NHL, players can still minimize damage


NHL, players can still minimize damage

When the NHL returned from a season-long hiatus in 2005, the list of adjustments to the game and givebacks to the fan base was a significant one.

In many markets, ticket prices were reduced across the board, or at least in certain parts of the arena. The hooking and holding that led to monotonous stretches of play was greatly reduced with a stricter enforcement of the rulebook. Shiny new streamlined uniforms were introduced. The league even revealed a sleek new silver and black logo, an update from the Halloween-themed orange and black emblem from yesteryear.

Eight years later, and in the middle of another labor war thats threatening the league as a viable business, its hard to imagine what kind of bone the league and its players can throw to sports most passionate fans when this mess comes to its conclusion. A full season is not an option, as the lockout has reached its 60th day and has again regressed into a staring match between league and union leadership. Drastic rule changes dont seem likely, and wouldnt be a good idea, anyway.

And, ticket prices? The chance theres an across-the-board reduction from any team is on par with Korean rapper PSY releasing a second international hit.

But, there is something they can do.

Rewind to December 5, 2011. On that day, NHL governors ratified a radical new plan to realign the league into four conferences, two of which would have seven teams while the others had eight. The Sharks would join the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Ducks, Kings, Avalanche and Coyotes in a yet-to-be-named group.

Furthermore and more importantly, for these purposes it was announced that each team in the league would face its non-conference opponents twice a year, ensuring that every club would make at least one annual appearance in every other building.

At the time, the praise for the plan seemed unanimous from both management and players. Joe Pavelski said: I think that, definitely, is good. Some guys play three or four seasons and youre like, I havent even been here yet. It would be nice to see each building once a year.

A little more than a month later, the plan was toast, rejected by the NHLPA. Pavelski cited increased travel and the fact that two conferences had just seven teams as compared to eight in the West Coast-leaning groups. The top four teams from each conference were to qualify for the postseason.

The realignment almost certainly wont happen this season, if there is a season at all. But the portion of the plan that sees every team visit every other team could, and should, still be on the table. Theres still time for a 66-game season that sees each club play its current division opponents four times apiece, and faces every other team in the league twice.

It would be a small but significant token of appreciation in a league that is driven by the hardest of hardcore fans, and would help minimize the damage the two sides have already caused with this asinine game of chicken.

Want to see Zach Parise make his return to New Jersey after departing for greener pastures in Minnesota, Devils fans? No problem. Weve got you covered.

Canucks supporters. Still hoping to get some revenge on the team that broke your hearts in the 2011 Cup Finals? Well, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and the big bad Bruins will be swinging through the Pacific Northwest.

Hoping for a chance to greet Stanley Cup champions Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Flyers faithful, after your team traded away its young stars in order to sign an unstable goaltender? No problem, the Kings will be visiting the City of Brotherly Love.

And, finally, Sharks supporters youve packed the HP Pavilion full night after night for more than 100 consecutive games. What do you get for putting up with yet another nonsensical work stoppage? Youll get a chance to see East Coast superstars Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Claude Giroux skate in the Bay Area.

Of course, for this scenario to have any chance at occurring, the league and union will have to figure out their numerous differences relatively quickly, including economics and contracting differences. Several prognosticators have marked December 1 as a potential start date for the league, and while that may be a bit ambitious now, a window does exist for the two sides to come to an agreement. In 1994-95, Gary Bettmans first lockout ended on January 11, and a 48-game season ran from January 20 May 3.

Working backwards from that date means the league and union will have to get something done by next Thursday Thanksgiving Day. Probable? No, but not impossible. And, in fact, a 66-game schedule could still be feasible if it includes an early December start.

For now, the clock continues to tick. And with it, a discouraged fan base that drives the business grows more and more apathetic.

Five months after taking puck to face, Sharks' Logan Couture 'still pretty sore'


Five months after taking puck to face, Sharks' Logan Couture 'still pretty sore'

Nearly five months after taking a puck to the mouth that resulted in major damage, Logan Couture is still dealing with the aftereffects of his surgically repaired mouth, which now features several false teeth.

Appearing on the NHL Network this week, Couture was asked how he’s feeling with less than one month to go before the Sharks open training camp on Sep. 14.

“There’s good days and bad days,” Couture said. “My bottom teeth are still my real teeth. They’ve tried to keep them so I don’t lose them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, they’re still pretty sore. My top teeth are all fake now – my front six, I think. So, it’s different. It just feels different in my mouth. 

“But everything else with my face and all that is healed. I’m lucky that it’s an injury that didn’t affect my training, and hopefully won’t affect me going forward.”

Couture was injured on March 25 in Nashville. He was set up just outside the crease in the offensive zone when a Brent Burns point shot hit a stick before squarely battering the now 28-year-old’s mouth.

After missing the final seven games of the regular season, Couture returned for the Sharks’ playoff opener. He managed to play in all six games of the first round loss, posting two goals and one assist for three points, although he struggled at times and was seemingly targeted by the Oilers.

Couture is currently in his hometown of London, Ontario where he’s staging a casino event for brain research. Fellow Sharks Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo will take part, as will other NHL stars like the Kings’ Drew Doughty.

