Sharks-Blackhawks: What to watch for


Sharks-Blackhawks: What to watch for

SAN JOSE A pair of struggling teams meet at HP Pavilion tonight when the Sharks host the Chicago Blackhawks in the fourth and final game of their season series.

San Jose will be trying to end a two-game losing streak and has dropped five of eight overall (3-4-1), but that pales in comparison to Chicagos 0-5-1 stretch in which its been outscored 27-12.

The Sharks havent been good defensively, either, surrendering an uncharacteristic nine goals (one in an empty net) in their past two games in losses to Phoenix and Calgary.

Too loose, too many freebies and too many turnovers, is how head coach Todd McLellan described it on Friday morning. If were playing the way I believe we can, well fix those areas, and well still be in for a tight game. Theyre a group trying to fix their own issues, and Im sure theyll come out with a lot of fire early in the game and well have to match that.

Bad changes, turnovers, giving up odd-man rushes, Couture said about the Sharks recent issues. Thats something that we need to work on here, starting tonight.

The Sharks are 1-1-1 against Chicago this season, which will play its fifth game of a nine-game road trip.

It's the final home game for the Sharks until Feb. 28, when they host Philadelphia. San Jose embarks on a nine-game road trip of its own beginning on Sunday at St. Louis.

Stop the top line: The Blackhawks top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg was nothing short of dominant in a 4-3 Chicago win over the Sharks on Jan. 15, combining for five points and 17 shots on goal.

Kane and Toews have obviously spent plenty of time on the same line together throughout their brief yet productive careers, but were split up midway through Chicagos 5-2 loss to Colorado three nights ago. Instead, Toews was with Marian Hossa and Michael Frolik while Kane skated with Marcus Kruger and Patrick Sharp.

Dont be shocked to see them back together against San Jose, even though they remained apart during Chicagos practice at HP Pavilion on Thursday.

They spent most of that last head-to-head matchup in Chicago against the Sharks top line, centered by Joe Thornton.

You know theyre going to be in your end a little bit, Thornton said. I think when theyre in your end, just have your assignments, dont get puck-focused, and realize the puck has to come to the middle of the ice, so just protect from there.

Boyle back: As reported earlier, Dan Boyle will be back on the blue line for the Sharks, who sorely missed the veteran defenseman against Calgary when he sat out with the flu.

In 50 games, Boyle has four goals and 25 assists for 29 points and 53 penalty minutes.

He means a lot to our team, and real important that hes back in, McLellan said.

Keep clicking on offense: The Sharks' defensive struggles in the last two games have masked what has been a generally solid performance on the offensive side. That includes two of the Sharks big guns in Thornton and Logan Couture, each of whom bring scoring streaks into tonights game.

Couture has 10 points in his last seven games (5g, 5a), while Thornton eight points in his last four games (3g, 5a).

When youre on a groove like that the puck kind of follows you around and you feel like you get more chances on the ice, Couture said. You get some prime chances, and somehow the puck finds you in the other teams end. Im not sure how many games its been, but hopefully it can keep going.

McLellans challenge is to keep the team clicking on offense, while tightening up defensively and avoiding the blatant mistakes.

You fix one and the other breaks down on you. We cant be chasing, we have to have a complete game, he said. Its great that were finding ways to score three, which is our number, but when youre giving up four youre not putting any points in the bank. There will be a focus on the defensive commitment from both teams.

Niemi vs. Crawford: The Sharks will stick with Antti Niemi in net tonight, and the Blackhawks Corey Crawford will oppose him.

Niemi has had success against his former team for the most part, but allowed four goals on 40 shots at the United Center in the 5-2 loss. In his career, hes 4-2-1 with a 2.59 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, including one shutout on Nov. 23 against Chicago at HP Pavilion.

Hes played well against them in the past and hes due for a good game. We believe in him, McLellan said.

In four career starts against the Sharks, Crawford has a 2-1-1 record with a 2.23 GAA and .919 SP.
Odds and ends: The Blackhawks will be without the services of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, out with a lower-body injury. Defenseman Steve Montador is out with an upper-body injury. Patrick Sharp has two goals and two assists in the last three games. Patrick Marleau has three goals and three assists in the last four games. Brent Burns has five assists in the last three games.

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.

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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.