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Three questions facing Chicago Blackhawks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sadly, Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita died at age 78. Read more about Mikita here.

For more on the Blackhawks’ outlook for 2018-19…

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off breakthrough | Toews’ place]

1. What’s going on with Corey Crawford?

In late-July, Crawford addressed questions about his health, expressing some vague optimism about possibly being ready for Blackhawks training camp. At the same time, he also admitted that he hasn’t resumed skating. Yikes.

It really must be said just how great Crawford’s been, and for quite some time. Since 2014-15, he’s tied for the second-best save percentage (.923) among goalies who’ve played at least 70 games.

Crawford’s done so behind an increasingly suspect Blackhawks defense, and after years of providing great backups, the drop-off from Crawford to everyone else was extremely steep in 2017-18.

If money, “experience,” and happy memories were enough to stop pucks, then Cam Ward could be the knight in shining armor for Chicago. After all, they paid the veteran goalie $3 million to back up Crawford, possibly penciling Ward in for something closer to platoon role if Crawford’s limited by injuries.

The Cam Ward Experience didn’t exactly work out so great for the Hurricanes, at least during the last decade. Since 2012-13, Ward’s been at a .910 save percentage or lower. In 668 career regular-season games, Ward’s save percentage is .909. It’s tough to imagine Ward getting the job done if pressed into anything close to starter duty.

There are two potential ideal scenarios: 1) Crawford ends up being fine, or close to fine, health-wise and/or 2) Cam Ward ends up flourishing in Chicago, because goalies are incredibly difficult to predict. Even ones who’ve been mediocre-to-bad for a decade.

Most realistically, this is an area of great risk and concern.

2. Can they really contend?

The Blackhawks decided to bring GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville back for 2018-19, and to some extent, it’s easy to see why.

As we covered earlier with Coach Q, he’s one of the NHL’s best bench bosses, if not the best one. He’s won three Stanley Cups and pressed a lot of the right buttons for Chicago even during “close but no cigar” years. That said, the Blackhawks didn’t even sniff that cigar in missing the postseason entirely last season.

Bowman’s had his slip ups as GM, especially lately, yet there have also been plenty of shrewd moments. He’s made his mistakes regarding who to keep and who to let go during the team’s many cap crunches, yet Bowman also has been willing to make the correct – but also painful – calls where dimmer executives would load Chicago up with even more albatross deals.

It would be petulant to deny what Bowman and Quenneville have accomplished, and similarly foolish to assume that the game’s totally passed them by.

There are some ways this could work out and Chicago could be very much in the mix once again. That’s especially true if Crawford is healthy and on point, key scorers – not just Kane and Toews, but Brandon Saad – bounce back, and other things come together.

It’s easy to forget that, while the Blackhawks were humbled by a first-round sweep by the Predators during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they also won their division in 2016-17. (And hey, they lost to the team that came within two wins of winning it all.)

If enough things go right, a playoff berth is feasible. Even their critics would probably admit that.

On the other hand, what’s the best Chicago can expected against an absolutely brutal Central Division? They could overachieve in every area and still land in a wild-card position, at best. This front office needs to take a long look in the mirror.

3. Is it instead time for a rebuild, or at least a “soft reboot?”

One disadvantage of keeping Bowman and Quenneville around is that they’re probably less likely to pull off the Band-Aid and acknowledge that, maybe, the Blackhawks need to take a step back before they really push forward.

Honestly, some serious soul searching is necessary to determine if this team has the ceiling to truly contend. If not, Chicago could risk falling into the sort of purgatory the Red Wings are becoming uncomfortably familiar with: too good to get a high-end prospect, too bad to be relevant.

The Blackhawks might look to Sharks GM Doug Wilson, as annoying as his offer sheeting once was, as a good example of trying to pivot. (Depending upon how things go with the Rangers, they might serve as a beacon, too.)

As you may remember, Wilson somewhat boldly traded Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus, and Ryane Clowe for a bucket of picks around the 2013 trade deadline (with Handzus doing very little for Chicago). The Sharks piled up futures, got rid of dead weight contracts, and still made the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even winning a round.

Such a triumph isn’t necessarily likely, although it’s not outrageous.

The point is that the Blackhawks might be better off punting 2018-19 in hopes of loading up for a few bigger swings with at least a chunk of Toews’ and Kane’s primes remaining.

For all we know, the smart move for Chicago might be to wait out the Panarin sweepstakes in hopes of not giving up a single asset and merely signing him as a UFA next summer. There’s a possibility that the Blackhawks would add another high draft pick after landing Adam Boqvist, who likely needs at least a year or two of seasoning before making an NHL impact, anyway.

Ideally, the Blackhawks would also gain more insight regarding Crawford’s future, among other questions hovering over their heads.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but tanking might eventually help them win the war to contend once again.

How would Jack Hughes look in a Blackhawks sweater?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.