Athletics

Wave of change hits NHL's Pacific Division

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Wave of change hits NHL's Pacific Division

July 6, 2011

SHARKS PAGE SHARKS VIDEO
NHL 2010-11 STANDINGS

Kevin Kurz
CSNBayArea.com

It's been an explosive summer for the National Hockey League -- and it appears no one is safe.

Star players? Shipped away.

Huge, untradeable contracts? Guess again.

No-movement clauses? Please. Nothing a simple phone call can't clear up.

Just about every team in the NHL has witnessed at least one significant move to its roster, for better or for worse, and that includes the teams in the Pacific Division. The Sharks have been one of the major players, and it's not too early to start predicting just what the landscape will look like when the puck drops again in October.

There are still several notable free agents out there, of course, and plenty of time for more moves to be made. Still, it looks like most of the headlines have been written, so let's review just what went down for the NHL's West Coast clubs.
SHARKS (48-25-9, 1st)Key additions: Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Michal Handzus, Jim Vandermeer
Key subtractions: Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ian White, Scott Nichol, Ben Eager, Jamal Mayers

Analysis: Credit Doug Wilson for recognizing that the Sharks, as they were, didn't have enough to get over the hump and make it to the Big Show. The Sharks needed a big, well-rounded, right-handed defenseman and they got one of the best in the NHL in Brent Burns. San Jose can split Burns and Dan Boyle and form two very good defense pairs.

The bigger and riskier move for Wilson was trading Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat. You could say that both didn't perform quite up to standards in relation to their respective salaries, and sending Heatley to the Wild and bringing in Havlat gives both players a chance for a fresh start. Havlat does offer a little more speed than Heatley, which could create problems for opposing defenses should he be lined up with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

While the Heatley-Havlat swap is likely a wash in terms of putting the puck in the net, the team did lose some other scorers and grit up front. Look for the Sharks to add another role player or two in the coming weeks, specifically a winger to play alongside steady third-line center Michal Handzus.

Better or worse: Better. It was clear last season that the Sharks never found a replacement for Rob Blake, and now they have it in Burns. Heatley and Setoguchi's combined scoring may be tough to replace, but keep in mind that Burns scored 17 goals last year, third in the league among defensemen.

LOS ANGELES KINGS (46-30-6, 4th)
Key additions: Mike Richards, Simon Gagne
Key subtractions: Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ryan Smyth

Analysis: The Kings were one of the main beneficiaries of the Philadelphia Flyers' questionable off-season moves, grabbing the spunky and talented Mike Richards in exchange for Wayne Simmonds and prospect Brayden Schenn. Richards, who was often labeled by the Philly media as not being able to handle the responsibilities of an NHL captain in a big market, will now assume his role as just one of the guys. It will suit him well. He'll be out to prove that he's worth his expensive, long-term contract and that the Flyers made a huge error in judgment when they shipped him cross-country.

Simon Gagne was a shrewd pickup by GM Dean Lombardi after the Kings lost out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes, and even though he s been hampered by injuries in recent years, is still just 31 years old and has the potential to break the 30-goal plateau.
Better or worse: Better, and maybe much better. The Kings and Sharks are easily the class of the Pacific, and it s likely that the gap between them and the rest of the division won t be nearly as close as last season. The Kings young defense corps and goalie Jonathan Quick have another year of experience under their belts, and Los Angeles appears primed to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
ANAHEIM DUCKS (47-30-5, T-2nd)
Key additions: Kurtis Foster
Key subtractions: Andreas Lilja, Ray Emery

Analysis: The Ducks have been one of the few quiet teams in the NHL, and will probably return with a similar lineup as last year. Corey Perry, the reigning Hart Trophy winner, will take his place up front with Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan on a team that has some of the league s best offensive talents.

The biggest question facing the Ducks is, will Teemu Selanne return? The ageless Selanne (well, not really he s 41) scored 31 goals and added 49 assists last season, and has said that if he returns it will only be with Anaheim. You can bet that Ducks GM Bob Murray is pleading on his hands and knees for another season from the Finland native.

