When you're a team like the San Jose Sharks that has made the playoffs in all but five of your first 20 seasons, you're bound to have amassed a few rivals along the way. You don't compete in a Western Conference finals series without generating some healthy adversaries — see: Chicago and Vancouver — and you don't knock a team like the Red Wings out of the playoffs in back-to-back years without making it so that future games are a little more elevated.
But that was the past. If you want to see into the San Jose Sharks' future, you have to start with their most promising young asset, 23-year-old center Logan Couture. And to Couture, one of the Sharks' biggest opponents isn't a team like Detroit or Vancouver, nor it is it one of the other California franchises in Anaheim or L.A. Nope, the matchup that gets Couture going is a team that has been so unfortunate for the better part of a decade that it has amassed three consecutive first-overall draft picks and hasn't made the playoffs since 2006. That's right: He measures his game against the Edmonton Oilers.
"I'm a Canadian kid, so I spend a lot of time in Canada," Couture told the Mercury News's David Pollak on Wednesday night, after the Sharks defeated Edmonton 4-3 in a shootout to cling to the eighth playoff position in the West. "You turn on TSN or Sportsnet and everything is [Taylor] Hall, [Justin] Schultz, [Jordan] Eberle, [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins, [Nail] Yakupov. It's nice to come back and score a couple here [in Edmonton]."
Perhaps Couture, who scored twice and added a goal in Wednesday's shootout, is just competitive; it couldn't have been too much fun to have been picked last at last year's NHL All-Star Game draft, though he did get a car out of the deal. But it's more than just a rat race: These guys are the NHL's next class of stars, and it's only natural they'd want to measure themselves against their best peers. The 12th-place Oilers, who are currently in a logjam of Western Conference teams fighting for a playoff berth as the season begins its initial descent, might not make the postseason this year. But they almost certainly will in the near future. The bigger and more surprising question is: Will the Sharks be there too?
With the April 3 trade deadline approaching and the NHL standings in this lockout-shortened season in total chaos, the Sharks might be the team with the most to figure out. San Jose has been in disarray since its 7-0 start, unable to string together a consistent stretch of wins. After one recent loss to the Kings, coach Todd McLellan was furious about the way his team had performed in what he felt was a litmus-test game against the defending champions. "Do I belong in the NHL?" he asked rhetorically after the game, imitating a player. "When I look across, can I outplay the guy that I lined up against? And we had a lot of passengers," he went on. "So disappointing, so disappointing."
It feels in many ways like the same story from last season, when the Sharks fell in the first round of the playoffs after advancing to the Western Conference finals the previous two years. At what point, the question becomes, do the Sharks start to mix things up a bit? GM Doug Wilson is "a big-time tire-kicker," wrote CBC's Elliotte Friedman this week, but while "sometimes he wants to re-shape his group (but don't even ask about Logan Couture) other times he's more conservative."
Friedman's use of "re-shape" is telling: Everyone who talks about the Sharks' options uses words like that, or phrases like "reset and refresh." In a thoughtful and in-depth piece on where San Jose goes from here, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun wrote that "this team needs some tweaking, a fresh coat of paint you're not going to see a full rebuild in San Jose." This makes things tricky. Cosmetic work is often a little tougher than demolition.
The Sharks aren't the only team facing this tough tap dance. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a similar generational split: Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are to Steven Stamkos what Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are to Couture. (You even see that same not-a-rebuild language when discussing Tampa: One blogger refers to their path as "restock[ing] the cupboards.")
The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, have been answering the "rebuild, or GO FOR IT?" question for years now by basically doing neither; over at Flames Nation, Kent Wilson has a good piece on how teams ought to think about these scenarios: "[W]hen hockey fans think 'rebuild,'" he writes, "they seem to think of the 'scorched earth' variety where the organization simply liquidates any and all worthwhile assets over the age of 25 in an effort to gather draft picks and also be bad enough to finish in the lottery." (He lays out his own suggested road map for the Flames to rebuild in a more calculated manner.)
