Inside the NHL by John Vogl: Sharks focus on fun, not closing window - The Buffalo News

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Inside the NHL by John Vogl: Sharks focus on fun, not closing window

Ever since Joe Thornton pulled on a San Jose sweater, folks have looked at the Sharks and said, “This has got to be their year.”

This really and truly has got to be their year – because no one knows if they’ll look the same again.

The Sharks are in their usual spot swimming with the NHL’s elite, which tends to happen when teams are stacked up front, solid on defense and dependable in net. They entered the weekend tied for second overall with a 14-3-5 record. They’ll be in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

Behind the thrill of victories is an agonizing question, one that fans of the Buffalo Sabres know all too well. Is this the last chance?

Like the Sabres during their Presidents’ Trophy-winning season of 2006-07, the Sharks’ biggest stars are in the final year of their contracts. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left Buffalo following a Cup-less playoff. There’s a chance Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle could do the same in San Jose.

“We’re trying not to focus on it,” Boyle said during the Sabres’ visit to San Jose earlier this month. “We’ll see what happens.”

Right now nothing is happening. Though all the parties profess love for each other, there has been no public talk of contract extensions.

“Having fun and playing hockey is kind of the focus right now,” Marleau said. “That stuff has its own way of working itself out.”

Thornton, the Sharks’ captain, and his two alternates have been yearning to drink from the Cup for a long time. Thornton joined the Marleau-led Sharks in 2005-06. Boyle came over in a trade in 2008.

Since Thornton arrived, the Sharks have finished in the top five overall five times, including a Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular-season team in 2008-09. They averaged 106 points between the 2005 and 2012 lockouts, and they’re on pace for a ridiculous 123 this season.

Though they’ve had their names in the championship conversation, they haven’t won the prize. They’ve reached the Western Conference finals twice, lost in the second round four times and got upset in the opening round twice.

They need to get it done. Not only are their contracts about to expire, the players are not getting younger. Thornton, who is finishing a three-year deal that averages $7 million, is 34. So is Marleau, who is completing a four-year contract that averages $6.9 million. The 37-year-old Boyle averages $6.67 million on his six-year deal.

“The three guys that are UFAs, we haven’t discussed it or used it as a motivating tool,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “They’re longtime pros that have been in the game for a long time. I think they really believe in what we’re trying to do here, and the business part of it will take care of itself.”

They should get the chance to finish the job. Thornton and Marleau have no-movement clauses, while Boyle can name eight teams to which he won’t accept a trade. Like the Sabres in 2006-07, it would be silly to break up a club that could go all the way regardless of contract situations.

The pending UFAs have plenty of help in their quest. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski join Thornton in giving the Sharks’ the most dominant trio of centers in the league. Marleau, rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, blossoming Tommy Wingels and now-healthy Brent Burns are potent along the wings. Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic lead the back end. Goalie Antti Niemi looked bad during a 5-4 shootout loss to the Sabres, but he entered the weekend with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

It’s almost enough to make people forget this could be the last go-round.

“We’re just having fun and playing hockey,” Marleau said. “The focus now is winning games and get that ultimate prize at the end of it.”

West is best, thus far

The Sharks’ biggest obstacle to winning the Cup will be getting the chance to play for it. The West truly is the best.

The top eight teams in the NHL entering the weekend resided in the Western Conference. Chicago was No. 1 overall, while San Jose, St. Louis, Anaheim, Colorado, Phoenix, Minnesota and Los Angeles all would have led the East.

Phoenix started 14-4-4, including 9-0-2 at home, and all that got the Coyotes was third place in the Pacific Division.

“If you had the start that we had, you thought you’d have a little bit of breathing room, but we don’t,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “Because of that it doesn’t really feel like you’ve accomplished anything.”

The West has dominated the interconference matchups, opening with a 91-38-17 record against Eastern teams.

“You notice that everyone is winning,” Doan said. “I couldn’t tell you the order of where everyone is, but I know there’s a group of eight of us that are all really tight. It’s going to be fun for the rest of the year.”

Ruff, Hitch duel on range

Once upon a time, it would have been foolish to give guns to Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock. Now it’s a team-building exercise.

The coaches, who exchanged not-so pleasantries during an infamous 2006 playoff meeting in Buffalo, went clay shooting with fellow Canadian Olympic coaches Mike Babcock and Claude Julien. Ruff and Julien teamed up to edge their counterparts.

“A bunch of farmers versus city folks,” Hitchcock said. “They should be better. It came down to the last hole, and we couldn’t hit the rabbit rolling along the ground. They could because they’ve done that their whole life. Lindy and Babs, they’ve got their own shotguns and rifle collections. The only gun I shoot is the 1863 model. I can barely hit the barn.”

On the fly

• Retired Sabres forward Mike Grier joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier in celebrating the latest step of a monumental undertaking. The duo was in the Bronx when the borough’s board unanimously approved a lease for the Kingsbridge National Ice Center. The project, spearheaded by Messier and Olympic figure skating legend Sarah Hughes, will feature a record nine ice rinks.

• Ex-Buffalo coach Ron Rolston attended a game in Rochester last week. Though he still is under contract with the Sabres, his visit was not in an official capacity. According to a source, no decision has been made whether Rolston will be reassigned within the organization.

• Calgary’s Lee Stempniak needed six stitches to fix a split lip after Edmonton’s Andrew Ference took exception to a big, clean hit by the West Seneca native. “Sort of a shame if it’s a clean hit and you have to fight,” Stempniak said. “Hitting’s part of the game. The puck was right there. I hit him and I was trying to get the puck. It was two desperate teams playing. I’d like to see clean hits be part of the game and not have to be answered for all the time.”


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