubtedly sagacious tutelage of Hollywood producer and newfound owner Oren Koules, underwent extensive retooling this summer. The team signed approximately thirty billion forwards, forcing them to trade away their best defenseman to the Sharks due to cap implications. Oh, and they also filled their coaching vacancy with Barry Melrose, who hasn't been behind an NHL bench in 13 years and was almost as bad at that gig as he was at being ESPN's chief hockey analyst for the last decade. Should be entertaining to say the least.

9) 4/9/09, 7:30 PM, v. Phoenix Coyotes: Let's jump forward a few months to the Sharks' home finale. Usually, one could probably get away skipping a game this late in the season against the Desert Dogs, what with Phoenix's playoff hopes usually six feet under by this point. Not so this season. The Coyotes swindled Florida GM Jacques Martin for star center Olli Jokinen and have slowly assembled one of the best young offensive cores in the league, headlined by future stars like Peter Mueller, Kyle Turris and Martin Hanzal, all of whom are expected to play big roles this coming year.

8) 11/13/08, 7:30 PM, v. Calgary Flames: The Sharks-Calgary first-round playoff series last spring was, in a word, epic. Complete with an unbelievable Flames Game 3 comeback, a literally last-second victory by the Sharks in Game 4 and a Game 7 for the ages, the tilt will likely go down as one of the greatest series in Sharks history and was undoubtedly one of the finest of the 2008 playoffs. Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf and the Flames return to the Tank for the first time since the aforementioned Game 7 for what should be a great one. The Flames ditched skilled-but-soft left wings Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay over the summer, re-establishing themselves as a gritty, lunchpail-type outfit. Games between these clubs are always memorable, but with the Flames having something to prove, this matchup should be even more so.

7) 12/2/08, 7:30 PM, v. Toronto Maple Leafs: This list would simply not be complete without the much-anticipated return of Ron Wilson to an HP Pavilion bench. Of course, it will be the visitor's bench as the former Canadian-hater and ex-Sharks coach begins the first season of his tour of duty in the Center of the Hockey Universe™. He'll be bringing Vesa Toskala, Mark Bell (well, I suppose that depends on the parole board), and the rest of the greatest AHL team ever assembled with him for a game the Sharks shouldn't have as much trouble winning as they did the last time the Leafs were in town.

6) 3/3/08, 7:30 PM, v. Dallas Stars: Hmm, the Sharks will host the Stars on March 3rd, you know, 3/3...33...coincidence? I think not. But in all seriousness, as if Sharks fans didn't have enough reasons to hate the Stars, Dallas goes out and signs the biggest shit-disturber in the NHL (who apparently and inexplicably doubles as an effeminate aspiring fashion designer), Sean Avery. Facing the last team to eliminate you from the postseason always serves as something of a measuring stick and games against Dallas are always hotly contested, especially this close to the end of the season.

5) 11/22/08, 7:30 PM, v. Washington Capitals: Alexander the Great returns to the Tank for the first time since 2005 (thank goodness the old scheduling format has been trashed) and brings with him fellow young stars Mike Green, Alex Semin and Nick Backstrom along with old fogeys Michael Nylander and Sergei Fedorov in what promises to be an exciting exhibition of offensive talent. The Caps largely stood pat this offseason, downgrading a tad in goal from one ex-Hab in Cristobal Huet to another in Jose Theodore, but look to be a formidable force in the East, particularly with the pitiful state the rest of the Southeast is mired in and the continued blossoming of the Caps' boundless young talent.

4) 10/28/08, 7:30 PM, v. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Sharks are the only NHL team Sidney Crosby has never recorded a point against. Sid the Kid will have two chances to get that goose egg off the scoreboard, both this game and later in the year when the Sharks travel to Steeltown. Marian Hossa may have bolted, but make no mistake: the Pens are still one of the best in the East and are oozing with star power from Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Jordan Staal to Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens' last visit to the Tank proved to be one of the best games of the 2006-07 season and even a Crosby-less matchup in Pittsburgh last year was nothing short of entertaining (and was also Pittsburgh's last loss at home until the Stanley Cup Finals), so I'm expecting big things from this one.

3) 10/30/08, 7:30 PM, v. Detroit Red Wings: You thought the Penguins were a tough out? Well, venture back to West Santa Clara Street two nights later, and you can have a look at the team that made short work of Pittsburgh in the Finals, then proceeded to steal the Penguins' best winger, Marian Hossa, via free agency. An already jaw-dropping power play is now comprised of Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Brian Rafalski and, of course, the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom. I mentioned that the Stars would serve as a measuring stick of sorts, but let's not kid ourselves: the unequivocal bar against which the Sharks will be judged this season is Detroit. They look to be the class of the NHL and are surely favorites to repeat and the revamped Sharks, now led by ex-Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan, will look to make a late-October statement.

