My Two Cents for January 14th:
Let The Games Begin- The NHL has officially released this season’s revised schedule Saturday just moments after a new 10 year CBA agreement was approved by the NHLPA. This action officially put the NHL back in business. Many of the players who had been playing either overseas or in the minor leagues have returned to their clubs to begin one week training camps. The season itself will be reduced to 48 games from the normal 82 (same as what happened at the end of the 1994-95 lockout, Bettman’s first of four). There will be play only within a team’s Conference. West will play west only, while east will play the east only. Each team will have four to five games within their division, and two or in some cases three with a team outside of their division although in the same conference (revised from seven games within the division).
The Sharks will open Sunday, January 20th against the Calgary Flames at the Saddledome up in Alberta. Two days later, the Sharks will match up against the Oilers in Edmonton. Afterward, the Sharks will return home for an all important six game homestand with opening night Thursday, January 24th against the Phoenix Coyotes. The next five games on the homestand will be against Colorado, Vancouver, Nashville, Edmonton, and a visit from the arch rival Anaheim Ducks on January 29th. As for the other rivals, the Sharks face the Detroit Red Wings at the Shark Tank February 28th, and March 28th. The Sharks face the Red Wings in Detroit on April 11th. The Sharks first meeting with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings will be March 14th at the Shark Tank. It will be the first of four against the defending champions, including the regular season finale April 27th at the Staples Center.
The season is expected to cover 99 calendar dates with the final day of the regular season being April 27th. The playoffs are scheduled to begin around April 30th, and if the Stanley Cup Finals goes seven games the season conceivably could end around June 30th. Free Agency begins shortly there after. So what does this mean for the Sharks and the Pacific Division? Well, here is a look at the Sharks and the rest of the Pacific Division.
Pacific Division- (teams listed in projected order of finish):
Los Angeles Kings- The Kings not only come into the truncated 2012-13 season as the defending Stanley Cup champions, they return with much of the same exact roster completely in tact. So much so that the Kings should easily win the Pacific Division as they are clearly the class of it now and may be for some time to come. As far as the Sharks go, they will be good and are still a playoff team, but the Kings have blown past team teal in overall team development and are at least 10 points better in the standings…very easily and decidedly. The Sharks will be lucky to split the four games the two teams have scheduled against each other this year. For the Sharks to get closer to the Kings, GM Doug Wilson may need to make some bold moves. As for the Kings, they do not really need to do very much other than keep players healthy. With a shortened season, that will be less of an issue for them as it will be with most other teams.
Returning to the Kings is Goalie Jonathan Quick who has turned into the best goalie in the Pacific Division since former Anaheim Duck Jean-Sebastien Giguere dominated the division five years ago. Quick is young and has only gotten better. The scary thing about Quick is that his best days are still far ahead of him and he will be a very difficult goalie to score on. Quick also has just signed a 10-year $58 million deal, so baring injury he will be in place for the Kings for a long time to come. Both Anze Kopitar and team Captain Dustin Brown have produced a number of goals and assists and are able to spread the puck around the ice effectively. Also returning are veterans Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene, and Willie Mitchell. The Kings lineup and roster is stacked and is right up there with Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver. I don’t know if the Kings will repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, but I would be shocked if they did not go deep into the post season again, and this time not as an eight seed but much higher. Mostly likely for the Kings will be a top two seeding this time around. Projected Points: 76 (out of 96 possible)
San Jose Sharks- The Sharks are said to be one of the happiest teams to be getting back together. A few have stated that they may benefit the most from a shorter season, and this very well could be the case. Being that I am a lifelong Sharks die hard fan and always will be, I sure hope that is the case. Most of the players need no introduction, and this year even with the season being shortened could likely be the one “last hurrah” for this group. The Sharks as a team are still good, and have a pathway to the future with Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Goalie Antti Niemi had some rough outings last season to be certain, but did the best he could with the goal support given which often times was not very much. Niemi is solid, with the back up goalie position expected to be filled again by Thomas Greiss. Also keep an eye on Alex Stalock who is minding the net at the Sharks AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass.