I'd be surprised if the Sharks didn't try to do something at the deadline — rumors have been swirling that the Rangers are interested in defenseman Dan Boyle, and the Sharks also have potential tradable assets in pending unrestricted free agents Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray — but I also don't know that they're going to do anything all too drastic.
With the salary cap going down next season, many teams will be looking to get creative with their rosters through trades and amnesties; LeBrun points out that the Sharks have planned it so they will have cap flexibility to take advantage of this. A short season is hardly one in which to panic. But the Sharks need to figure out a way to ensure that they remain competitive into a new generation so that their young star Couture can one-up the Oilers — who will be in the same conference as San Jose in the new realignment, by the way — for years to come. Hopefully, it'll be when they meet every year in the playoffs.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week's Sickest Snipes
Last season, Patrick Kane's spinorama-into-a-backhanded-assist-to–Marian Hossa was one of the top plays of the year. So hey, why not do it again? Except this time, might as well just cut out the middleman and roof it right into the net. No big deal. This is why Patrick Kane has 38 points. (And the "celebrating on St. Patty's Day" jokes write themselves.)
The Anaheim Ducks squelched all the best juicy trade deadline speculation Monday when they announced that they'd re-signed Corey Perry, less than two years removed from 50 goals and a Hart Trophy, to an eight-year, $69 million contract just slightly heftier than the one awarded to Ryan Getzlaf last week. It's a big price tag for two players, but given the replacement options available via a trade market or free agency, it made sense to Anaheim to extend the deals.
Leave it to Renaissance Man Teemu Selanne to have the best reaction to the (fraternal) twin agreements. According to the Anaheim Ducks Twitter account, Selanne was asked about the Perry/Getzlaf contracts. "If they can play 8 more years, then I can too," he said. "I'm in better shape than they are."
On Wednesday night, Selanne scored the game-winner in a bragging-rights game against the only team in the league with more points than his Ducks: the Blackhawks. (With the win, Anaheim moved to within three points of Chicago with a game in hand.) He was assisted by Getzlaf, who was too flu-stricken after the game to speak with reporters. Meanwhile, Selanne was hale and chipper. Maybe he had a point.
In other top goals of the week, Ryan Whitney's backhander gets better with age; L.A.'s highly touted rookie Tyler Toffoli scores his first NHL goal — and reacts accordingly; and Toronto's Tyler Bozak shatters the in-net camera.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week's Worst Performers
Time was when the Nashville Predators were a plucky gang of good guys Barry Trotzing their way to hard-earned and respectable success, back in the days when Sergei Kostitsyn was the Gallant to his nightlife-loving brother Andrei's Goofus.
Now everything seems at risk: the team's playoff chances (and with them, lotsa dollars), its consistent decency, its reputation as a franchise that doesn't gladly suffer fools.1 The Shea Weber signing this summer is often described as a poison pill — Philadelphia created a bloated offer sheet in hopes of luring Weber away from formerly cash-strapped and now cash-conscious Nashville — but you could also liken it to the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta has to plunge the giant needle into Uma Thurman's chest. It was ugly, it was necessary, and it probably left a bummer of a scar.
It's been a tough stretch for Nashville, which has lost seven of its nine games in March. Far from being the ideal of a Predators team — a grinding group that might not score a lot but won't get scored on much, either — Nashville has given up 20 goals in its last four games, all losses. Tied 1-1 with the Edmonton Oilers midway through the third period Sunday, there was at least a glimmer of hope for the slumping Predators. Making the odds even better, Nashville got a power play.
And then Sergei Kostitsyn he well, Nashville coach Barry Trotz probably described it best. "I can't give you a logical explanation for an illogical event," he said.
The reaction of the coaching staff and the bench says it all, no? Anyway, the word "boneheaded" was invented to describe things like this, and Kostitsyn was contrite after the game. (He shied away from reporters before confiding in Josh Cooper.) "I made a mistake," he told Cooper. "I went to change. I should have backchecked, but didn't see the second guy was coming there. Even if it was a one-on-one, I should go back. It doesn't matter if I was tired. I should have gone back and pressured him from behind."
Adding insult to injury: Scoring for the Oilers on the breakdown was Lennart Petrell, who is having as bad a season as the NHL has historically tolerated. The Predators scratched Kostitsyn for Tuesday's game against Columbus, and lost again.