2) 10/9/08, 7:30 PM, v. Anaheim Ducks: Ah yes, the home opener. Not only will the Sharks be looking to roast some Duck on the first night of the season, they'll try and steer clear of the disasters that have plagued the last two home openers. Back in '06 against the Blues, Jonathan Cheechoo bore a gaping hole through the boards after sliding skate-first into them, causing a lengthy delay. Last season against the Bruins, the Sharks' man-advantage unit wasn't the only power outage, as the Tank was devoid of electricity before the festivities even began, delaying the start time significantly. The Sharks had better hope the power doesn't go out prior to the start of this game as the team plans to raise its 2007-08 Pacific Division Championship Banner. Yes, I'm sure the members of the Ducks will all weep softly into their Stanley Cup. This game is likely to serve as the second-half of Versus' annual season-opening double header, which is fair warning that you should do everything you can to find tickets unless you enjoy listening to Joe Beninati detailing the intricacies of the upcoming Hockey Central intermission report while Joe Pavelski finishes off a breakaway.

1) 11/16/08, 4:00 PM, v. Chicago Blackhawks: Ed Belfour. Teemu Selanne. And now Brian Campbell. A traitorous trifecta, if you will. All three are ex-Sharks who bolted town as soon as they were afforded a sniff of free agency, the man they call "Soupy" being the latest. Yes, Campbell only wore teal for 33 games, but the man loudly broadcasted his desire to play closer to his family's Ontario home...then signs in Chicago. Needless to say, he shouldn't be expecting a warm welcome. Of course, Campbell alone isn't enough to get a Sunday afternoon tilt against the Hawks to the top of this list. Loaded with young talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the Hawks' offseason additions in Campbell and Cristobal Huet seem to signal that the disgraced Original Six team has recovered from their extended stay at the Irrelevant Inn and are looking to return to the postseason, a very achievable goal.

So there you have it. My estimation of the top ten most entertaining games at the Tank this season. Non-Sharks schedule highlights include the NHL Premiere with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers squaring off twice in Prague and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators playing back-to-backs in Stockholm to kick off the year, the now-annual Winter Classic, this season at Wrigley Field in Chicago, pitting the Blackhawks against the Red Wings, and the All-Star Game in Montreal, celebrating the Habs' 100th year of existence.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Free Agency Matchmaker

As we approach the last significant date on the hockey calendar before training camps open in mid-September, excitement and anticipation aren't exactly palpable. With July 1st and the start of free agency just around the corner, teams and their fanbases should be preparing for hockey's version of Christmas -- making their lists, checking them twice and hoping Santa leaves a Marian Hossa under the tree instead of a Marcel Hossa (aka lump of coal) in their stockings. Unfortunately, this year's free agent class pales in comparison to the one on display a year ago, a consortium of players that included Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Ryan Smyth and Brian Rafalski. Much of that is due to teams aggressively re-signing their impending unrestricted free agents. The likes of Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle could have hit the market Tuesday, but all five All-Stars were re-signed by their teams as much as a year in advance. Still, the list isn't entirely barren, so I've provided my largely subjective ranking of the top 20 free agents available and the teams to which I believe they're headed. I don't profess to have any sort of insider information (who am I, Eklund?), just a sense of where players have been linked in the past and which teams have the cap space and need to solicit their services. Unless I fail miserably, I'll check back on this in a week or two to see how I did.

1) Marian Hossa - Prediction: Boston. Hossa has been linked to the Bruins since the trade deadline and with good reason. He reportedly has a good friendship with countryman and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Hossa also enjoyed one of the more productive seasons of his NHL career flanking Boston center Marc Savard back when Hossa and Savard were Atlanta Thrashers. The Bruins are a team with a solid albeit youthful core up front and cap space to spend and will most certainly be willing to bid top dollar for the most enticing forward on the market.

2) Brian Campbell - Prediction: NY Rangers. Campbell has made it clear that he will return to the Eastern Conference, preferrably close to his hometown of Stathroy, ON, to attend to "family matters." That would suggest a signing with Ottawa, but Sens GM Bryan Murray has stated that the team has only $5 million in cap space to work with, ruling them out of the Soupy Sweepstakes. Among Eastern contenders with a potential interest in the ex-Sabre's services, that leaves the Rangers, who have the added benefit of employing Chris Drury, reportedly a close friend of Campbell. Throw in the Rangers' need for a puck-moving blueliner and their bountiful cap space courtesy of the imminent departures of Jagr, Straka, Shanahan and co. and you've got a match made in heaven.

3) Mats Sundin - Prediction: Montreal. Okay, so this one's a bit easier since reports have indicated that the Leafs have given Montreal permission to negotiate with the big center, but regardless, Sundin would be a terrific fit with the Canadiens. The Habs could have used a big, rangy center like Mats when they were being ousted by the punishing Flyers and the longtime Toronto captain's goal-scoring prowess meshes nicely with Montreal's other marquee offseason acquisition, Alex Tanguay. If Sundin does decide to return to the NHL next year, it will be in the bleu, blanc et rouge.

4) Brian Rolston - Prediction: Minnesota. Simply put, Rolston has more value to his current team, the Wild, than to any other NHL club. Make no mistake, Rolston is criminally underrated and undoubtedly the third-best forward potentially available once the floodgates upon at noon Tuesday, but his immaculate two-way play, his unique ability to excel in any situation and his ability to produce offense in Jacques Lemaire's stifling defensive system make it imperative for Minnesota to re-sign the American forward.

