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Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?

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The offseason is where you fill out your BINGO card of sports cliches, and this post undoubtedly leans on the “best shape of my life trope,” or something close to it.

Yet, you could almost picture the San Jose Sharks pulling out a favorite of a GM after a quiet offseason or trade deadline: “[Injured player] coming back is like landing a big player.” Such a tactic really fits here because a) the Sharks missed out on big-ticket free agents, despite lobbing a hefty offer at John Tavares and b) Joe Thornton is making promising statements about his health.

(Naturally, this marks that key moment where we first tap the brakes and remind you that plenty of athletes believe that they’ve healed, only to aggravate an injury, sometimes even during training camp. So, please, PLEASE don’t use this as a reason to bet your mortgage on the Sharks winning the Stanley Cup or something similar.)

On one hand, people might wonder: “What else is Thornton going to say?” That’s fair, although there are moments when the typical optimism of the summer can’t hide the cloudiness of certain injury updates. You’ll notice that when a player admits they “aren’t quite 100 percent” and other variations.

So, yeah, Thornton’s interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) seems promising, and not … too misleading? Hopefully?

“I feel good. I know my birth certificate says 39, but I think not playing a full 82 games and playoffs last year, my body feels really, really good and I feel healthy,” he said. “It’s kind of like a lockout year for myself, you get time to refocus and finally train a little bit and go again. I’m real excited for the year.”

Admittedly, to some extent, it might come down to Thornton’s vivid way with words in Kurz’s story. Adding details such as it almost being “like a lockout year” reminds me of Mike Modano and Teemu Selanne seemingly finding another gear following a full season lost. (Their rebounds didn’t make it worth it, but did dull the pain a bit.)

Of course, it’s one thing to be healthy, and another to actually be effective. Would the already slow-skating Thornton slip from “able to slow the game down” to being too slow to really be viable, much like what seemed to finally happen to Jaromir Jagr in 2017-18?

Again, Thornton had a quip for that, as Kurz reported:

“They’ve said that since I’ve been 16 years old, and I think I’ve had a pretty good career,” Thornton said.

“I think when I’m out there I dictate the play. It doesn’t matter who I play against, I usually dictate the play. I’ve had that criticism for 22 years. I think I’ve kept up pretty good.”

That’s the challenge with sports: an athlete is able to defy critics … until they can’t any longer. We can’t really know that until we actually see Thornton in action, and it’s possible that the sublime passer might not hit his groove right off the bat.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and consider what this could mean for the Sharks.

Better than we remembered?

Much like David Krejci, Thornton was more effective than maybe some of us might recall in 2017-18, with some of those hazy memories influenced by lower totals thanks to missed games.

Thornton was limited to 36 points (though with 13 goals, thanks to shooting luck), yet he did that in just 47 contests. His .77 point-per-game average would translate to a 63-point output over 82 games. That’s fantastic stuff, especially since Thornton has developed into an increasingly effective two-way performer as San Jose’s spread the scoring wealth a bit.

A reasonably healthy Thornton could tie the Sharks roster together like a Lebowski rug, and I don’t say that just because Thornton’s beard may be lush enough to serve as a rug itself.

Greater expectations?

The Sharks already looked dangerous after landing Evander Kane, going 12-6-1 and sweeping the Ducks before the Golden Knights knocked them out, and that was with Thornton unable to play.

With Thornton, the Sharks could put together two dynamic forward combos (possibly Kane – Logan Couture, Thornton – Joe Pavelski), surround them with some other nice forwards (Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl come to mind), roll out two world-class defensemen (Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), and deploy a respectable starting goalie in Martin Jones.

A healthy Thornton may also inspire GM Doug Wilson to push more chips to the middle of the table; maybe he’d go after Max Pacioretty, even as a rental, if it becomes clear that Joe is the difference-maker they expected?

It was disappointing for the Sharks to miss out on Tavares, along with some other big names. Those letdowns may sting further if Ilya Kovalchuk looks Thornton/Jagr-level ageless with the Kings.