Analysis: Sharks will need results from recent draft classes


Analysis: Sharks will need results from recent draft classes

It was late in the lockout-shortened 2013 season when Sharks general manager Doug Wilson really started to prepare for the future. Douglas Murray was dealt to Pittsburgh for a pair of second round selections. Ryane Clowe packed his bags for Broadway, in exchange for a second and a third round pick from the Rangers. Michal Handzus went to Chicago for a fourth rounder.

Wilson’s logic was sound, as it typically takes two-to-four years before draft picks have a chance to make an impact at the NHL level. The general manager figured that by then, players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau either wouldn’t be a part of the team anymore or would be slowing down. Restocking the cupboards was essential.

From 2013-15, the Sharks made 24 selections over the next three NHL entry drafts, including seven total picks in the top two rounds. Some players have shown promise. Others haven’t. A few aren’t in the organization anymore. That’s the nature of the business.

The way the 2017-18 opening night roster is shaping up, though, now is the time that some of these young players in the system simply have to step up. Marleau and his 27 goals last season are gone, Thornton’s numbers are down and he’s coming off of major knee surgery, Joe Pavelski is now 33 years old, and the team’s offense depth is suspect at best. There have been no notable additions in the offseason.

Frankly, this season could be viewed as a referendum on the team’s amateur scouting staff, including longtime director Tim Burke. Wilson handed Burke and his staff a wonderful opportunity to provide the organization with fresh talent with the team approaching an organizational crossroads.

What has transpired so far is a bit concerning, as already two of the team’s first round picks from that span ended up being nothing more than trade bait.

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Mirco Mueller, chosen 18th overall in 2013, was a huge disappointment in San Jose. It’s been well documented that he was mishandled by the organization when he was rushed to the league in 2014-15, but even this past season, regular observers of the Barracuda had Mueller as nothing more than the AHL team’s fourth-best defenseman. He’s now in New Jersey, swapped for a pair of draft picks.

The scouting staff was so high on Mueller on draft day that Wilson traded a valuable second round pick to Detroit to move up just two places to select him. With those acquired picks, the Red Wings took Anthony Mantha 20th overall and Tyler Bertuzzi 58th overall – two forwards that have shown a whole lot more NHL potential than Mueller (especially Mantha, who has 39 points in 70 career NHL games so far).

Perhaps more concerning, though, is that the Sharks 2013 draft class as a whole is looking like a dud. Second round pick Gabryel Boudreau suffered a wrist injury and is no longer in the organization anymore, but he was trending downward even before he got hurt. None of the remaining players selected from rounds four-through-seven look to be NHL quality, either.

The next year brought Nikolay Goldobin, chosen 27th overall after the Sharks traded down in the first round, and he ended up being the key piece in the Jannik Hansen acquisition from Vancouver. Goldobin showed some flashes of offensive talent during his time in the organization, but his lack of hockey sense and on-ice work ethic helped lead to his exit. Whether Goldobin becomes an NHL regular, even with a fresh start in Vancouver, is highly uncertain.

Had the Sharks stayed at 20th overall, they could have selected Nick Schmaltz (20th overall), Robby Fabbri (21st overall), or David Pastrnak (25th overall). Instead, they moved down and took Goldobin, making it back-to-back first round failures.

* * *

Still, unlike 2013, other players from Goldobin’s draft class have shown some promise. Second rounder Julius Bergman was a steady blueliner for a good Barracuda team last season, and although he’s probably not NHL-ready yet, he could be on the right track. Late in the draft the team found Kevin Labanc in the sixth round with the 171st overall selection, and Labanc had some nice moments with the Sharks last season. His shot and his hands make him a solid prospect, although Labanc still probably has to get a bit bigger and stronger to play in the NHL full-time.

Noah Rod (second round, 53rd overall) and Rourke Chartier (fifth round, 149th overall) are also still developing, with Rod playing against men in the Swiss league the past few seasons and Chartier a valuable player for the Barracuda last year.

In 2015, the draft provided the Sharks with Timo Meier at ninth overall, as the club drafted in the top 10 for the first time since 2007. At this point, Meier is far and away the best prospect in the organization, and he’ll likely be relied upon to play a top nine (or even a top six) role for the Sharks this season.

The 2015 draft brought other decent prospects, too. Defenseman Jeremy Roy was selected 31st overall, and after suffering a serious knee injury in juniors this year, he’ll get a chance to play for the Barracuda this year. Fourth rounder Adam Helewka and fifth rounder Rudolfs Balcers have also developed nicely since draft day. It’s still a bit too early to evaluate that draft as a whole.

It should also be mentioned that while their draft day record may be suspect the past few seasons, the Sharks have brought in European free agents like Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen. Karlsson has developed into a versatile, hard-working forward; Donskoi has shown flashes of offensive brilliance despite a disappointing second year in the NHL last season; and Sorensen looks primed to make the opening night roster after his speed and tenacity shined through during the Sharks’ first round series loss to Edmonton.

The Sharks scouting staff has helped to keep the team competitive for a long time, and they’re as big a reason as any that the team has missed the playoffs just once in the past 11 seasons. But this is also a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and now is the time that the Sharks need to see some results from players that were chosen by Burke and company.