There’s no denying that the veteran presence on the San Jose Sharks roster is stacked. When NHL Network released their rankings of best players at their respective positions this summer, three Sharks players made the cut, with two more on the cusp.
Tony Luftman of NHL Network sat down with Sie Morley of Fear the Fin to talk about those rankings and what he sees for the future of the Sharks. Read the interview below.
Sie Morley: So let’s talk a little bit about the rankings NHL Network did this summer. Brent Burns ranked highest for our Sharks players, he was number two on your defensemen list. What about him really stands out to you?
Tony Luftman: I got to cover Brent at the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and it was awesome to be able to see him up close and see how much he loves the game. Now any player who gets to the Stanley Cup Final, you know that there’s a passion for the game, but a lot of the time we end up focusing on peculiarities, y’know, the fact that he’s got tattoos and the big beard. He’s a hockey player, through and through and that’s apparent, the more interviews that I’ve sat in on, the more times I’ve heard him speak in-depth, at length.
We marvel at his ability to get shots through, and obviously the numbers he put up last year were just amazing, for a D-man to almost get to 30 — 29 — the number of shots, the volume of offense he can generate from the blueline, his skating ability — but what I think is under-appreciated about him, and this came across the more I was around him and heard him talk the game, is how bright he is. His hockey IQ, I think, is the source of what allows him to be such an elite player. I get and I appreciate his personality, and I think he’s one of the real likable guys in our league and deserves attention for that personality, but don’t be distracted by the beard. This guy is a very smart hockey player.
SM: Do you think some of that, his hockey IQ and his offensive edge, comes from having played forward and getting moved to defense?
TL: Yes. In one of the productions we did for that Top 20 D, we talked about just how unique his skill set is. I think about Dustin Byfuglien helping the Hawks win the Cup in 2010, and he can play forward and he can play D. Only a few guys on earth have that, the skating ability, the physicality, the IQ to read the game as quickly as D-men have to. I think in seeing Burns play, the one thing that strikes you right away is his skating ability. At his size, for him to skate the way he does, is remarkable. Erik Karlsson is a smaller guy, Kris Letang is a smaller guy - Burns is a big guy, but he’s really nimble. It’s really impressive.
On TV, a lot of guys, I think it’s tougher to appreciate, but in person, when you see him play, he’s one of those guys that really strikes me — Victor Hedman is another — that’s a big D-man who can really skate. Colton Parayko is another big guy. At this stage in the evolution of the sport, where speed is so critical, I think of Connor McDavid, you have to be able to skate and these guys can really skate.
SM: Burns just signed an 8-year contract extension, at 32-years-old. How do you feel about how long that term is, at his age?
TL: You know what, I hear a lot of that, where people question, “Oh, it’s such a long term!” First of all, I think he’s earned it. I wouldn’t be one to question Doug Wilson and what he’s done. The decisions he’s made and the consistency of that franchise, the excellence there — we tend to give so much credit to winning the cup, but I don’t think there’s only one team at the end of the year that should feel good about the season that they had. I look at Doug Wilson, the decisions that he makes, including that one, and I think about D-men being really productive into their 30s. Scott Stevens is somebody that I’ve worked with many times and I admire him as one of the all-time great D, and he was productive well into his 30s, helping the Devils win three cups and he was the captain. Nick Lidstrom, very productive well into his 30s. I recognize that, for some people, there’s sensitivity to the term, but it didn’t bother me at all. I know that with the love that Brent Burns has for the game, he’s gonna continue to work hard and continue to grow and evolve as a player.
SM: We also locked down Vlasic for eight years, and he’s just a little bit younger than Burns at 30, so that’s kind of looking like the future of our defense group. It’s interesting to me, because I think they’re very different, in terms of defensive style. Vlasic is much more of a shut-down defender, whereas Burns is a little more offensive. The higher scoring defensemen always seem to be in talks for Norris contention, but Vlasic is the league’s best shut-down defender. Do you think there’s an issue with how we evaluate defensemen?
TL: Well, that’s the issue. Bringing Scott Stevens up — he never won the Norris trophy and I think he’s one of the all-time greats to play the position. When you look at the actual plaque for the Norris trophy, it’s awarded to the “best all-around defenseman.” There’s a definite concern over how much attention is given to the offensive numbers.
