The San Jose Sharks were one of only two teams to make the playoffs in the seven seasons bookended by the last two lockouts, but they’ll start the year Sunday in Calgary missing a key piece – defenceman Brent Burns, who is out with a lower-body injurythat may or may not be related to off-season sports-hernia surgery. Burns led Sharks rearguards with 11 goals last season and was a contributor, along with Dan Boyle, to the NHL’s second-best power-play unit. San Jose didn’t make many off-season personnel changes, apart from adding defenceman Brad Stuart and pesky forward Adam Burish, and maybe the most important addition came on the coaching staff, where Larry Robinson left the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils to work with coach Todd McLellan’s group. The Sharks were 195-92-41 in the past four seasons, the best overall record in the NHL during that span, but they were dismal killing penalties last year(even worse than the Toronto Maple Leafs, if such a thing can be believed). The thinking is that Robinson will help improve thatin a meaningful way. New Jersey was, after all, No.1 in penalty-killing efficiency last year at a sterling 89.6-per-cent success rate. Speculation is that a 25-year-old rookie defenceman, Matt Irwin of Brentwood Bay, B.C., will make his NHL debut for the Sharks against Calgary.
Kings defence weakened
The Los Angeles Kings get credit for doing a lot of things correctly in building their Stanley Cup championship team, but one clear-cut miss was exposed this week when they lost defenceman Thomas Hickey to the New York Islanders on waivers. The Kings went way off the charts to take Hickey fourth overall in 2007, (Central Scouting had him rated at the end of the first round). Kings GM Dean Lombardi acknowledged that it was an all-or-nothing sort of gamble – and that has proved to be true. Among the defencemen selected after Hickey that year: NHL regulars Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and P.K. Subban. L.A. will start the season without Willie Mitchell on the blueline, following off-season knee surgery, but Hickey – small and skilled – is the antithesis of Mitchell and what he brings. In Mitchell’s absence, Alec Martinez moves temporarily into a top-four role. Meanwhile, Kings centre Anze Kopitar, who hurt his knee in his final game in Sweden before the lockout ended, is back skating and right now, he is questionable for their season-opener against Chicago on Saturday, which will also feature the banner-raising from their Stanley Cup championship, won last June.
By the Numbers - 82
Games played by Teemu Selanne for the Anaheim Ducks, the oldest player in league history to do so (at 41 years 279 days at the end of the season). Selanne is back for his 20th campaign and says: “Age is a funny thing. A lot of times, I don’t really feel 42. It all depends on how good you feel, how healthy you are and how much passion you have for the game.”
Devils raise eyebrows
Trying to figure out the new normal in contract discussions will take some time, but wow, what a stunner this week when the New Jersey Devils signed Travis Zajac to an eight-year, $46-million extension. Eight years is the maximum contract length allowed in the new collective agreement and it is only an option for teams signing their own free agents. The Devils clearly still feel the sting of losing Zach Parise as an unrestricted free agent to the Minnesota Wild in the off-season, but this looks like massive overcompensation. Zajac has been a good – not great – player for them for six years(although he missed a big chunk of last year recovering from Achilles-tendon surgery), but a $5.75-million average for a player who has never topped 25 goals or 67 points in a single season seems high. It will be interesting to see how the Devils survive Parise’s departure, given that they also lost Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Winnipeg Jets and will start the year without Adam Henrique, last year’s Calder Trophy candidate, who has a thumb issue. Somehow, the acquisitions of Krys Barch and Bobby Butler don’t figure to balance the scales against the players who left via free agency.
Phoenix’s key to success
To manage a team on a comparative shoestring, the Phoenix Coyotes generally need to be one step ahead of everyone else just to stay competitive. It is why, for example, they were prepared to absorb the Matthew Lombardi contract from Toronto this week, a deal in which they need to pay him only $2-million of the $3.5-million that he’ll earn this year, with the Leafs picking up the rest of the tab. Lombardi had his last good full year playing for the Coyotes in 2009-10 (53 points in 78 games) before joining the Nashville Predators as a free agent and then having his career derailed by a concussion. Phoenix has won at the repatriation game before – with right winger Radim Vrbata, who came back from Tampa three years ago and scored 35 goals for them last year, and also with defenceman Zbynek Michalek, who returns this year after two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Michalek led the Coyotes in ice time the last time he played in Phoenix and is a player coach Dave Tippett trusts implicitly.
Tippett also does a good job of surrounding himself with key advisers. Sean Burke’s work with goalies as diverse as Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith is a key to their success. Dave King, Tippett’s mentor, who now works in player development, is another important resource. King spent part of the lockout watching games in Germany, where his son Scott plays, and wonders how much of an advantage that is really going to be for NHLers who played overseas.
“They were playing hard, but the game was so different,” King said. “There was so much more time and space because of the size of the ice,. Conditioning-wise, I think for sure they’ll have an early advantage. But you’ve got to recognize that when you get back to a North American rink, where defences are so disciplined on those smaller ice surfaces, the game gets a little tougher to play.”