Tonight, the Sharks begin their preseason schedule against the team they dispatched in the first round of last spring's playoffs. But unlike during that series, the Sharks will now face the Vancouver Canucks as division rivals thanks to league realignment. Along with Vancouver, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are slated to move into the Pacific Division this season. We'll spend this week meeting the new neighbors, starting with tonight's opponent: the Canucks.
Why you should hate them: Because they're the Canadian manifestation of everything that, deep down, you hate about the Sharks. A team that has spent its history coupling regular season success with playoff disappointment, a fanbase that largely ignores the former in favor of the latter, and a media that lays all the blame for the club's perceived underachievement at the feet of its Olympic gold medalist superstars. To top it all off, the Canucks are sans Stanley Cup while their two closest geographic rivals have each tasted championship glory. Any of this sound familiar? Good, because instead of extending empathy to the north-of-the-border Sharks, you should point, laugh at and despise them as a cathartic release of some of that pent-up frustration from years of being a Sharks fan. And besides, for all their flaws, at least the Sharks never wore a sweater that looked like this.
Player to focus your ire upon: Kevin Bieksa, obviously. He ended what might have been the Sharks' best chance at a Stanley Cup with a handy assist from the Rogers Arena stanchion in 2011. Then he cemented his status as one of the franchise's all-time villains by openly accusing Logan Couture and Joe Thornton of diving during last season's playoffs. Sure, the Sharks, like every team, are guilty of embellishing to draw calls from time to time but it was pretty hilarious to hear that accusation flung by a teammate of Ryan Kesler, Maxim Lapierre and Alexandre Burrows. It also proved that Bieksa is a massive racist. Furthermore, Bieksa has one of those faces you just want to punch. Seriously, that thing is so punchable that noted pacifist Patrick Marleau couldn't resist introducing it to his fists. Sure, he isn't exactly Chris Pronger or Ed Belfour but, to paraphrase John A. Zoidberg, M.D., Bieksa is bad and he should feel bad.
Player to begrudgingly admire: Henrik Sedin. Or Daniel Sedin. Both twins, really. For all the flak they take for not being tough enough or eschewing defense, no one who lines up against the Sedins has seen the offensive zone in years. They take more abuse than most players both on and off the ice yet Henrik hasn't missed a game since the lockout. No, not that lockout. The lockout before that one. There's no objective criteria for playing the game the way it's "meant" to be played, but I think the twins fit the bill. Their near-telepathic level of chemistry allows them to possess the puck for shifts at a time and concoct scoring plays other players can only dream of. The Sedins are unique talents in North American sports at large and, at 32, likely only have a few years of elite hockey left (although would anyone really be surprised if these two dip into Nicklas Lidstrom's anti-aging serum?) so enjoy them while you can. Unless they're playing against the Sharks.
Player whose Twitter account you should follow: Roberto Luongo, a.k.a. @strombone1. Look, the vast majority of athlete Twitter feeds, particularly in the hockey world, are either painfully boring or mediocre attempts at humor that usually end up reeking of desperation (*cough*). Not Luongo's. Wisely established as an anonymous account, Luongo had free rein to speak his mind throughout the lockout and the Canucks' protracted goaltending controversy. Luongo isn't just funny for a hockey player, he's legitimately hilarious and one of the few athlete accounts in all of sports worth a follow. Here's just a sample of his greatest, usually self-deprecating Twitter hits:
Almost had him............ pic.twitter.com/QB7EEvRp— Strombone (@strombone1) February 18, 2013
One win away from dream final...... ❤❤❤ #becauseitsthecup— Strombone (@strombone1) June 8, 2013
If John Tortorella ends up muzzling Luongo, he should be fired on the spot.
How the Sharks stack up against them: In many ways, the Sharks' four-game sweep of the Canucks last spring wasn't quite as lopsided as the end result made it look. I mean, in some ways, it completely was; the Sharks generated 76 scoring chances to the Canucks' 34 over the course of the series, including a 49-27 edge at even-strength. But Vancouver was right there with San Jose for three of the four games and bested them in possession on a couple of nights, merely unable to penetrate the Sharks' defense to create real opportunities. They'll probably figure out a way to break through at some point this season but it does seem like the Sharks are still the better team. Save for the Corey Schneider trade and subsequent resolution of the Canucks' goalie controversy, neither club tweaked its roster all that severely over the offseason, with Derek Roy's departure from B.C. decidedly less significant considering his brief stint with the Canucks was a disaster.
By far the biggest change for Vancouver came behind the bench, as long-time coach Alain Vigneault traded places with ex-Rangers bench boss John Tortorella. There's some consternation as to how Torts will fit in but our buddies at Canucks Army laid out a compelling case prior to the hiring of Tortorella that he wouldn't be the worst choice for this roster. Some believe the Canucks' championship window has closed but they do bring back arguably the best goalie of the past decade in Luongo as their full-time starter, a defense corps featuring Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, Jason Garrison and Bieksa that might be the division's best (although the Coyotes likely have something to say about that) and an excellent top line. If Ryan Kesler can stay healthy and resemble the player he was in 2010-11 and one of Jordan Schroeder, Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce emerges as a better third-line center than the currently penciled-in Brad Richardson, the Canucks should certainly make the playoffs and may be able to put up more of a fight against San Jose than a season ago should the teams meet in the 2/3 Pacific Division matchup as is a distinct possibility.
Greatest moment in Sharks vs. Canucks history: Well this is an easy one. All hail King Gutless.