5) Wade Redden - Prediction: Columbus. The native of Red Deer, Alberta has been linked to Edmonton on numerous occassions, but with the Oilers already having puck-moving blueliners Joni Pitkanen and Sheldon Souray on their roster, it's doubtful they look to ink Redden. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, essentially have to make the playoffs to satisfy a dwindling fanbase with whom the honeymoon regarding hockey in Columbus is most certainly over. Redden is intriguing in that he's only two seasons removed from being a consensus top-5 defenseman, but his stock has been severely impacted by two sub-par campaigns in a row. Regardless, the Jackets are desperate for high-end talent and will be willing to shell out for the ex-Senator.

6) Cristobal Huet - Prediction: Washington. The Capitals were an entirely different team post-trade deadline and much of that is courtesy of Huet's exceptional play. The ex-Hab proved invaluable down the stretch for the Caps, hoisting them to a division title and helping push Philadelphia to overtime of Game 7 before the clock struck midnight on Washington's fairytale season. It is imperative that the Caps re-sign Huet, as a season with Brent Johnson as a starting netminder will likely make superstar Alex Ovechkin's 13-year contract seem like a life sentence.

7) Michal Rozsival - Prediction: San Jose. Rozsival has been linked to San Jose by virtue of having played under newly named head coach Todd McLellan in his days with Swift Current of the WHL. The Sharks will likely also be in the market for a high-end defenseman given the likelihood of Campbell's departure. Whether they decide to sign a free agent or fill that hole internally remains to be seen, but should Doug Wilson choose to dabble in free agency, Rozsival's two-way defensive prowess would prove enticing.

8) John-Michael Liles - Prediction: Ottawa. The Senators will be a team to watch next year. They have the high-end talent in place to seemingly make a run at a playoff spot, but their goaltending situation may preclude any postseason dreams from materializing. Regardless, Murray has $5 million to spend and with the departure of Redden, the team needs a power-play quarterback. While the aforementioned Campbell is too rich for the Sens' blood, Liles, coming off a sub-par season, will likely command no more than $3.5 million a year and would be a welcome addition to Ottawa's surprisingly thin defense corps.

9) Brooks Orpik - Prediction: Pittsburgh. Orpik has expressed his desire to remain in steeltown and with a general lack of defensive defensemen to complement puck-moving blueliners Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang, Penguins GM Ray Shero would be advised to bite the bullet on Orpik's contract. The Penguins will be the most fascinating team to observe this off-season as Shero attempts to keep together a talent-laden roster. Of course, as the adage goes, you can't win on talent alone, and it's gritty, lunchpail types like Orpik that prove to be the glue of a team, particularly in April and May.

10) Ryan Malone - Prediction: Columbus. The Blue Jackets were rumored to be close to striking a deal just a few weeks ago to acquire Malone's exclusive negotiating rights before the Penguins forward stated he would test the market no matter what. Even still, Columbus' purported offer of $5 million/year over a long-term deal would likely outbid the competition by a long shot anyway. As mentioned above, the Jackets are serious about making the playoffs next season and for some reason, believe Malone can get them there.

11) Markus Naslund - Prediction: Pittsburgh. With Marian Hossa waving goodbye, the Penguins can't expect Sidney Crosby to take them back to the Finals with the likes of Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy on his wings. While Naslund may not be perceived as much of an improvement over those two, the disgraced Canucks captain has explicitly stated that he would welcome the opportunity to play with Sid the Kid, making it likely that he returns to the team that drafted him.

12) Pavol Demitra - Prediction: Vancouver. Yes, Demitra has not been a potent offensive threat since 05-06 with the Kings, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. That much became clear when the Canucks picked Kyle Wellwood off the waiver wire. Demitra and the Canucks have a strong connection in that recently named Vancouver GM Mike Gillis served as Demitra's player agent before taking his current post. The Canucks are desperate for top-end talent to play with the Sedin twins and as a player who excels at right wing, Demitra could be a good fit.

13) Rob Blake - Prediction: Los Angeles. Rob Blake isn't ready to retire and with the amount of young talent the Kings are looking to break in at defense, it's doubtful Los Angeles wants to see him go. Blake served as a terrific mentor for Jack Johnson this past campaign and will probably be looked upon to do the same for No. 2 overall pick Drew Doughty this season if re-signed by LA.

14) Kristian Huselius - Prediction: Edmonton. Huselius is an enigma. Always has been, always will be. One game he'll look like Pavel Bure, the next he'll resemble Valeri Bure. To say his defensive abilities are suspect would be a gross understatement, but the guy can score and Kevin Lowe has talked at length about acquiring a "first-shot scorer" this off-season to round out the Oilers' top six. He could always tender Corey Perry an RFA offer sheet, but I'm assuming he doesn't want Brian Burke's hitmen after him, so he'll likely have to settle for the talented, but oft-invisible Swede.

15) Michael Ryder - Prediction: Tampa Bay. Despite their public intentions to go so far as to camp out in the backyards of top free agents in hopes of signing them, the recently instituted Tampa Bay ownership group of Oren Koules and Len Barrie will likely be shut out from signing the top dogs on the market. Ryder is coming off a dismal season in Montreal and as a result was reportedly the target of vandalism -- he'll likely be pleased to step out of the hockey spotlight. It's also easy to forget Ryder posted back-to-back thirty goal seasons just two years ago and he would likely look good playing on Steven Stamkos's wing.

16) Sean Avery - Prediction: Dallas. Avery would prefer to have his inevitable hi jinks documented in a major media market, but he's worn out his welcome in most of those locales anyway. Thus, the ex-Ranger will have to settle for the Lone Star State, where a strong leadership core that includes Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano will likely be able to keep him ins check to some extent. The Stars have shown interest in Avery and will need to fill the holes that will be created by impending UFAs Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen.