It’s difficult to quantify just how valuable Vlasic is, but the thing I always point to is this: Canada is the best in the world at hockey. We’re talking about the World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. They can take whoever they want, and they take Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He’s really good and Mike Babcock trusts him and plays him in key situations. He’s somebody that when you watch him — I remember how many shifts he was on the ice when the Sharks had last change at the home games of that ‘16 Cup Final. It isn’t just the fact that he wanted to be on the ice when Crosby was on the ice, he took that challenge. His intelligence is plain, also. You can see it so clearly, the way that he reads the game, because he’s not an elite athlete.
He’s such a likable guy. I’ll never forget, I interviewed him during the Stanley Cup Finals and I said, “When you were growing up, who did you watch? What D-men did you watch that you wanted to pattern your game after?” And he said, “Actually, when I was growing up, I wanted to be Pavel Bure. I loved the way he skated, I loved the way he played.” He paused and he goes, “I don’t know what happened.”
I lost it. It’s amazing, because he doesn’t really skate or score like Pavel Bure, but that’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic. That, to me, captures him and his likable personality. He’s really easy to root for.
SM: I remember when he was named to Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey, that there was a little bit of that, of people questioning why he’d be named to it, when he’s not as big of a production, as far as offense goes. But he and Doughty in the Olympics were such a good pairing. I think he’s an all star in his own right. It’s just been how we evaluate defensemen that’s been the issue there.
TL: Anyone who questions it, what I would say is this: Just watch him. Just watch that guy play. It’s cool when you go to the game and you can see it. On TV, you just see that one angle of the action. But just watch him. Watch the decisions that he makes, watch his positioning - he reads the game so effectively.
I think back to the ‘16 Cup Final, he’s one of the players that stands out in my mind. He had a terrific playoffs. Joe Pavelski, also, obviously, he led that playoffs in scoring goals. If there’s one thing that I regret about our sport, and sports in general, is that we pay so much attention to the team that brings the Championship. I really feel like that Sharks team maxed-out. That Sharks team had an amazing season and they didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but man, was that a heck of a team.
SM: It was fun to watch.
SM: So we’ve got Burns and Vlasic tied down for eight years, and we also just signed Martin Jones to six years. NHL Network ranked him number nine on your Top 10 Goalies. What stands out to you about Jones?
TL: To me, this goes back to Doug Wilson, right? Because there are a number of different paths to starting. I think about Marc-Andre Fleury, goes number one overall in the draft in ‘03 and he’s had an amazing career. Martin Jones — far less heralded, far less attention. He played seven minutes as a back up on a Kings Cup-winner, and then the brief stint with Boston, and then the Sharks get him and he signs a really modest deal, three million for three years. For Doug Wilson to see in him what he saw in him is remarkable. That, to me, is the greatest skill, his talent evaluation, for a GM.
He has the demeanor that you want in a goalie. The requisite skills are there, too. I share an office with Kevin Weekes, so he’s constantly breaking down the nuances of net-minding, whether it’s save deflection or rebound control — I defer to him on all of that. In reading a lot of quotes and seeing a lot of interviews, this is a guy who is ready for prime time. His chance came. There are a lot of number twos that want to be number ones. When his chance came, he was really ready to be number one and he showed in the season that the Sharks went all the way to the Cup Final, that he could play in and win those games.
It was an amazing start, too, the fact that he played the Kings early on. It had some storybook elements to it. The pressure can’t be bigger than what he encountered during that run. He showed that he has not just the physical skills, but the mental make up to be a number one.
SM: It is really interesting that during that Cup run that it came down to Martin Jones and Matt Murray, who are both very young goaltenders. I think watching Jones this past season, he kind of struggled a bit. I don’t know if that was a result of the shortened off-season, or coming back from a deep playoff run, but was that an impression you got, as well?
TL: The main thing I want to recognize is that as much as we want to identify and isolate a player within the sport, I recognize just how interdependent it is, whether it’s the D and the offense, the power play and the penalty kill. I remember where the Sharks were around mid-March and I remember what happened, where really the whole team began to struggle.
I think you can recognize that. I work in media, but there’s times when I hate the media, because they’ll take the exact same story and say that a team is a veteran team and that experience is so critical and they draw on that, and that’s so important. And then, when Joe Thornton gets hurt, the story pivots from them being a veteran group and that’s so good to oh, all of a sudden they look old. The reality is, when people get hurt, whether it’s Logan Couture taking a puck in the mouth or Thornton tearing knee ligaments, it doesn’t matter if you’re 22, 32, 38, whatever. That’s going to hurt you.