Better or worse: TBD. If Selanne retires, it will leave a big void in the Ducks offense. They will also need Jonas Hiller to return to form, after the goaltender was able to start just three times after the All-Star break due to vertigo. He hasn't even started skating yet.

PHOENIX COYOTES (43-26-13, T-2nd)Key additions: Raffi Torres, Mike Smith, Boyd Gordon
Key subtractions: Eric Belanger, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ed Jovanovski

Analysis: Obviously, the big change here is that goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has gone to greener pastures in Philadelphia (51 million greener over nine years, to be exact). The loss won't be easy for the Coyotes to overcome, as Bryzgalov's play in net was the biggest reason the team made it to the postseason the last two years. Also gone is veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who decided to return to Florida where he made a name for himself at the start of his career.

Still, the Coyotes seem to be a team that thrives on its doubters. Inking defenseman Keith Yandle for five years and forward Radim Vrbata were necessary moves if the team wanted to remain competitive, and Raffi Torres is a player they picked up in free agency to add some sandpaper to their forward group.
Better or worse: Worse. It's going to be hard for the Coyotes to replace Bryzgalov, and the combination of Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera isn't going to get it done. While Phoenix does have a solid blue line corps, the loss of Bryzgalov and an inability to score could make for a long season in the desert.

DALLAS STARS (42-29-11, 5th)
Key additions: Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak
Key subtractions: Brad Richards, Jamie Langenbrunner

Analysis: Like the Coyotes, the Stars lost their best player this offseason when Brad Richards signed with the New York Rangers. Furthermore, Jamie Langenbrunner signed with the St. Louis Blues, although the veteran forward is coming off of a disappointing season.

The Stars did manage to ink Michael Ryder and Radek Dvorak to help minimize the blow offensively, but it's hard to believe that will make up losing for one of the best assist men in the game in Richards. Dallas still has some other offensive talents in Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro, but it will be tough for the Stars to keep pace with the Sharks, Kings and even the Ducks.

Better or worse: Worse. Add in the ownership uncertainty in Dallas to go along with Richards' departure, and the playoffs look like a real long shot in the Lone Star State.

Kevin Kurz covered the Philadelphia Flyers for seven seasons for the official team website as the managing editor for philadelphiaflyers.com. He is currently a digital content producer for Comcast SportsNet.

A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

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A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

OAKLAND — Matt Olson is aware of the company he’s keeping in the A’s record books.

His reaction is a mix of reverence and a shrug-of-the-shoulders type humbleness.

That’s the personality of the A’s rookie first baseman. Even as the conversation about him and his awe-inspiring home run pace grows louder, he remains the same steady, grounded presence.

“I’m happy for him,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “The guy’s worked his butt off. He’s the same today as was when he first got called up.”

Olson cleared the fences once again Friday night, his two-run homer off Nick Martinez in the second inning helping the A’s to a 4-1 victory over the Texas Rangers. At this point, it’s much more newsworthy when Olson doesn’t homer than when he does.

He’s crammed 24 homers into just 57 games this season. Taking into account his first call-up last September, and Olson’s 24 homers over the first 68 games of his career are the second-most in the history of major league baseball over that span to open a career. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger also hit 24 and only the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, with 25, hit more over his first 68.

Olson’s 13 homers in September are the most by any rookie in major league history for the month, and there’s still eight games left in it. But Olson’s hot streak dates back to Aug. 27. He’s hit a major league-best 16 homers in 23 games since then.

Among rookies in A’s history, only Mark McGwire (49) in 1987 and Jose Canseco (33) in 1986 have hit more than Olson’s 24. But neither Bash Brother, nor any other player in Oakland history, ever hit 15 homers in a 21-game span as Olson recently did.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Olson said before Friday’s game. “I grew up with a Mark McGwire poster on my wall. It’s a little surreal.”