Regardless, it’s tempting to pencil in San Jose as prohibitive favorites to win the Pacific Division if Thornton is as spry as he claims.

[Where they stand: Pacific Division in July]

Beyond the Sharks’ appealing balance and viable top-end talent, other Pacific teams carry question marks. The Golden Knights were already going to have their skeptics even before Nate Schmidt‘s 20-game suspension was announced. The Kings got Kovalchuk and may have their own healed-up center in Jeff Carter, yet that team has issues ranging from depth to aging concerns. There are worries about Anaheim taking a step back, Calgary once again watching a busy offseason flame out, the Oilers’ idleness haunting them, and the Coyotes still being a few strides short of true competitiveness. There’s also the Vancouver Canucks. They exist.

Back in late July, a small majority (27.32 percent) of PHT readers voted the Sharks as the favorites in the Pacific, edging Vegas (23.61 percent), and that was before this positive outlook on Thornton and the Schmidt news, among other developments.

Plenty can change during the span of the 2018-19 season, and even during training camp, but it’s tough to blame Sharks fans for feeling that much more exciting after today.

In fact, it could get to the point where “Pacific Division favorites” would be thinking far too small.

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.

Theodore, Golden Knights agree to 7-year, $36.4M extension

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Defenseman Shea Theodore ended his holdout Monday night, agreeing to a seven-year contract with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Theodore’s deal runs through the 2024-25 season and has an average annual value of $5.2 million.

”We’re happy to have everybody done now, sometimes it takes a little bit longer than anticipated,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said. ”He’s a good young player and we got some unrestricted years and now he can just play.”

McPhee said the main issue between the team and Theodore’s camp was the Golden Knights were asking him to sign long-term, while the fourth-year pro was looking for a two-year deal. McPhee also said the long-term deal was about managing the salary cap properly, and leaving enough space over the next few years, giving the Golden Knights a better chance to continue as a Western Conference contender.

”I think when it was laid out and explained to the player why we were doing that … he bought in,” McPhee said. ”You just have to get the numbers right on those deals. We thought if we paid a little more now … and we have cost certainty in the future, it allows us to manage the cap better, and plan better.

”We got to a place today where they had a couple of options – a six-year deal, a seven-year deal – we thought we were pretty close, and got it done just after the first period.”

Theodore had 29 points (6 goals, 23 assists) in 61 games during the 2017-18 regular season. The 23-year-old appeared in all 20 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Final, recording 10 points (3 goals and 7 assists).

”We were pretty confident, based on the way he played last year and what he did at his age last year, to really play that well, and play that well in the playoffs for four rounds, we’re pretty confident about what we’re gonna have now, and in the future,” McPhee said. ”So, we were prepared to go longer.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said Theodore will join the team Tuesday, during a two-day retreat in Montana. He added that he is not concerned about the time he’s missed during training camp.

”He’s been working out, he’ll be fine,” Gallant said.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Seattle one step closer to NHL after arena plan approved

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SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena on Monday, clearing one of the last major hurdles in the city’s bid to land an expansion NHL franchise.

The 8-0 vote was the last step needed to strengthen Seattle’s expansion application and it means a team could be playing in the new building during the 2020-21 season.

The next phase in the arena/franchise process comes next week when Seattle Hockey Partners, the ownership group attempting to land the expansion team, presents before the NHL Board of Governors’ Executive Committee.

”It’s a good moment. I think it’s the beginning of the journey. It’s not the end of the journey. We have a lot of work to do, but at least now we get to go do the work,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, which is undertaking the renovation of the building that opened in 1962.

The vote ended a debate that began in the mid-2000s when Howard Schultz, then the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, said the city-owned KeyArena needed renovations. The lack of luxury amenities and a challenging lease agreement ultimately led to the Sonics leaving following the 2008 season and moving to Oklahoma City, where the franchise was rebranded as the Thunder.

Numerous arena plans have been presented since but none had gotten to this point. And while the vote didn’t provide healing for fans hurt by the Sonics move, it did create the likelihood that the city will land an NHL team soon and could one day see the NBA return.