17) Cory Stillman - Prediction: Carolina. And the 2008 Doug Weight/Mark Recchi/Keith Tkachuk award goes to...Cory Stillman, for returning via free agency to the team he was dealt from at the trading deadline. The 'Canes love their forwards, and despite re-signing Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu, they'll be looking to add a bit more firepower to their lineup if only as an insurance policy should any of Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams or Matt Cullen endure lengthy injuries yet again.

18) Sergei Fedorov - Prediction: Washington. Once the best player in the NHL, Fedorov's fall from grace has been swift and painful, but he does have a chance to salvage the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. After being acquired from Columbus for a song, Fedorov looked downright invigorated in his stint with the Capitals, and would likely welcome the chance to play an entire season alongside the exciting young talent in the nation's capital.

19) Ladislav Nagy - Prediction: Minnesota. With Pavol Demitra gone, the Wild will be in desperate need to find someone to play with franchise winger (and potential UFA July 1st, 2009) Marian Gaborik. Who better than a Slovakian international teammate of Gaborik, Ladislav Nagy? Okay, so Nagy is coming off back-to-back disastrous seasons, but make no mistake -- he's still a tremendous talent and hasn't exactly been in optimal situations the past two years in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Perhaps playing alongside countryman Gaborik will reignite a spark. Regardless, at what should be a reasonably cheap cost, it's a risk the Wild can afford to take.

20) Brendan Morrison - Prediction: Atlanta. Plain and simple, the Thrashers are a mass. A brief perusal of their depth chart almost confirms that they will likely be better off spending the next season coming to a conclusion on whether John Tavares or Victor Hedman warrants the first overall draft pick in 2009 than any sort of playoff push. But they need to at least pretend that they're trying to win games, and will likely dip into the free agent market once again to find a center for poor, poor Ilya Kovalchuk. Morrison fits the bill given he does not re-sign with Vancouver.

Other notables: Gary Roberts to Calgary (Have you seen their second line?); Darcy Tucker to San Jose (Yes, he's older than dirt, but he's still an upgrade over Tomas Plihal); Mike Commodore to Los Angeles (I'll defer to Rudy Kelly on this one), Jose Theodore to Colorado (I realize Theo's playing hardball, but seriously, who the hell else is going to stop pucks in Denver? A 42-year-old Patrick Roy?); Doug Weight to St. Louis (Don't you love reunions? Actually, he'll probably retire); Jaromir Jagr to Avangard Omsk (Good riddance, Jaromir. Don't let the door hit your disproportionately large ass on the way out).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sharks re-sign Pavelski, Boucher, Roenick

The Sharks announced earlier today the re-signing of restricted free agent Joe Pavelski and unrestricted free agents Brian Boucher and Jeremy Roenick. Sharkspage is all over this with transcripts of the conference calls that occurred to announce the signings. Roenick's return has been common knowledge since the team alluded to it at the State of the Sharks meeting last month, but the retaining of another relative greybeard, Boucher, is a breath of fresh air in that it allows Thomas Greiss more time to develop in Worcester which, judging by a somewhat disastrous two-game look-see last season, he could really use.

According to TSN, Pavelski's contract totals $3.275 million over two years, about market value for a player who has been a delightful surprise since being selected 205th overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Little Joe has evolved from something of a shootout god into a bonafide second-line center for the Sharks and will likely be slotted in that role come training camp, probably between Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi. Reports have indicated both Boucher and Roenick have been inked to one-year deals, the former to a $650k contract and the latter to a deal worth $1.1 million. In addition to being an allegedly positive contributor in the locker room, Boucher showed flashes of brilliance in the few games he started for the Sharks after being acquired at the trade deadline. In any case, he is a far more trustworthy candidate to spell Nabokov than the aforementioned Greiss and Doug Wilson has indicated that the former Flyer, Blackhawk and Blue Jacket will start upwards of 10-15 games next season.

Not enough can be written about Roenick's positive impact on the team since being saved from the clutches of retirement by Doug Wilson a year ago. JR remains steadfast in his pursuit of the Cup and will be returning for his second go-around in teal. Good news for Sharks fans, bad news for those waiting for the oft-outspoken center to ascend the broadcast booth.

In terms of the team's remaining free agents, Wilson is on record stating qualifying offers have been tendered to RFAs Ryane Clowe, Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc. Talks between Wilson and impending UFA Jody Shelley are reportedly going well, while all indications are that Tomas Plihal will not be retained and only one of Curtis Brown and Patrick Rissmiller (both UFAs July 1st) is engaged in serious contract discussions with San Jose. Meanwhile, on the Brian Campbell front, Wilson withheld comment regarding the nature of contract discussions between the Sharks and Campbell's agents, only stating that they were ongoing. David Pollak suggests New York Rangers UFA blueliner Michal Rozsival as a viable replacement should Campbell choose to bolt via free agency, noting that Rozsival has a connection to newly hired Sharks coach Todd McLellan, with Rozsival having played for McLellan while with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. Speaking of McLellan, the Globe and Mail's Tim Wharnsby reports that former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Trent Yawney is likely to flank the Sharks' bench boss as an assistant coach, Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter having joined Ron Wilson in Toronto.