I’ll tell you what I love, is the culture of San Jose. I’ll never forget, and it’s indelibly imprinted on my mind, when the Sharks got eliminated, Joe Pavelski talking in the locker room afterwards. He had a double ping, where he redirected a puck that could’ve tied the score that didn’t go in. He wasn’t upset about that. He loved the way his guys competed. I remember when the Sharks struggled down the stretch, wondering “Can this team get it together?” Because we remembered them going on such a deep playoff run the year before. That, to me, was one of the best stories of the playoffs, that group, and there’s the captain, standing in front of the media, holding back tears. That’s special. That’s a special culture there.
SM: You mentioned Couture and Thornton, who were both on the bubble of making your Top 20 Centers, at 24 and 25. They’re kind of two different parts of the Sharks system, where you’ve got Joe Thornton, who is going to be a Hall of Famer and winding down on his career, and then Couture, who is really hitting his stride, especially with his production in playoffs. How important is it going to be for those two players to bounce back after their injuries?
TL: Absolutely crucial. I think it’s important for many teams, but we saw just how important that is [for the Sharks]. I don’t think we can ever give enough credit to the guys in our sport and how physically and mentally tough they are. Mike Johnson called some of the Sharks’ playoff games and he came back to us afterward, and he said that he asked Logan about the injury to his mouth and when does it hurt and he said “It hurts when I breathe.”
I never forgot that. Breathing isn’t optional, he has to breathe, and he’s gotta be out there giving hits, taking hits, making plays...it’s unbelievable that those guys played with the injuries that they had. I shouldn’t say unbelievable. They’re hockey players, that’s what they are. It’s unbelievable as a human being to endure that level of discomfort. You gotta love the game, you gotta love your team to do that. I hope that they’re healthy, because when they’re healthy, they’re unbelievable to watch.
I want you to know about Logan Couture — unbelievable how much he knows about the Toronto Blue Jays. We had him on NHL Network, and MLB Network is right there. I asked him about the Blue Jays and I thought he was gonna give me like 15 seconds. He talked for a minute and a half! He’s that thorough. If he needed to manage the Blue Jays, if they needed it, he could do it. I promise you, he could manage the Toronto Blue Jays.
SM: He’s a big Bills fan, too. He just loves heartbreak.
TL: [laughing] It’s incredible.
SM: So I guess we can’t avoid the Marleau topic. That’s been the big story this off-season. Doug Wilson hasn’t really made a lot of moves to replace Marleau. It’s mostly been a lot of AHL signings. I think that speaks to his faith in our young guys, but he’s also made it pretty clear that if that doesn’t pan out, he’s open to trades. Do you think some of the young guys we saw last year can replace Marleau’s production?
TL: That’s the big question. I think that’s the question as I look at this San Jose Sharks team, that is the glaring catch. One is the identity piece. You’ll hear hockey players praised for their leadership ability and I think Mike Babcock knows what he brings, from coaching him on Team Canada. You know, because you’ve watched him as a Shark for years.
It’s going to be jarring. It is jarring already, when we watch the Leafs play and there’s Marleau. And man, can he still skate. I saw him score a goal in a preseason game and he’s still Patty Marleau.
I get that there’s the business side of it, he goes there for three years. But looking at the Sharks, in terms of replacing him — in the Bay Area, I always think of Moneyball and Billy Beane. You replace him in the aggregate. Can you replace the leadership, and the poise, and the resolve, and all of the great character that he brought? I got to interview him and he comes across so well in person. He’s such a stand up guy.
When I think of guys like Hertl, or Boedker, or Melker Karlsson, or Donskoi, those guys have to score more, obviously, to off-set that departure. The goals, the points — that aside? I’m really curious to see what it’s going to be like in that room without him. You had a unique dynamic in that there were three former captains on the roster and everybody got along with Joe, Joe, and Patty Marleau. I’m curious to see what it’s going to be like. Who’s going to talk? What’s gonna be said? What is the dynamic going to be like going forward?
SM: I think Logan Couture has already said that the locker room feels weird without Patty. That’s a presence you can’t just up and replace. But the Sharks, since Pete DeBoer’s tenure, it’s been this sort of leadership group, more so than any one particular person. Are there any players you could see taking on more of a leadership role? Hertl is a name that comes up a lot in terms of being the future of the Sharks, so could that be a role for him?
TL: Well, Hertl comes to mind. It’s interesting to see the way things unfold, because I remember how he burst on the scene. He’s in his mid-20s. He’s almost 24 and he came on so strong at the start, so explosive in scoring and obviously admiring Jaromir Jagr - we knew his story. But I think sometimes, it’s hard for us to be patient. That year when the Sharks went to the Cup Finals, he was a 20-goal scorer and he had 46 points overall. That guy has demonstrated that he can be a really effective weapon in this league. I think he’s one of, if not the strongest candidate, to be the guy that really ups his output, to try to offset the loss of Marleau.