If there's good news for the Predators, it's that they're facing a winnable game against Calgary on Thursday. But right now, they're finding bleak upside in things like this: "We didn't quit at the end, that was a positive," Trotz said after falling to Columbus earlier this week. "But positive doesn't get you points. Close but no cigar."
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
• The ridonkulous Minnesota women's hockey team hosts the women's Frozen Four this weekend after surviving a 3-2 3OT scare in the quarterfinals against North Dakota last weekend; their win was their 47th straight, a streak that dates back to last season. I wrote a little bit about them at the end of last year, and in this week's mailbag, so check it out. Go Gophers!
• Speaking of college hockey, on the men's side it's Championship Weekend, in which all the conference tournaments will take place and the NCAA tournament bracket will be solidified. College Hockey News's Adam Wodon patiently lays out just about every one of the 393,216 possible remaining scenarios (just kidding, maybe more like half of them), including a few tasty nuggets. For example, there's one outcome that could result in an NCAA regional bracket in Providence featuring Yale, Brown, BC, and Providence. "Someone at the Dunkin' Donuts Center is praying to the gods for that one," Wodon says.
• Jake Gardiner Captivity Status: FREED!
• This video of the Ottawa Senators trying to spell each other's names is maybe the most pleasantly feel-good footage I've seen in a while. Come on, first these guys totally pull together and survive the injuries to Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, last season's leading scorer Jason Spezza and top goal scorer Milan Michalek, and league-leading goalie Craig Anderson — and now you're telling me they're a bunch of laugh riots, too? Sold. I could watch these guys bashfully guess "D Z-E-D?" for a full 30-minute segment. Highlights include Erik Condra speaking like he's Jeff Spicoli, Jakob Silfverberg's earnestness in completing the challenge, and Robin Lehner being a tough nut to crack.
• It's been an interesting few months when it comes to advanced stats/#fancystats/performance analytics/deep dives/"those spreadsheets you people all pay attention to" — whatever you like to call it. An increasing number of hockey writers, broadcasters, and analysts have been incorporating things like PDO, Corsi, zone starts, and quality of competition into their work lately. The most recent mainstream guy to express his support was TSN's Ray Ferraro, who "came out in favour" of their use during the Toronto broadcast Wednesday night, noting that teams would be foolish not to use them. But the more exposure these ideas get, the more they also get exposed. Interest in and demand for these numbers and data sets has been growing of late, but their supply remains shaky. One site, Behind the Net, was slow to get rolling this season because of a server issue; the hockey stats crowd staggered around without it, lost and unmoored for days. There was much rejoicing the other day when the AWOL guy behind Time on Ice surfaced and made the site blessedly work once again. "[Behind the Net] traffic is more than double what it was last year," tweeted the indispensable site's proprietor, who goes by Hawerchuk, recently. "Convenient this happens several years after I lost motivation to work on the site." The websites that aggregate and provide the information are essentially one-man labors of love. Even CapGeek, a salary resource so thorough and expansive that it's hard to believe it's mostly the work of just this one dedicated guy is mostly the work of just this one dedicated guy. If these guys lose interest, what are we left with?
• Here's some cool minimalist NHL logos as created by Segments Design. My personal favorites: Nashville, Vancouver, Minnesota, Washington, San Jose, and Edmonton. This kind of stuff always makes me yearn for a rec room.
• Will Evgeni Malkin be returning to the Penguins lineup this week? "I hope," he told the Pittsburgh media on Tuesday. "I miss hockey. I miss my team. I hope Friday, yes." Hockey misses you too, Geno!
• The only way I can describe New York Rangers rookie J.T. Miller's game-winner over Carolina on Monday night is that it was the Eli Manning fourth-quarter pass of shootout attempts. (Bonus points for the John Tortorella reaction shot.)
• Corey Perry wasn't the only major contract announcement this week. Smart move by the Phoenix Coyotes to lock up their young star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for six years and $33 million. For a good sense of how Coyotes fans reacted to this deal, I recommend the comments section of this post.