Finally, in other NHL news, the Tampa Bay Lightning are a joke.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Larionov gives McLellan seal of approval

In a rather blatant attempt at expunging myself from culpability for failing to opine on the Sharks' hiring of one Todd McLellan, I'll settle for referencing San Jose's latest head coach with a somewhat fresher story. In case you missed it, Igor Larionov, once tabbed the Russian Wayne Gretzky (actually I kind of just made that up), was announced yesterday as one of four 2008 inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Joining him at the November induction ceremony will be former Edmonton Oilers star Glenn Anderson, the late Ed Chynoweth in the builder category and ex-ref Ray Scapinello.

But perhaps more intriguing than Larionov's status as the first ever former Shark to have his likeness etched in the vaunted Hall were "The Professor"'s comments regarding McLellan. From today's Merc: "I like Todd," said Larionov. "He's like a calm and steady guy, and likes hockey that's very close to me -- more offense, an entertaining style of hockey." In addition to being an offensive wizard of sorts, Larionov has always been a renowned hockey mind, so when he endorses a newly-hired coach, you not only know the franchise has done something right but also that you can expect a decidedly more offensive approach from McLellan than Ron Wilson's containment-oriented defensive stylings.

***

The NHL Draft begins Friday in Ottawa, but don't get too excited -- barring trades, the Sharks won't be venturing to the podium until the fourth round. Of course, the rumormongers are running rampant once again, deeming Patrick Marleau's banishment to hockey hell (aka Columbus, Ohio) imminent. Reports have Marleau being shipped to the Blue Jackets for everything from the 6th overall pick and Nikolai Zherdev to an advance copy of NHL 2K9 for the Nintendo Wii with Rick Nash gracing the cover.

Speaking of the Blue Jackets, Doug MacLean may have skipped town, but it appears that incompetence continues to reign supreme in the team's front office. With a justifiably restless fanbase still waiting on the franchise's first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, someone in the organization apparently thought it was a good idea to not only offer Pittsburgh forward and impending UFA Ryan "I spent a contract year playing on Sidney Crosby's wing and have just 27 goals to show for it" Malone a long-term deal averaging as much as $5.5 million (!) a year, but trade either draft picks or a roster player for the right to do so a few days early. Luckily, Malone put an end to that by explicitly and publicly stating his intent to test the free agent waters regardless of whether or not his rights are traded.

***

Like any self-respecting Sharks fan, I possess a deeply ingrained hatred for all things Anaheim. However, with Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer likely to throw in the proverbial towel on his distinguished career with an announcement pending prior to Friday's draft, I feel it's appropriate to recognize one of the greatest defensemen it has ever been my privilege to watch. His unparalleled skating ability, his off-the-charts hockey IQ, his unmatched offensive instincts and his friendship with Good Riddance frontman Russ Rankin (had to throw that in there) have easily made him my favorite non-Shark. A shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, Niedermayer is, plain and simple, a winner. Hats off to one of the greatest.

Oh, but if he decides to pull that "I'm retiring haha no I'm not actually I'm not sure I think I'll take half the season off and thereby jeopardize my team's chances at developing the requisite chemistry for repeating as Cup champs" bullshit for a second year in a row, I might seriously have to reconsider my stance on him. As in, I'll respect him even more for screwing over the Ducks two years in a row.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thank goodness for cheap ownership

It isn't often you'll hear me praising Greg Jamison, but it looks as though the Sharks' majority owner being a cheap-ass has finally worked in favor of the fanbase. According to Bruce Garrioch (four words that usually don't lead to credible information, but bear with me), the Sharks and Joel Quenneville have cut off talks due to Coach Q's contract demands. Quenneville would be a terrible fit in SJ, not only because I've probably misspelled his name already in this post, but because of his stifling defensive coaching style and lack of post-second round success bear resemblance to one Ron Wilson. Thankfully, Jamison's miserliness will keep the ex-Avs coach out of SJ.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sayonara Ronnie


So the search begins. The search for a new coaching staff, that is, after reports that should surprise no one surfaced earlier today regarding Ron Wilson's termination. Perhaps not all the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the long-tenured (by NHL standards, anyway) head coach of the Sharks for San Jose's third consecutive postseason of disappointment and underachievement. But something had to give, and a scapegoat quickly emerged in RW. His passive, containment-style defense, mistreatment of younger players and apathetic, who-gives-a-crap attitude harbored an indifferent locker room culture that was as much to blame for the Sharks' three straight early exits as Vesa Toskala's Game 4 giveaway against the Oilers, Marleau's late-game defensive gaffe versus the Red Wings or Brian Campbell's ill-timed tripping penalty against the Stars.

