During the off-season, forwards Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley were dealt in separate transactions to the Minnesota Wild as part of deals which brought defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat to San Jose. The departure of Setoguchi surprised many, as he had inked a new 3-year contract the day prior to the trade. Burns, on the other hand, had but one year remaining on his existing contract and could have become an unrestricted free agent.Commenting on the Burns acquisition, General Manager Doug Wilson remarked, “I think what you do is you factor in the risk. He knew our coach. He coached him when he first turned pro. I’ve known the agent for 30 years. The player, the way he plays, and if you’re around him for more than 5 minutes, he’s fully engaged in life. He wants to win – a very competitive kid. So, there was a risk involved, but once we met with him – he was at the draft in Minnesota – after we acquired him we met with him and his agent. We brought him out here quickly.”
Wilson continued, “We’ve always said, a number one thing to do is make this be a place players want to play, and that attracts other players. Players will talk to each other, they’ll talk to former teammates, … so those things are a big part of not only acquiring but recruiting long-term. And we felt that this was a player that would want to be here, and both he and his wife made that decision.”
The Sharks GM expressed appreciation for the manner in which Burns and his agent conducted the negotiations to extend his contract. “The hardest part … is contractually seeing what was happening in the marketplace for defensemen, and he deserves a boatload of credit for the type of contract that’s consistent with what we’ve done with our players long-term. But to be one year away from being a UFA – the type of dollars and term and structure he probably could have got – he helped us.” Wilson also noted, “Brent, having never played a game for us, they analyzed all the contracts we’ve done, he looked at it and says, ‘that’s fair, I just want to be treated like everybody else in this room here.’ ”
Though he had skated informally with some of his new teammates prior to the opening of camp, Burns noted the difference in Saturday’s practice. “It was good, it’s definitely good to be back out there and have some intensity, and a little bit of body contact. It comes pretty quick, so you gotta get into it quick and get ready for the games coming up – they come up fast. It’s great to be back out there and have that intensity ramped up, but definitely it’s not easy.”
Former Wild teammate Martin Havlat wasn’t able to get quite as intense. Still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, Havlat wore an orange non-contact jersey during practice. When asked about the possibility of being ready for opening night, he responded, “I’m just taking it day by day. … I felt pretty good for the first day, but still a lot of work to be done. I’m not feeling perfect, but I don’t think anybody’s feeling perfect. Everybody still has three weeks to get there, so for sure the training camp’s going to help that. … It was a good first day today.”
Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle stuck around in San Jose this summer, but his off-season training regimen remained unchanged with the exception of being able to work out with the Sharks trainer. “It’s been the same for me. Once I start kind of going the wrong direction where I’m feeling tired, not feeling good, I’ll have to change, but I’ve been doing the same thing for years now and it’s working for me. So I’m not at a point where I need to change anything yet.”
For Boyle and the rest of the squad, getting off to a strong start will be very important. “Obviously you don’t want to be in the same position we were last year. The goal is to start off quick every year, it’s not always going to happen, but with the group of guys we have in here there’s no excuse.” Though Boyle isn’t necessarily fighting for a position like some of the younger players, he isn’t coasting through the pre-season. “For us older guys, it’s definitely not okay to take a day off, it’s important to set the right example for some of the other guys.”
Boyle took the time to comment on some of the Sharks’ off-season moves. “To me, it’s an organization that wants to win … You sacrifice a little bit of a future, you know, giving up a first round pick and stuff like that, but for me it’s important to win now. I’m not going to be around 10 years from now, so this organization is committed to winning and made some big moves in the summer and again we’re close, but we’re not there yet.” He continued, “On the back end … we got bigger, we got stronger, which I think we lacked a little bit last year, so I think we’ll probably see a bit more of a physical back end.”
The seasoned blueliner sees an important role for one of his new teammates. “There wasn’t too much offense coming from the back end. Burnsie’s going to bring that extra D-man. So right now we’ve got three pairings, we got a guy that can jump in and a guy that’s gonna stay back, … So I think it’s going to help everybody. A lot of teams match up certain ways, but when you’ve got three of us that can go on any given shift, I thinks that’s going to be beneficial for us.”
Looking toward the new season, Doug Wilson is rightfully optimistic. “This is a team that is really coming into its prime. You build on the experience, and in this business it is experiential learning. And I think last year, our last 27 games, it was almost like a record pace. I think we drained our tank. You learn from all those things. I think the players that we brought in can address the areas of concern we had, whether it be penalty killing, or details in your game. … And then Brent Burns for us is in the prime of his career and he can play in all those situations.”
“One thing we won’t accept is excuses. Some people say it was going to Europe, I don’t buy that at all. We came back. We were relatively healthy. We just didn’t play well. 12th place in the conference in mid-January with this hockey team is beyond being unacceptable. I admire how the players reacted to it, but they know there’s a little bit more attention to detail, I think there’s a lot of competition. This may be the most competitive training came we’ve ever had. As we told our players yesterday, if you don’t like competition you’re in the wrong business.”Not skating on Saturday was former Los Angeles King Michal Handzuš, who signed a 2-year free agent contract with the Sharks on July 1. Handzuš had just returned to San Jose late the night before, having attended the funeral of his close friend Pavol Demitra who was among those killed in the tragic plane crash in Russia on September 7 which claimed the lives of the members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League. Also killed in the crash was 20-year old San Jose Shark prospect Daniil Sobchenko, who had been selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL draft. Handzuš took a few moments to share his thoughts.
“It’s a terrible tragedy. There were 44 people there, all young people. With the family and the kids, with the wives, you know, it’s just terrible. I know Pavel. I knew him, I played with him. He was in my wedding one and a half [months] before that, so it’s just devastating for everybody. But there is nothing to compare it to the families of those people, and obviously I know his family very well, and I know of those things for them – there’s no other words but just devastating.”
Handzuš was looking forward to getting back on the ice and moving forward. “When you don’t do anything, you’re thinking about it the whole time. It’s been a week-and-a-half and it’s still new. You still get sad. So if we go on the ice you kind of forget for that hour, hour-and-a-half, you can forget for a little bit, and you try to have fun and don’t think about it. But then you get off the ice and it’s still in you. It’s just so sudden. I mean it’s like I said, it’s just terrible.”
“He was one of the closest guys that I had. We shared a lot of moments. We had great memories, and obviously I knew his family very well. I know his kids, I know his wife. … I was best man at his wedding too, so it’s just devastating. There’s nothing to compare.”
Speaking of the funeral services, Handzuš commented, “Whole Slovakia was mourning. I mean, you could see those people, everybody loved him. And he played in the World Championship last season, and he was finishing his national team career. He said it was his last game, so he had a standing ovation for 20 minutes after his last game. He was crying, we were crying, it was so emotional. And you knew it’s only hockey, so you sat down after that and you know it was okay.”
It’s been a rough summer for the hockey world. Between the untimely deaths of NHL players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, compounded many times over by the loss of the members of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, there has never been a more sorrowful period in the history of the sport. And thus, the opening of training camp offers a respite from recent news. The chill of the rink, the roar of newly sharpened skate blades charging up and down the ice, the clanking of a shot off the post, and the smiles of happy children seeking autographs from stars and prospects alike, all herald the anticipation and hope of the season ahead.