• Two rookie defensemen who deserve to be in Calder Trophy discussions even if they have only an outside shot of winning: Minnesota's Jonas Brodin and Dallas's Brenden Dillon. No rookie blue-liner has averaged more time on ice per game than Brodin, who has been playing top pairing minutes alongside Ryan Suter (and helping him play some of the best hockey of his career). As for Dillon, the 22-year-old has played in every game for the Stars and is fourth on the team in ice time. (Until recently, he was living with his defense partner Stephane Robidas. "The kids really liked him," Robidas said.)
And a Beauty! The Week's Nicest in Net
The goaltending situation in St. Louis is beginning to feel a bit awkward. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were fantastic last year, but Jake Allen has rode in and stolen the show. You can't put it all on Elliott, as the Blues as a whole have played poorly in front of him this year, but three is a crowd. As a Blues fan, I am loving the results, but how far away are we from Brian Elliott brooding in dark corners and eating his feelings?
Poor Brian Elliott. One of the league's breakout darlings of the 2011-12 season, with his Office Space looks and his E.T. JumboTron segments and his Ninja Turtles–themed helmet (and, oh yeah, a .940 save percentage and an All-Star nod and the William M. Jennings Trophy), Elliott has regressed to his less esteemed career form this season. With Halak injured, St. Louis called up Jake Allen, who has now played 11 games for the Blues this season and won eight of them.
Allen's play has been a nice surprise to everyone, considering he wasn't even the Blues' top AHL prospect last season and he hadn't posted great numbers before getting the call this year. But such is life with goalies; as Vancouver's Cory Schneider put it (and he'd know), it's "a somewhat fickle position very seldom the same guys [in] the top five every single year." In situations like the one in St. Louis, everyone might as well be getting scrutinized by Heidi Klum on Project Runway. "One minute you're in, and the next you're out."
There's no telling how long Allen's run will last, so for now we're just left to enjoy play like this.
And in other good stuff from great goalies, James Reimer helps the Leafs get a big win over the Lightning with a flurry of first-period saves; the Capitals' Braden Holtby may not have scored an empty-net goal against the Buffalo Sabres, but it definitely wasn't for lack of trying; and the Flames' Joey MacDonald committed "grade-A larceny."
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
There was some good stuff this week, so let's award Three Stars:
Third Star: To the Edmonton Oilers' Taylor Hall, who was not impressed by Tiger Woods's Photo Sesh-o-Luv with Lindsey Vonn. (A wounded Tiger was probably all, "Whatever, man, I don't care about the man-love between you and RNH, either.")
Second Star: To Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty,2 who managed to malign not one but two organizations as whiners in one tidy quote: "[The Phoenix Coyotes] like to whine a lot. At times they remind me of Vancouver with their complaining and stuff like that I don't know if it's one single guy or anything like that. It kind of seems like a whole team kind of thing."
First Star: To Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who recklessly surfed the full crest and crash of the media wave when he lashed out against teammate Patrick Kaleta Sunday night and then asked for takebacksies two days later.
Following a 5-3 loss to the Washington Capitals, Miller was asked about comments made earlier that day by Kaleta, who was scratched in his first game back from a five-game suspension for a dangerous hit, and described himself as "pissed off" about the decision. Miller ranted: "That's just drama and he needs to just grow up if he's gonna say that to you guys. You know what? He had a stupid play in a game. He sat, he was punished. He has to get over it and move on."
On Tuesday morning, Miller had changed his tune. "I actually apologized to Patty," he said. "I think everyone in Buffalo knows I'm prone to say stupid things that come up over the course of the season." Miller's quotes this week illustrate the classic athlete conundrum: We want these guys to be real people, to say real things, to give us their real feelings — and then we lose our minds when they do. A rote, clichéd Ryan Miller wouldn't be the same Ryan Miller at all.
I think we'd sooner see Miller traded out of Buffalo, though, than see him lose his candor. Even when things aren't going well — especially when things aren't going well. "You can get me to say anything after a loss like that," he joked Tuesday, and it's kinda funny cause it's true.
Oh, NHL '94
That one-timer rocked.