”This is just a great deal for the city. … This is world class. This is a legacy project,” City Council President Bruce Harrell said.

For now, the NHL is the priority. The pitch to the Executive Committee next week should be mostly straightforward. Seattle is the largest market in the United States that doesn’t have a winter professional sports team. The local economy is booming and season ticket deposits for the prospective team were cut off at 33,000 earlier this year after a swell of interest.

”I don’t think we have to say much,” said Tod Leiweke, President and CEO of Seattle Hockey Partners. ”I think it speaks for itself. An 8-0 vote, a process that concluded when many people said it just simply couldn’t be done. We said we were going to put our best forward and today the city helps us do that.”

The goal is to have the building ready by the fall of 2020 so a team could start that season. Hitting that target will depend partly on when construction can actually begin. Part of the agreement with the city requires that an NHL franchise be acquired before arena construction can begin. Whether conditional approval from the NHL or a recommendation from the Executive Committee is enough to begin that process may depend on the city.

Either way, Tim Leiweke said every minute is precious in getting the project done in essentially two years.

”But there is no reason that we can’t hopefully get a little bit of momentum next week and convince people that a November, push-dirt, get in there and start working, works,” Leiweke said.

The final scheduled event for the arena in its current state is an Oct. 5 NBA exhibition game between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. At some point after that, the keys will be turned over to Oak View Group.

”Now we really get to dream about the National Hockey League, we get to dream about a presentation next week, we get to dream about the return of the NBA. Let’s go,” Tod Leiweke said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Latest round of roster decisions should make Islanders fans angry

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We have spent some time here this offseason chronicling the adventures of the New York Islanders as they attempt to rebuild their roster in the post-John Tavares era. It has mostly revolved around them plugging the roster full of assorted fourth-liners and depth players on long-term contracts, having them join the other fourth-liners and depth players that are returning … also on long-term contracts.

There are a couple of problems with this approach.

First, it creates a roster that is just not particularly good or deep by NHL standards. Fine people that play hard, go about their business as professionals, and can each probably carve out a niche for themselves in the NHL. But also not a collection of players that should be making up a significant portion of your roster.

Second, all of those long-term contracts and additions mean those veteran players are all but guaranteed roster spots, making it even more difficult for younger, potentially more impactful players to make the roster. Younger, potentially more impactful players that might be able to make your team better.

We saw the latter point play out on Monday with the latest round of roster cuts from the Islanders as they continue to trim their roster toward the 23-player opening night group. Among the cuts on Monday were 2016 first-round draft pick Kieffer Bellows, 2018 first-round pick Noah Dobson, and the talented Josh Ho-Sang, who seems to have been unable to gain the trust or win the approval of a new coaching staff and front office.

Along with them, there were also other young players Sebastien Aho and Michael Dal Colle assigned to the American Hockey League.

In speaking with the media regarding the decisions, general manager Lou Lamoriello had nothing but praise for his young players:

“Well I thought they played extremely well,” said Lamoriello. “They have a bright future, all they have to do is continue to grow. Bellows certainly showed up well — better than I thought he would. But right now we have to make some decisions with the people we have here, and we have to give the ice time to them. It’s best for him to go to the minors, play a lot, play in key situations and just grow as a player.”

And on Ho-Sang:

“I thought he was excellent,” Lamoriello said. “I thought he worked hard, I thought he gave us everything he had. He’s worked on his game without the puck. He’s just got to go to the minors, he has ability, just go there and get over all these issues, that I haven’t seen, that transpired in the past, he’s been excellent in camp. Just go grow there and get better. He’s young.”

At that point Lamoriello was asked if he wanted to have a more veteran roster to open the season, something the team will now no doubt have. He downplayed that, before coming out and saying that none of the players being sent down deserved to be in the NHL over the veterans that are on the roster right now.

“I don’t think it’s a case of wanting to see a veteran team, we have a lot of players under contract,” said Lamoriello. “We have to find out who they are and if they can play before any major decisions are made. So you have to give an opportunity. I think to ourself and our coaching staff we are still learning about them. They have contracts, that’s why sometimes the business gets into it. But these players who are going down, they don’t deserve to be here right now. They haven’t played that well that they should be taking a job away from the veterans at this point.”

