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Three questions facing Columbus Blue Jackets

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

For even more on Columbus, check these posts out, too:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough | Under Pressure]

1. Is this the year they finally make the leap?

Sports fans don’t love hearing about how “close” their team was to winning that elusive game, series, or title, but such thoughts can be absolutely crucial for decision makers.

To put it in stupidly simple terms, consider this: the Washington Capitals lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (both times Pittsburgh) before finally winning a championship of their own. To put it mildly, people were running out of patience with the Capitals. The Blue Jackets failed to get out of the first round these past two seasons, yet in each case, they lost to the eventual champions (Pittsburgh, then Washington).

Even beyond the questionable elements of the Penguins’ statements after signing Jack Johnson, you can understand why Torts blew a gasket. This team is scratching and clawing to build something special, yet sports can be cruel to those who fall just short. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that the Blue Jackets held a 2-0 series lead before things went sideways against Washington.

The Blue Jackets face some challenges in figuring out what’s next regarding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, two rare star players who enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts.

In Panarin’s case, in particular, there’s the very reasonable notion of trading him to get something in return, rather than losing him for nothing via free agency.

What if the Blue Jackets just throw caution to the wind and try to see how far this current group can take them, letting the chips fall where they may next summer? There’s a sober argument to be made that, while it would be painful to see Panarin go, they might have their best chance at a big run merely by taking one more shot with “The Bread Man” on their roster.

2. Youth movement, instead?

It’s not the easiest sell to ask Blue Jackets fans to tolerate a pivot, consider they’ve still never won a playoff series (“hey, look at the Winnipeg Jets,” they might say) and the darker days of the Rick Nash/Steve Mason eras.

On the other hand, the Blue Jackets could also be cagey about this, waiting just a little while for the right opening to really take control of the Metropolitan Division.

Consider these factors:

  • The Penguins and Capitals aren’t exactly spring chickens. Sidney Crosby is 31, Evgeni Malkin is 32, and many of Pittsburgh’s other key players could hit the aging curve. Alex Ovechkin is 32 and Nicklas Backstrom is 30. Both teams have unearthed some very nice, younger players, but those top stars still drive success the most. The Blue Jackets already gave the Penguins and Capitals some tough fights; imagine if they could bide their time and come back with another fleet of young players?
  • It really might be best to trade Artemi Panarin, and maybe even part ways with Sergei Bobrovsky, for all we know. Being proactive with Panarin, in particular, could be an example of short-term pain, long-term gains.
  • This team already boasts an enviable core of young talent. Seth Jones is 23 and is signed for four more years at a bargain $5.4M rate. They need to sign Zach Werenski after next season, but that’s a nice problem to have considering that he’s just 21. There are some nice forwards at young ages (Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand in particular), too. This point is especially prescient if Joonas Korpisalo can be a No. 1 guy, as he’s 24 (compared to 29-year-old Bob).

If the Blue Jackets decided to hand the torch to young players, in some ways out of necessity if Panarin’s leaving, then there is the risk that they can fall into a rut like before: boasting plenty of nice players, yet few of the game-breakers like Panarin who can swing a series. It might be frustrating to settle for the team resembling “a bunch of little rats” once again.

Sometimes it’s crucial to read the writing on the wall, though. Slipping a bit in 2018-19 wouldn’t be pleasant, at all, yet it might increase their odds of bigger gains in the future.

3. Is this the right front office for Columbus?

Naturally, a big barrier to a pivot or “soft reboot” is that GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella might – understandably – believe that they’re fighting for their jobs.

You’d understand each front office figure being pretty impatient with such an idea, even if there was enough job security to take a bigger swing in, say, 2019-20.

As stated before, the Blue Jackets haven’t won a playoff series in their franchise history, and Keklainen’s been a part of that drought since 2013. Tortorella’s dealt with a long personal drought, too, as he hasn’t presided over a team that won a playoff series since his tense final year with the Rangers in 2012-13.

This Blue Jackets franchise faces some incredibly tough questions and decisions in the near future. At some point, those tough calls may also revolve around the people making those decisions.

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.

It’s San Jose Sharks Day at PHT

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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.

2018-19
46-27-9, 101 points (2nd in the Pacific Division, 2nd in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in conference final to St. Louis Blues

IN:
Dalton Prout
Jonny Brodzinski
Tom Pyatt
Trevor Carrick

OUT:
Joonas Donskoi
Gustav Nyquist
Joe Pavelski
Joakim Ryan
Francis Perrson
Kyle Wood
Justin Braun

RE-SIGNED:
Erik Karlsson
Kevin Labanc
Timo Meier
Tim Heed
Dylan Gambrell
Antti Suomela
Maxim Letunov
Nick DeSimone

2018-19 Summary

Three weeks before the start of the season, Sharks general manager finally got the difference-maker he’d been seeking for so long. Acquiring Erik Karlsson was seen as the final piece of what would help San Jose break their Stanley Cup drought.

While Karlsson’s regular season was limited to 53 games due to injury, he played all but one of their 20 playoff games, but in the end it wasn’t enough. The Sharks reached the Western Conference Final for the second time in four seasons, but they fell to the eventual champion St. Louis Blues in six games.

The Sharks saw another strong season from their offensive leaders in Karlsson (45 points), Brent Burns (83 points), Tomas Hertl (35 goals), Logan Couture (70 points), captain Joe Pavelski (38 goals), Evander Kane (30 goals), and Joe Thornton (51 points). There were also breakout seasons from Timo Meier (30 goals, 66 pooints) and Kevin Labanc (56 points), but when you look back at the 2018-19 season from San Jose’s perspective you can’t help but ask one real simple question:

How would it have ended if they received adequate, consistent goaltending?

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Martin Jones had a rough season and ended with a .886 even strength save percentage. His backup, Aaron Dell, wasn’t any better with an .899 ESSV%. Those numbers put both 57th and 60th among all NHL goaltenders who appeared in at least 20 games last season, with Jones coming in dead last at No. 60. The red light lit up often when he was between the pipes with the netminder allowing at least four goals 26 times in his 82 total appearances.

The Sharks offense bailed out their goalies often, finishing second overall in with 289 goals, and while they were able to make it to the conference final despite their Achilles heels in goal, it’s not a plan to bank on again.

This coming season will see some change on the roster. Pavelski is gone to Dallas; Donskoi signed in Colorado; and Justin Braun was dealt to Philadelphia. As of Saturday, Joe Thornton, who turned 40 in July, remains unsigned, as he decides between coming back on another one-year deal or retirement. 

Another old face who is still an unrestricted free agent is Patrick Marleau, who spent 19 seasons in San Jose before signing in Toronto where he played the last two seasons. He was dealt to Carolina in June at the NHL Draft and later bought out, putting him back on the market and igniting rumors he could make a return to the franchise where he began his NHL career.

Even with a few questions lingering, 2019-20 is still a Stanley Cup-or-bust season for the Sharks as their window remains wide open as they seek their first championship.

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

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.