1. You guys, uh, don't have any goon or recent game misconduct problems the Flames have to worry about, do you?
Unless having Mike Brown on the active roster counts, not particularly!
2. The California teams are ruling the Pacific this year. How have the Sharks been faring? Where do you expect them to finish this season?
When healthy, I think the Sharks are capable of beating either of the other two California teams in a seven-game series. The issue for the Sharks is that they haven't had their full complement of forwards at any point this season and the injury woes have only gotten worse of late, with Tomas Hertl, Marty Havlat and Logan Couture joining Raffi Torres and Adam Burish on the shelf. That's forced Todd McLellan to shift to a more top-heavy offense and led to some uneven results so far in the new year. That said, Couture and Havlat are expected back in short order while Torres and Burish are likely to take the ice shortly after the Olympic break at the latest. When those players, and perhaps Hertl, return to the lineup, the Sharks should once again be able to run Couture, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski down the middle, making them deeper at center than any team in the NHL. That combined with an underrated but highly effective shutdown pairing in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun as well as above-average goaltending from Antti Niemi should allow San Jose to comfortably finish 2nd behind Anaheim in the division and make some noise in the playoffs.
3. Looking forward to cheering for Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the Olympics! Any thoughts as to why they made the Canadian roster, and why guys like Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Dan Boyle didn't?
I'm sure [the Marleau] decision raised eyebrows but, in my view, it was the right one by Stevie Y. and company (although I would have found room for Thornton on that roster as well, perhaps at the expense of Chris Kunitz, but I'm biased). Marleau is constantly maligned by elements of the mainstream media for a lack of effort, but the proof is in the pudding: he's consistently trusted by his head coach to play some of the most difficult defensive minutes available and thrives in them. Marleau has faced the 6th-toughest quality of competition in the league at even-strength this season, according to Extra Skater. He also starts over 55% of his non-neutral even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. Despite him being deployed in a strictly shutdown role, the Sharks outscore and outshoot opponents by a much higher rate when Marleau is on the ice compared to when he's off it and he's on pace for a 35-goal, 76-point season to boot.
When he's at the top of his game, there are few two-way forwards in the world who are better at what they do than Marleau. He's been at the top of his game all season long and, for my money, has been the Sharks' most valuable player despite having a couple fewer points than Thornton, who has benefited from the easier minutes Marleau taking on the opposition's best players opens up. I think it's a really shrewd move by Team Canada to have picked up on all of this, although perhaps not surprising given how Mike Babcock rode Marleau like a horse at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver; the only forwards who played more minutes than Marleau at that tournament were Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash. As for taking Marleau over Couture and Thornton, while Couture plays a very similar defensive role to Marleau as his regular centerman, I think Marleau drives the bus in those minutes to a slightly greater extent than Couture does and he's also a vastly superior skater, something Canada clearly prioritized. Skating probably also explains Thornton's omission while Boyle just isn't the same player he was four years ago and was further disadvantaged by Canada's embarrassment of riches on the right side.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn't exactly a household name around the NHL so his inclusion on Team Canada's roster may have taken some by surprise. The reality is that he's quietly been one of the best defensive defensemen in the league for years and has arguably been the very best so far this season. Despite squaring off against opposing top lines on a nightly basis and sporting a 46.6% offensive-zone start rate, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has still managed to post a 57.5% Corsi rate (the percentage of all on-ice even-strength shot attempts that have gone in the Sharks' favor with Vlasic on the ice) that ranks fourth among NHL defensemen. Only fellow Olympian Drew Doughty, his partner Jake Muzzin and former Olympian Brent Seabrook are higher as Vlasic, for the third straight season, is proving he deserves to be included in conversation with some of the best blueliners in the league. With Team Canada apparently insistent on taking close to an even split of left- and right-side defensemen to Sochi, it's easy to see why Vlasic was chosen when he's playing some of the best defensive hockey of a career that's been characterized by a precocious amount of veteran savvy. He's also finally showing signs of life offensively, on pace for nearly 30 points this season despite receiving no regular power play time.
4. Tomas Hertl looked like the Calder winner this year before Dustin Brown kneed him, damaging his PCL and MCL. How much are the Sharks missing him? Is there any clear timetable for his return?
They've missed him sorely, although not for the exact reasons we expected they would. Joe Pavelski, a natural center, has been slotted into Hertl's former role on the left wing alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns and has been just as effective if not moreso; Pavelski has 11 goals in the 13 games he's spent as part of that trio. But Pavelski moving up from the third line to the first has left the former woefully bare, particularly because of further injuries to players like Couture and Havlat. So the loss of Hertl has contributed to a decimation of the Sharks' once-fearsome scoring depth, even if the top scoring line hasn't necessarily suffered per se in his absence. As for a timetable, the Sharks are notoriously tight-lipped about that sort of thing but the general consensus is somewhere between three to six months. Three would allow him to get some reps in prior to the playoffs whereas six would rule him out until the Conference Final at the earliest, should the Sharks even qualify.
5. What do the Flames have to do to beat the Sharks?
With all the injuries they're currently nursing up front, the Sharks' bottom six isn't remotely formidable. If Bob Hartley can manage to manipulate matchups a bit on the road and sneak some of his better forwards out against the likes of Bracken Kearns and John McCarthy, they should be able to do some real damage. Outside of that, the Flames will need to be uber-disciplined against a Sharks team that has been awarded more power plays than any other club in the NHL this season and is ever-dangerous on the man advantage. Finally, stellar goaltending is probably the only viable answer to the Pavelski/Thornton/Burns line, which has been unstoppable since being cobbled together in the wake of all these injuries.
Thanks, Derek, for the information! Be sure to check out Fear The Fin for more information on the Sharks before puck drop at 8:30 PM MST.