Of course, firing Wilson was easy compared to the aforementioned task that lies ahead: naming his replacement. Everyone from Bob Hartley to Mike Ricci has been floated around as a possible suitor, but observing the trend of the two post-lockout Stanley Cup champions, perhaps the Sharks would be better off with an AHL bench boss than an established big name like a Joel Quenneville or Paul Maurice. Regardless, Doug Wilson is on the record stating that the hunt for a new coach will commence tomorrow, although I surmise that it has already begun. Showing Wilson the door was merely the first step in what proves as a lengthy process of transforming a good regular season time into a true Cup contender.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Post-mortem

Yes, they showed heart, resiliency, guts, gumption and all those other great nouns that seemed to be inexplicably removed from the Sharks' dictionary in years past by storming back from a 3-0 series deficit to at least make things interesting. But at the end of the day, this year's version of the San Jose Sharks, the purported "team of destiny" that so many confidently picked to raise Lord Stanley's chalice was an exact replica of the past two equally disappointing incarnations, bowing out once again in Game 6 of the second round. Sure the Sharks can take some positives with the way they battled back when staring death in the eye, but moral victories aren't what this team needs. Moral victories aren't going to save Ron Wilson's job. Moral victories don't win you the Stanley Cup.

I'll file report cards for the players and provide more analysis in the days to come, but the prime objective of the offseason should be to find a fitting replacement for Ron Wilson. His laughable containment-style defense and passive offensive system combined with his insufferable apathy makes him the polar opposite of what this team needs behind the bench. No, they don't need a motivator, no matter what so-called pundits -- particularly those north of the 49th -- say. Professional athletes don't need someone to motivate them, they need someone who can properly utilize their talents and be able to adapt to various opposing gameplans instead of stubbornly implementing a completely static power play entirely reliant on a crowded Joe Thornton making unbelievable passes that never come. Doug Wilson has a host of options as far as a replacement goes -- Pat Burns comes to mind -- but what's urgent is getting Ron Wilson out of the Bay Area.

Also, despite a rather underwhelming postseason performance, Brian Campbell needs to be retained. Say what you will about his lack of physicality and occasional defensive mishaps, Campbell is the power-play quarterback and offensive blueliner that has been missing for so long on the Sharks' back end. As painful as it is to say, his poor playoff campaign is actually a positive in terms of contract negotiations as it likely knocks over five hundred thousand off his asking price.

As far as trades go, I really don't believe the Sharks can get fair value if they try to trade Patrick Marleau, so there's no reason to do so. However, Matt Carle and Kyle McLaren both need to be dealt to free up valuable cap space to sign Campbell as well as key RFAs such as Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Christian Ehrhoff. I imagine they will be traded at the draft either for picks or marginal roster players in return, but as long as Doug Wilson is able to shed salary, the moves will be successful. It's going to be another long summer in Sharks territory, best to get started early.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Western Conference Semifinals
(1) Detroit Red Wings v. (6) Colorado Avalanche


Offense: I said it in my preview of the Colorado-Minnesota series, I'll say it again here: the Avs boast the deepest offense in the Western Conference. When your top six is comprised of Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth and Andrew Brunette and augmented by promising youngsters like Wojtek Wolski and David Jones, you know you're in good shape. Add to that the offensive potential of defensemen John-Michael Liles, Ruslan Salei and Jordan Leopold and it makes for one explosive Avalanche team. The Wings aren't exactly slouches themselves up front, with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the way, but the dominant duo barely made an impact against a young Nashville defense in the first round -- who's to say they'll be able to improve upon their first-round performance against a veteran corps that includes shutdown stalwarts Adam Foote and Scott Hannan? While Valterri Filpulla and Jiri Hudler provided decent secondary scoring for the Wings, what happened to Dan Cleary? The Detroit forward scored 20 goals in the regular season but hasn't found the back of the net since February 5th against Minnesota and had just one assist against the Preds in the first round. A matchup to look forward to here is the battle of the elite crease-crashers: Tomas Holmstrom for Detroit vs. Ryan Smyth for Colorado. Edge: Colorado.

Defense: Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski may make all the headlines, but young stalwart Niklas Kronwall was arguably the Wings' most important defenseman in their first-round ousting of the Nashville Predators, not only picking up points but maintaining an imposing physical presence as well. While the comparison between the two teams' bluelines seems lopsided in favor of Detroit, don't count out Colorado's underrated defense corps. Adam Foote turned back the clock and turned up an exceptional performance in the first round, shutting down Minnesota superstar Marian Gaborik. Look for him and his solid partner Kurt Sauer to be matched up against Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk throughout this series. Ruslan Salei was a bright spot for the Avalanche against the Wild as well, kick-starting what had been a god-awful Avs powerplay in the regular season. Still, it's hard to argue with a blueline that reads as a veritable roll call of future hall-of-famers. Edge: Detroit.

Goaltending: It was the one glaring, universal quesiton mark regarding the top-seeded Red Wings, but even still, few could have predicted how sour things would turn in nets for Detroit. 43-year-old Dominik Hasek was bailed out by his team despite turning up mediocre performances in Games 1 and 2 against the Predators, but even they couldn't save him in Games 3 and 4 and after yielding 8 goals through those two games, Hasek was promptly pulled by Wings coach Mike Babcock, setting the stage for Chris Osgood to take over the goaltending duties for the remainder of the series -- and presumably the remainder of the playoffs. While Osgood performed admirably in allowing just one goal through wins in Games 5 and 6 to close out Nashville, the veteran netminder proved hot and cold through the regular season and let's face it -- the Preds' offense doesn't even compare to that of the high-flying Avs. Meanwhile, Jose Theodore has been partying like it's 2002 -- the year the ex-Hab won the Hart and Vezina trophies. Theodore has still never lost a first-round series, but he's never won a second-round series either. History aside, however, the Avs netminder was stellar in the first round and while he'll have a decidedly tougher time against a far more talented squad, he has shown in this, his comeback season, that he still has the ability to steal games -- something that can't be said for the guy on the other end of the ice. Edge: Colorado.

