Game Time: Sat. Oct. 08/2011 @ 10:30pm EDT
TV: FSAZ Plus (HD), CSN-CA (HD
Radio: XTRA SPORTS 910
___________HOCKEY THE HARD WAY.___________
SJ Mercury News
Associated Press wrote:Sharks host Coyotes for season opener
The San Jose Sharks have been anything but inconsistent over the past four seasons, winning the Pacific Division title each time before falling in the Western Conference playoffs.
General manager Doug Wilson is on a mission to prove the former means little without avoiding the latter.
With a retooled roster and high expectations, the Sharks begin their quest for the franchise's first berth in the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night when they host the Phoenix Coyotes.
San Jose (48-25-9) finished with the second-most points in the West last season, only to fall in the conference finals for the second straight time after losing in five games to Vancouver.
The Sharks have garnered the reputation of being regular-season powers and postseason failures, and Wilson has had enough.
He sent forwards Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley to Minnesota for All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat in separate deals. Wilson then signed Michal Handzus and Andrew Murray to help improve last season's 24th-ranked power-play unit, and he added defensemen Colin White and James Vandermeer.
"It's a consistent message," Wilson said. "We tell our guys we have to get better. Sometimes, it's personnel changes. We're not satisfied even though we've had some pretty good success the past two years. We're pushing. We think we're one of the top teams in the league and we have to go out and perform that way."
Captain Joe Thornton, who has four goals and seven assists in an eight-game point streak against Phoenix, also has received some scrutiny for his underwhelming postseason performances throughout his career.
Though he set a playoff career high with 14 assists last season, he has a minus-19 rating over the last three postseasons.
Thornton's 70 regular-season points were his fewest since scoring 68 in 66 games with Boston in 2001-02.
"We're just not satisfied going to the Western Conference finals two years in a row," Thornton said. "Our standards have always been high ever since I've been here. We want to get to the Cup final and win the Stanley Cup for the Bay Area. We're focused and we're ready to go."
He'll get some help again from second-year star Logan Couture, who scored 32 goals as a rookie. Couture said the Sharks, who were in 12th place in the West after a six-game losing streak Jan. 3-13, need to get out to a better start this season.
"You don't just wake up and get to the playoffs. Everyone starts off fresh and everyone has zero points and it's a fight to get into the playoffs," Couture said. "That's something we didn't realize last year but for sure we realize that now and I think we'll get out of the gates strong."
They'll begin the season, though, without goaltender Antti Niemi for at least the first night. Niemi is recovering from minor surgery to remove a cyst in his knee, meaning backup Thomas Greiss will get the nod in net.
A change in goal is something with which Phoenix is familiar.
Ilya Bryzgalov's contract demands proved to be too much for the NHL-owned Coyotes (43-26-13), who shipped his negotiating rights to Philadelphia in the offseason.
Tampa Bay castoff Mike Smith is the new starter, and he'll split the duties with backup Jason LaBarbera after a second straight first-round playoff exit at the hands of Detroit.
"Obviously, our goaltending has to be good for us to do well this year, but (I'm) very confident with the depth in goaltending," general manager Don Maloney said.
Captain Shane Doan returns, along with All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle and Radim Vrbata. Phoenix also signed veteran Raffi Torres and traded Lee Stempniak to Calgary for Daymond Langkow, who played only four games last season due to a neck injury.
Langkow scored 68 goals and added 98 assists with the Coyotes from 2001-04.
"I think we've got a lot of depth, character, skill, a good mix of that," Langkow said. "As long as we stay healthy as a team, I think we'll be alright."
Phoenix has won five straight season openers, though that streak may be in jeopardy. The Sharks have won nine of the last 10 meetings, including five straight in San Jose.
Coyotes Team Report - Provided by Yahoo Sports
The offense was better but the defense suffered. The power play improved but the penalty kill imploded. The Coyotes made a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2010-11, but the stay was again short-lived in a first-round loss to the Red Wings.
There were a lot of changes in the off-season -- unfortunately, none of them involving ownership. The Coyotes remain a ward of the NHL and are uncertain where they will be next season. But on the ice, the Coyotes have revamped their forward lines which dried up offensively against the Red Wings and said goodbye to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who priced himself out of Arizona after three-plus seasons when he rewrote the franchise record book.
For a franchise that has excelled when it was strong between the pipes (Nikolai Khabibulin, Sean Burke, Curtis Joseph, and Bryzgalov) and floundered when it wasn't, the duo of Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera doesn't scream out "team strength."
If it works, the Coyotes will have one of the most cost-effective duos in the league and money left to shore up a questionable group of forwards.
But if neither Smith, who found himself in the minors last season, and LaBarbera -- a backup at every NHL stop in his career -- are able to seize the opportunity, Coyotes GM Don Maloney will have a major problem and not much money with which to execute a Plan B.
"We've always liked Mike," Maloney said. "He's shown flashes of brilliance at times, and some average play at others. But people forget that when we originally acquired Bryzgalov, there were a lot of inconsistencies in his game as well and Sean Burke played a big role in helping there. I think our style of play will compliment Mike very well. Between Mike and Jason we're cautiously optimistic we can get the kind of goaltending we need for success."
The Coyotes have juggled centers -- swapping Eric Belanger and Vernon Fiddler for Daymond Langkow and Boyd Gordon -- and added a good, tough, character player in Raffi Torres. Langkow cost the Coyotes 19-goal scorer Lee Stempniak, but Phoenix felt they had enough depth on the wings to part with him to fill a hole up the middle.