Joe Thornton will return as Captain again this year and had a fairly decent run for HC Davos in the Swiss League during the lockout. Patrick Marleau, who didn’t play during the lockout but still got work in should be fresh and ready to go. Ryane Clowe also got some work in during the lockout in practice sessions with the Sharks’ ECHL affiliate San Francisco Bulls. Brent Burns should be good to go though still nursing an off season non hockey injury. The return of Brad Stuart should also be of some help for the Sharks. The majority of Sharks were already skating at Sharks Ice this weekend and are ready to get things going. I feel their anxiousness to get the season rolling will be an advantage, however they will need to carry that ideal though at least 48 games (and hopefully many more after that). The Sharks one off season signing, Adam Burish will at least bring a presents of an enforcer to make sure no opposing players take any extra liberties (Clowe is great, but he can’t be the one who fights every single time). Here’s looking forward to a successful campaign for team teal, but as always expect rough spots throughout the schedule. Projected Points 65 (out of 96).
Phoenix Coyotes- When one looks at the Coyotes on the surface, the temptation is not to really take them too seriously because of their financial troubles as a franchise and a market that is not all that conducive to NHL hockey. However, this is where most teams make their mistake. Pound for pound, the Phoenix Coyotes are man to man as good as any team on any given night at the rink. If you take them lightly, you can fall into their trap and they can beat you decisively and soundly. The Coyotes made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, and their getting their was no accident. They earned it. They may have lost in five games to the eventual champion LA Kings, but Phoenix did not go down without a fight. Don’t expect anything less from this group this season either. They may not be the favorite, but they will earn your respect before the end of the evening.
Captain Shane Doan returns after signing a 4 year contract which will take him until he decides to hang up the skates and retire. He may have lots of miles on him, but Doan has many more miles he can go. Doan should pick up the slack for the departed Ray Whitney and carry the Coyotes as far as he can take them. However, even Doan will not be able to carry the load all on his own. Fortifying the Coyotes in the Right Wing position is Doan, along with Radim Vrbata, Mikkel Boedker, and David Moss. In the Left Wing the Coyotes have Steve Sullivan, Paul Bissonnette, and Lauri Korpikoski. Leading the tough to crack Coyotes defense is Rostislav Klesla, Zbynek Michalek, and Derek Morris. In goal is Mike Smith who had a campaign in 2011-12 that was amongst the best of any goalie and is looking to repeat that performance this season. Projected Points: 62 (out of 96).
Dallas Stars- The Stars of late have been a bit of an enigma. It seems that year in and year out they have as talented of a roster as anyone, and yet for some reason in recent seasons miss the playoffs by one or two losses late in the year. The Stars are not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, they are just as of late the unluckiest. The Stars are looking to recapture their previous moniker as a force to be reckoned with both during the regular season and on into the post season as well. Going into the shortened 2012-13 season, the Dallas Stars are looking for the right combination of players and leadership that will take them back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars made a big splash in free agency by signing veterans Jaromir Jagr and (the last original Shark) Ray Whitney. The upside, their experience in the NHL is certainly invaluable and could be a great asset from a leadership standpoint. The downside, both players are over 40 now and at best have maybe a year left which makes these signings a gamble.
The Stars also jettisoned household names Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott, Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray. In trading Ott to the Buffalo Sabres, the Stars acquired Derek Roy who should add a valuable presence on the ice. Both Roy and Jamie Benn will give the Stars two strong and reliable centers, while Loui Eriksson and Brenden Morrow take care of the left wing. Meanwhile, right wingers Michael Ryder and Vernon Fiddler add to the veteran depth on the ice. Defenseman Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, and Stephane Robidas will give the Stars good options to go to and have the backside of goalie Kari Lehtonen. The Stars are one of those teams that if they make the post season could be dangerous. At the same time, the Stars are at times their own worst enemy as late season pressure has gotten the best of them. I can’t say that the Stars will make the post season this year. However things are usually never dull when it involves the Loan Star State’s NHL representative. Projected Points: 58 (out of 96).