Overall: The Red Wings had their hands full with the Predators in the first round and the aforementioned quesitons regarding goaltending abound. Despite owning the West's top seed, the Wings' mediocre offensive numbers in the first-round brought into the limelight the well-hidden fact that Detroit desperately lacks secondary scoring, thanks in no small part to the disappearing acts pulled by Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson in said series. Colorado, meanwhile, has a spectacular offense that has the ability to pick apart Chris Osgood -- as long as they aren't kept in check by Detroit's stellar defense. Complete with a hot goaltender, it's tough not to pick the Avs for the upset here in what should be a long, brutal yet classic semifinal series. Prediction: Colorado in seven.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Can Sharks survive "The Collapse"?

It has become every bit as much of a Sharks postseason ritual as towel waving at the Tank, eliminating the Nashville Predators and heckling Chris Pronger. Call it "the collapse," "the choke job," whatever you want to call it -- but it has become as certain an annual occurrence as Christmas or Veteran's Day. Often, it comes in pairs.

Let's go back to Game 3 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals against the Edmonton Oilers. The Sharks were less than five minutes away from rattling off a third consecutive 2-1 victory and gaining an insurmountable stranglehold on the series. Raffi Torres ties it late, Shawn Horcoff scores the game-winner in triple overtime. Game 4 of that same series -- Jonathan Cheechoo scores in the second period to give the Sharks a 3-1 lead and a chance to gain that same record in the series. A little less than thirty-five minutes later and the Sharks are at the wrong end of a 6-3 defeat. They would go on to lose the series in six games.

Flash forward a year to Game 2 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. Quick goals by Cheechoo and Joe Thornton give the Sharks a great chance of taking a 2-0 series lead headed to San Jose for Game 3. Fat chance. Goals by Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary -- the latter being shorthanded on an egregious turnover by Christian Ehrhoff -- tie the game and Pavel Datsyuk scores the winner with less than two minutes remaining. The Sharks do manage to win Game 3 at HP, however, and are less than forty seconds away from taking a 3-1 series lead into Game 4. Robert Lang with the tying goal, Mathieu Schneider scores in overtime and the Sharks lose the next two games as well to drop that series in six games. Perhaps all of those gut-wrenching, teeth-chipping, eye-gouging losses paled in comparison to the travesty that occurred last night in Calgary.

Hockey is a game of mistakes. Mental errors that lead to mistakes, the opportunism to have opponents make mistakes and the ability to capitalize on opposing mistakes. Blown leads are bound to happen, but it is undeniable that such collapses, particularly in the most critical of situations, have been inextricably ingrained in the franchise's reputation. As painful as Game 3 was to watch, it's not about how you lose the games -- it's about how you respond. Surveying the Sharks' aforementioned postseason track record, there has been no response. The Sharks, especially their best player, whose ill-advised screen of Evgeni Nabokov which allowed Owen Nolan's game-winning goal serves as a microcosm of his invisibility not only during this series, but his playoff career at large, have most definitely been handed a test. This is the same test that they have taken during their last two postseason flameouts and both times they failed. We'll see tomorrow night if they've learned from their mistakes or if all was for naught. If the Sharks can somehow recuperate and manage to win this series, the Stanley Cup is truly theirs to lose. If they flunk their third test, there were no legitimate Cup aspirations to begin with.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(2) San Jose Sharks v. (7) Calgary Flames


Offense: Both teams were littered with underachieving forwards this season, as neither Patrick Marleau nor Jonathan Cheechoo lived up to their billing for San Jose while Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy turned up stinkers of a season for the Flames. The difference here is that, while Marleau and Cheechoo began lighting it up like their former selves after the trade deadline, many of the Flames, particularly Kristian Huselius, faltered during that same timespan. Edge: San Jose.

Defense: All the focus on this series with regards to the Flames has been placed upon Calgary superstar Jarome Iginla and for good reason: The Flames' captain scored a Western Conference-leading 50 goals this season. But the player the Sharks should arguably be most afraid of scored 45 fewer goals than Iginla this season: defenseman Robyn Regehr. While you can never know for certain, my gut feeling is that last season's Flames first-round loss to Detroit would have been a lot different with Regehr in the lineup. Perhaps the best shutdown defenseman in the league, Regehr is the cornerstone of the Flames' blueline and will take liberties with Joe Thornton and Milan Michalek if he isn't consistently hounded by the Sharks' forecheckers. He'll likely pair with Cory Sarich on a shutdown pair, allowing Dion Phaneuf to play with Adrian Aucoin on the second unit. But while Calgary's defense looks better on paper, the Sharks' mobile corps centered around deadline acquisition Brian Campbell and combining the right amounts of physicality (Douglas Murray, Kyle McLaren), skill (Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and a mix of both (Craig Rivet) seems superior. Edge: San Jose.

Goaltending: The netminding matchup provides the greatest intrigue in this first-round series. Both All-Star stoppers and disciples of the late Warren Strelow, Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff had, for the most part, starkly different seasons. While Nabokov had his best season to date, leading the league in wins, representing the Western Conference at the All-Star game and receiving serious Vezina and Hart Trophy consideration, Kiprusoff faltered in his first season under Mike Keenan, posting sub-par seasons and failing to record a single shutout until February. Regardless, Kipper has proven that he is a reliable playoff goaltender, though so has Nabokov. Goaltending, like almost all other facets of this series, will be close but the man who has had the vastly better campaign gets the nod here. Edge: Sharks.