Phoenix stood pat on defense after allowing Ed Jovanovski to walk after his five-year, $32 million albatross of a contract finally expired and hope that Mikkel Boedker, Brett McLean, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Kyle Turris -- if he ever shows up -- are finally ready for prime-time duty.
Head coach -- Dave Tippett, 8th year overall, 3rd in PHX (93-51-20). Assistants -- Jim Playfair and John Anderson.
LAST SEASON, REMEMBERED:
43-26-13, 99 points (3rd in Pacific, lost in four games to Detroit in the Western Conference Semifinals.
THIS SEASON, PREDICTED:
If the Coyotes are able to pull off another trip to the postseason, it will represent Tippett's most impressive coaching effort to date. Without the most important playoff the last two seasons and needing young players to finally live up to expectations, the Coyotes will rely on their work ethic and team play to carry the day. They will be in the fight for a playoff spot again, but can't afford any major injuries with depth an issue almost everywhere.
POSSIBLE CHANGES, PREDICTED:
The Coyote aren't interested in Kyle Turris' price tag and Turris isn't crazy about another tour of duty under Tippett -- who he sees as stunting his development. His aggressive contract stance is nothing more than a veiled trade demand, and Maloney will eventually grant that wish rather than have him sit out the season.
Sharks Team Report: - Provided by Yahoo Sports
As the Sharks lost in the Western Conference final for a second straight spring, general manager Doug Wilson again resisted the temptation to blow up the core of the group and instead identified specific needs to try to improve on what San Jose already has.
Time will tell if he made the right moves -- and luck comes into play as well with regards to avoiding injury -- but the Sharks once again appear solid on paper and certainly still in the conversation for a shot at the Stanley Cup in 2011-12.
"It's not like we're making changes just to make them, blowing everything up and rebuilding," Ryane Clowe told the San Jose Mercury News. "They're all positive moves with thought behind them that adds to our core."
The risk, however, is that the three biggest names of that core -- leading forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau plus No. 1 defenseman Dan Boyle -- are getting up in years, at least in the hockey vernacular. Thornton and Marleau are 32 years old, Boyle is 35.
It's safe to assume winning the Stanley Cup will be very difficult, likely impossible, if any one of those three are unavailable at the end of the postseason. To that end, Thornton dedicated himself to better offseason training since turning 30. Boyle stepped it up this offseason and Marleau has always been a fitness freak. Just the same, Father Time is not slowing down and it's a tenuous gamble the Sharks appear ready to take again.
Following his extensive analysis of the roster, Wilson zeroed in on the blue line and made an effort to upgrade its offensive potential, add grit, more of a physical element and overall balance that should make Boyle feel like he doesn't have to shoulder so much of the load.
Talented but inconsistent forward Devin Setoguchi was dispatched in one of three trades with Minnesota to bring 26-year-old Brent Burns to San Jose. Burns is a talented two-way defenseman, who can log big minutes and play exactly the kind of style coach Todd McLellan wants from his blue line. Burns signed a five-year contract extension once with the Sharks, so he is now officially part of that core.
The physical Jim Vandermeer and reliable veteran Colin White were added to help compliment rock-solid Douglas Murray, an improving Jason Demers, the established Marc-Edouard Vlasic and up-and-coming Justin Bruan.
At forward, Wilson made two significant tweaks. He traded Dany Heatley straight up for Martin Havlat, again with the Wild. Heatley struggled last season, partly because of injury. He has been an underachiever in the postseason with the Sharks so he clearly ran out of chances. Havlat has a history of picking up his game in the playoffs.
The other move was to sign free-agent Michal Handzus, which strengthens the Sharks' third-line center role and improves the penalty killing effort while weakening Los Angeles (that's where Handzus played last season). The move also allows Pavelski to move into a top-six forward role with the departures of Heatley and Setoguchi and the addition of only Havlat.
Wilson was satisfied what he got in goal from Antti Niemi and backup Antero Niittymaki so there are no changes there.
"It shows that we're not satisfied," captain Joe Thornton told the Mercury News. "We want to get to the Finals and win the Cup. We've fallen short. But with these moves, I'm really excited to see this team play."
Head coach -- Todd McLellan, 4th year overall, 4th with the Sharks (152-63-31). Assistants -- Matt Shaw, Jay Woodcroft.
LAST SEASON, REMEMBERED:
105 points (1st in Pacific), eliminated Los Angeles in six games in the first round, eliminated Detroit in seven games in the second round and lost to Vancouver in five games of the Western Conference Finals.
THIS SEASON, PREDICTED:
There's no reason to anticipate a drop-off. If anything, the Sharks could improve their season point total, assuming the Pacific isn't as competitive as last season (four of five teams made the playoff cut and last-place Dallas was ninth in the conference with 97 points. The Sharks will, however, get challenged by Los Angeles for the division supremacy as the Kings appear to have enough to hang with the Sharks all season. We see the Sharks getting edged by the Kings in the division, but rolling to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
POSSIBLE CHANGES, PREDICTED:
It's a roster built to win now and into the future. It's been that way since Wilson took over as GM in 2003-04. And the Sharks have been winners ever since. The only way it changes is if the Sharks somehow underachieve or get decimated by injury. The Sharks are not in position to dump salary if things go south. The only veteran players going into the final year of their contracts include Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn, Benn Ferriero, Jim Vandermeer, Colin White, Antero Niittymaki and Andrew Murray. That's certainly a group that's outside the core of San Jose's roster. McLellan, too, should be considered safe even if the Sharks get off to a slow start. It's not Doug Wilson's style to can coaches at midseason.