SM: There’s one more ranking we haven’t talked about. You ranked Joe Pavelski as the number seven winger. I feel like Pavelski gets overlooked.
TL: His whole life.
SM: Right, I was surprised to see him sandwiched between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine on your rankings, when he’s so often overlooked.
TL: Absolutely. I think that’s the right word. It is ridiculous, the amount of offense that he has produced. 145 goals over the last four seasons. The only player with more goals during that time, Alex Ovechkin, is the best goal-scorer of his generation.
Joe Pavelski, we all know the story: picked 205, Wisconsin ‘06 National Championship. There is something...ordinary about his build, right? He’s not the most athletic guy, but he’s a guy that competes. He represents what I think is most special about hockey players: you can will yourself to be a real competitive and valuable piece.
His skill — and I turn to the guys who I sit next to, who have played in the league, coached in the league, managed in the league, the way that they react to his ability to deflect pucks and tip pucks in front of the net — it’s a skill that has to be honed and it’s clear from the plays he makes. There are guys that score effortlessly. When we see Ovi set up in his office and he’s scoring on the power play, it’s prodigious, it’s beautiful to watch, it’s amazing. Joe Pavelski has to manufacture goals. So to think of those two guys and how productive they’ve been over the last four years, one guy can basically impose his will on the game. The other guy is not enormous, but somehow finds a way to make an enormous impact by having this exceptional skill of tipping pucks in front.
I’ve heard and read quotes from Sharks players saying, “We just have to get pucks close to the net and he’s gonna make a play on it.” What a weapon, and what a fearless competitor. To go to the front of the net the way he does, it’s the dirty area that everybody talks about.
Back to your point: Underappreciated by many. But I think the people in the game really value and understand and appreciate what he brings.
SM: One more thing I wanted to bring up is Vlasic and his Twitter posts about the Olympics. It seems like he’s losing his patience about it. He really desperately wants to go to the Olympics.
TL: I think it’s a reflection of how passionate he is about it. Any situation like this, I find it’s important to be respectful on any situation that a player feels strongly about, no matter what. My stand on it, no matter what I believe, I recognize that. Whether it’s on Twitter or social media, these guys have the opportunity to speak out on what they’re passionate about. I find, as a fan of the game and a fan of the sport, that it’s great that so many of our players are open about what they think and how they feel.
SM: Do you think that there’s a league issue in seeing players being outspoken about these things becoming a distraction?
TL: I know that a big part of the culture of hockey and Jack Eichel had an interesting comment at the NHL Media Days — the nature of the sport, there’s so much unselfishness built into it, that these guys defer to the group and don’t try to attract attention to themselves. Because it’s such a cooperative effort, it’s the ultimate team sport.
Even if you’re Brent Burns and you’re playing almost half the game, you’re watching the other half. There’s a reliance on other guys, whereas when you think about the NBA, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, those guys will barely come out of entire game. In hockey, you rely so much on the other guys, that to me, the culture of unselfishness is as much a part of the game as ice. It’s a given that these guys are going to be unselfish, they’re gonna have team spirit, they’re gonna be cooperative with each other. It’s one of the things I love most about the sport.
We do have guys with great personalities that are worthy of attention, but they don’t really attract attention to themselves, and I get that.
SM: Final question: a lot of the prediction models have the Sharks in a good position to make playoffs, but I’ve noticed fans seem a little more hesitant. Where do you see the Sharks finishing out the season?
TL: I see them as a playoff team. One of the lessons I learned last season was that getting in is just the start. It’s the match ups that make a playoff run. I think the Chicago Blackhawks were one of the best teams in the National Hockey League last year and it was not a favorable match up. Top seed in the West, and they ran into a mud saw in Nashville.
I think for San Jose, similarly, it’s going to come down to their path. I keep saying, if healthy, when healthy, this group, even without Marleau, has playoff potential. When you get into the playoffs, there aren’t too many guys that have proven themselves or are as reliable in pressure situations as Thornton, Pavelski, Martin Jones, Burns. These guys have played in and won huge games in the recent past. They’re not gonna be awed or intimidated or made anxious by the kind of pressure packed games you get into in a post-season run.
You can catch Tony Luftman on NHL Tonight all season long on NHL Network.