Overall: The regular season means little with regards to the playoffs. However, while the Flames failed to win more than two straight from early February on, the Sharks went 18-0-2 down the stretch. Whether that means the Sharks and Flames will continue their respective trends through the postseason is entirely a crapshoot, but with far superior depth and a goaltender that has proven he can steal games, San Jose looks like the safe pick here, but it should be a close one. Prediction: Sharks in 6.

Note: Photo courtesy PJ Swenson.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(3) Minnesota Wild v. (6) Colorado Avalanche


Offense: Colorado might have he most explosive group of forwards in the Western Conference. With historical playoff beasts Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic augmented by the likes of Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, Ryan Smyth and Andrew Brunette, the Avs can roll three dangerous scoring lines and, with everyone healthy, run and gun with the best of them. The Wild on the other hand have been known to plug goons like Todd Fedoruk onto their scoring lines due to a dearth of dangerous forwards, but still have the lethal Marian Gaborik who has a great playoff track record to his credit. Still, it's hard to top the Avs' deep unit. Edge: Colorado.

Defense: Neither team really has an All-Star on the blueline, but the Wild's Brent Burns will certainly be one in a few years. Along with two-way defenseman Kim Johnsson, stay-at-home stalwart Nick Schultz and the physically imposing Sean Hill, Minnesota's back end clearly outclasses the Avs' mix of Scott Hannan, Adam Foote and John-Michael Liles, among others. Edge: Minnesota.

Goaltending: This category is hard to handicap. Coming off a spectacular season in which he recorded the lowest goals-against average in the NHL, Niklas Backstrom regressed a tad this year, but still finished in the top ten in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Talk about a polar opposite: The Avs' fallen star of a netminder Jose Theodore, coming off a terrible season and an offseason littered with whispers of buyout, the former Hart Trophy winner shone once again, winning key games for Colorado down the stretch and often bailing out Colorado's unspectacular defense. The stats will show you Backstrom is a superior goalie, but the reality is this matchup is just too close to call. Although, here's a fun fact: Theodore has never lost a first-round series. Edge: It's a wash.

Overall: Once infamous for their stingy system, the Wild were largely average this season in terms of team defense, allowing upwards of an average of 2.5 goals against per game. It'll be a nail-biter of a series for sure, but that statistic doesn't bode well for Minnesota if they hope to stop this high-powered Avalanche offense. Prediction: Colorado in 7.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Western Conference Quarterfinals
(4) Anaheim Ducks v. (5) Dallas Stars


Offense: The fact that the Ducks were two lines deep helped them immensely last postseason, as despite Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald's faltering through the first few rounds, Ryan Getzlaf and co. were able to pick up the slack. Anaheim will have no such luxury this time around. With no legitimate second line center to set up Selanne and Corey Perry injured at least through the first round, an already tepid offensive team in the Ducks (Anaheim finished 28th in league scoring) will be hard-pressed to put the puck in the net. The Stars, on the other hand, enjoyed a bit of a role reversal through the first half of the season with the likes of Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow piling on the points. While that duo proved hot and cold down the stretch, the addition of known playoff producer Brad Richards serves to bolster a Dallas offense that simply couldn't score against Vancouver in last year's first round. Edge: Dallas.

Defense: Regardless of what anyone thinks of Marty Turco, Brenden Morrow or Mike Ribeiro, Sergei Zubov is without a doubt Dallas' best player. Unfortunately for the Stars, their No. 1 defenseman has been injured for nearly half the season and will not take the ice against Anaheim in the first round, reducing Dallas to a rather non-descript defense corps that will rely on veterans Philippe Boucher and Mattias Norstrom along with surprising rookie Matt Niskanen to get the job done. The Ducks have no such issues, however, employing one of the greatest bluelines in recent NHL history. Aside from Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Mathieu Schneider, Anaheim's blueline also boasts depth. Marc-Andre Bergeron could probably be a prominent power-play quarterback on most NHL teams, yet he's a bottom-pairing defenseman on the Ducks. Edge: Anaheim.

Goaltending: On paper, this is as lopsided of a netminding matchup as we have in the first round. Marty Turco, the infamous and unfairly branded playoff choker against J-S Giguere, the springtime superstar with a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and sparkling overtime record to his credit. Delving a tad deeper, it becomes apparent that Turco was far from a choker last postseason, when he was in fact far and away his team's best player, recording an unbelievable three shutouts in a seven-game loss to Vancouer. Giguere was terrific as well in guiding the Ducks to a Cup, but let's face it -- it's easy to look good with two Norris Trophy winners in front of you. Still, J-S is far more of a known quantity in the playoffs than the Stars' netminder. Edge: Anaheim

Overall: It's going to be difficult for the Stars to dethrone the Stanley Cup Champions, especially without Sergei Zubov in the lineup. Marty Turco and Mike Ribeiro are still playoff question marks and Brad Richards just hasn't fit in in Big D. The Ducks, on the other hand, have been on a season-long mission to defend their cup title. Prediction: Ducks in 5.