Anaheim Ducks- The Ducks have hit some tough times of late having missed the playoffs the last few seasons. The Ducks, who in 2007 won the Stanley Cup and looked like they were on the verge of becoming the West Coast’s version of the old Montreal Canadians teams, have dropped off somewhat considerably since that time. The Ducks despite recent woes have for the most held their own and most times are very competitive. Injuries and some hard luck have rocked the Ducks over the past few years. However, this is still one of those teams that when they are hot are a team that you don’t want to play. Veteran and likely first ballot future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne will be dawning the #8 uniform of possibly his last season in the NHL. Selanne is 42, but is probably in better shape than most everyday people are at age 27. Selanne can still play, he can still score, and he can still knock you out of the way without much effort on his part. You have to give Selanne a ton of credit for his career. Without Selanne, Anaheim probably doesn’t have an orange Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters of the Honda Center.
The Ducks signed veteran defensemen Sheldon Souray to add to a line up that includes the fire power of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf. Jonas Hiller will be back in net for the Ducks this season and when he is on his game, he is every bit as good as Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings. Hiller has been known to let in some bad bounce goals, but honestly that’s rare. Additionally former Shark Brad Staubitz has been brought on to be the teams new enforce with the departure of George Parros to Florida. Daniel Winnik also exited the Sharks after last season and signed with Anaheim too.
If the Ducks get on a good roll this year (and they certainly have the talent to do it), they could find themselves in the post season. Anytime a Ducks team makes the post season, they tend to be a very dangerous opponent and can play the spoiler role as well as anyone in the NHL. The main problem the Ducks have had is mostly just finding a consistent formula that allows them to string together enough wins to get across the finish line and into the Stanley Cup tournament. It’s hard to say if that will be the case this year, but the team does have a lot of work to do despite it’s talent level. Someone has to finish at the bottom of the Pacific, but don’t look at this as if it’s etched in stone. Far from it. Projected Points: 57 (out of 96).
The Western Conference: The rest of the Western Conference will be covered with an additional “My Two Cents” column this coming Friday. To try and cover it in a single paragraph wont do it justice. I will also take a brief look at the Eastern Conference, but not spend too much time on it since there will be no interconference games in this 48 game season.
Non Hockey Item: Congrats to the SF 49ers in beating the Green Bay Packers- The San Francisco 49ers led by Quarterback Colin Kaepernick exploded for three touchdowns in the second half in a 45-31 victory over the Packers in the NFC Divisional Round Playoffs. The victory put the 49ers in their second straight NFC Title Game. The 49ers will take on the Falcons in Atlanta next Sunday (January 20th) at 12 noon Pacific Time (3pm in Atlanta). Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing for 263 yards and two more touchdowns. Frank Gore added a touchdown on 119 rushing yards. Michael Crabtree caught nine passes also for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Kaepernick did not get off to the best start throwing an early 52 yard pick six to the Packers’ Sam Shields.
Afterward, Kaepernick recognized the error, owned it and took over from their. Kaepernick lead the 49ers down field capping a game tying drive with a 20 yard run to even things up. The 49ers matched the Packers punch for punch in the first half and traded two more TD’s before David Akers kicked a short field goal to give the 49ers a 24-21 lead at halftime. After the Packers tied the game with a field goal midway through the third quarter, Kaepernick’s legs made sure the tie would not last long. A 56 yard sprint by Kaepernick gave the 49ers the lead back that they would ultimately not relinquish again. TD’s by Gore and Anthony Dixon in the 4th Quarter put the game out of reach.
A great game for the 49ers who’s quest for six rings continues at the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. The 49ers have some unfinished business this time around and know what the bitter taste of last seasons loss to the NY Giants was like. They don’t want to taste that again this year. I expect Coach Jim Harbaugh to have his 49ers both loose yet lazer focused on the task at hand next Sunday. Good luck 49ers, the quest for the sixth ring is moving strong.
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…Just My Two Cents…
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