Who saw this coming?

Olson went 2-for-21 without a single RBI in his first taste of the bigs last September. Then he shuttled five times between Triple-A and the majors this season before getting called up once again Aug. 8 and being told he’d get a shot as the A’s regular first baseman with Yonder Alonso having been traded. The constant shuttling took its toll, though Olson never let on about that publicly to reporters.

“You could see (the frustration),” said Ryan Christenson, his manager at Triple-A. “When he walks in and you tell him ‘You’re getting sent up,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, how many days is it for this time?’ He wouldn’t voice it necessarily, but you could sense it.”

Olson, with help from Bush and others, made an adjustment coming into this season. He began holding his hands out farther away from his body to begin his swing. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Olson had found himself getting jammed inside. Then in trying to adjust to that, he couldn’t square up pitches on the outer half.

“Now, his hands are firing from where he wants them to,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have to fight. You want your hands to have a clean path. Now he can stay in there, stay behind the ball, let his hands work for him.”

Olson, a 23-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., takes this sudden burst of success — and attention — in stride.

“I’ve been hit with so many stats here in the past week, I can’t even keep track of who’s done what, and honestly what I’ve done,” he said. “I kind of try to ignore all that.”

That’s OK. Others are taking plenty of notice.

 

As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

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As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

LOS ANGELES — The Giants left their dugout quickly after Friday’s loss, escaping a celebration on the mound and a fireworks show in the sky. As Dodger Stadium shook with cheers, Bruce Bochy sat in the visiting clubhouse and smiled. He nodded at his laptop, which earlier had been used to pull up highlights of Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani. 

“He’s good,” Bochy said, laughing. “I absolutely would play him every day.”

Earlier in the week, when it became known that Bobby Evans and Jeremy Shelley were headed to Japan to scout Otani, Bochy said he couldn’t imagine a player pitching and then moving to the outfield between starts. What changed? 

Perhaps it was the tape Bochy saw. Otani throws 100 mph and hits homers with ease. Or perhaps it was the game he watched Friday. The Giants lost for the 94th time, with the big blow coming from a 22-year-old Dodgers star. Cody Bellinger’s blast was the difference in a 4-2 win, and the Giants don’t have a Bellinger, or anything close. Otani, 23, is a long shot for a team that very well could finish with the worst record in baseball. Still, he’s the kind of talent that could help pull the Giants closer in a hurry. He’s the  kind of talent they haven’t developed in years, and Bochy certainly sounded a bit wistful as he talked of the power Bellinger has put on display. 

“You call up a guy and he does that — that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a rare deal.”

The ninth inning of the Dodgers’ clincher reinforced that point for the Giants. They got a homer from Pablo Sandoval, but he’s playing only because Christian Arroyo — the Giants’ best prospect bet this year — is hurt. Ryder Jones, their 23-year-old prospect, struck out to end the night, dropping his average to .180. 

That set off a celebration for Bellinger and the Dodgers. They have won five straight NL West titles, with three of the last four clinched against the Giants. 

“Congrats to them,” Bochy said. “They’ve had a tremendous year across the board, and they’ve played great baseball. They brought some guys up that really did a great job for them. It’s well deserved.”

Bochy said it was not difficult to watch this one. The division has been wrapped up for months, with only a September slide keeping the Dodgers from clinching earlier. 

“We knew what we were facing here,” Bochy said. 

The Giants have two more against the Dodgers and then six more before a long winter. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will host an NLDS series here at Dodger Stadium. Both Bochy and starter Jeff Samardzija made the same observation, that the Dodgers will have a hard time cutting their deep roster down to 25 postseason players. 

That’s a nice problem to have. It’s a foreign one right now for the Giants, who have a serious talent gap and no clear solutions internally. It’s no wonder, then, that Bochy has all of a sudden become so intrigued by a wondrous talent overseas.