That response leads to an important question — Why?

As in, why do you need to find out what you have with a bunch of these veterans? At this point in their careers everyone in the NHL should know exactly what every single one of those players is, and what they are capable of. This should be true whether the coach or GM has had them on their team or not.

Leo Komarov is 31 years old with 327 games in the NHL.

Matt Martin is 29 years old with 590 games.

Tom Kuhnhackl is 26 years old with 168 games.

Valtteri Filppula is 34 years old with 876 games.

Luca Sbisa, just signed on Monday the same day that Dobson and Aho were sent to the AHL/Juniors, is 28 years old with 495 games.

These are just the players the Islanders brought in this offseason from outside the organization, almost all of whom seem to be overkill in their roles when you consider the team already had Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Ross Johnston (who got a four-year contract over the summer) on the roster.

There are no secrets with any of these players. At this point in their career you are getting exactly what you have seen from them over the past several years.

All of this leads to another why question — why don’t the young players deserve to be there over some of the veterans that have a stranglehold on a roster spot to open the season?

Maybe Ho-Sang didn’t have a great camp (though, that’s not what Lou himself said) and struggled in the one preseason game he did play in. But over the past two years on the rare occasion when the Islanders have allowed him to play at the NHL level, he has done the one thing too many of the players on the roster haven’t been able — and won’t be — able to do.

He has produced.

He had 12 points in only 22 games a season ago, which is more than Kuhnhackl had in 69 games for the Penguins. It is the same number of points that Martin had in 50 games for the Maple Leafs, and more than he had in 82 games the previous year (Martin, for his career, has averaged 15 points over 82 games). It is only seven fewer points than what Komarov had in 74 games for the Maple Leafs. It is more than Johnston had in 38 AHL games a year ago, and double what Johnston produced in the NHL in the same number of games. It is only five behind what Cizikas had in 64 games.

No, it is not all about points. And maybe Ho-Sang does still have areas he needs to work on away from the puck.

But are those shortcomings going to hurt the Islanders more over the course of the season than the offensive shortcomings that half of the roster has? When you already know what almost every player on that roster is capable of?

But okay, fine. He didn’t earn a spot on the roster this year. What is the excuse for sending down Bellows, who was quite literally the most productive — and arguably best — player the team had in camp and the preseason? In three exhibition games he had two goals, an assist, 12(!) shots on goal, and a 52 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play.

Look at it another way: Mathew Barzal had one goal, four assists, only six shots on goal, and a 53 percent shot attempt share in his preseason performance a year ago. Barzal was the same age that Bellows is now, and had a similar pedigree in terms of where he went in the draft and his production in the Western Hockey League. He also did not play a single game in the American Hockey League. Barzal not only made the Islanders roster a year ago, he went on to put together one of the best rookie seasons in league history, win the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year, and almost instantly make himself the new franchise cornerstone.

That is not to say that Bellows was destined to duplicate Barzal’s rookie year. But it is also preposterous given the comparison, as well as the players that are still on the roster, to say he does not “deserve” to at least get a look at the opening night lineup.

But to put it all even more simply: If you’re an Islanders fan players like Ho-Sang or Bellows might have just been something to look forward to and get excited about at the start of the year. In time they will be there (well, Bellows will — at this point it might just be best for the Islanders to give Ho-Sang a fresh start somewhere else because nobody there seems to want to play him), but look at where this organization is right now, at this moment, with the season just a week away. You just lost your best player from a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points. It is a team that is probably going to be bad and miss the playoffs again. Now instead of maybe having a couple of young, talented forwards to give you some optimism — including at least one that should have played his way onto the roster — you get to instead watch a bunch of grinders try to scratch and claw their way a 1-0 win every night.

It remains to be seen where the Islanders go in the Lamoriello era, and with all due respect to everything he has accomplished in the NHL as an executive, things are not off to a promising start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Brian Gionta retires after 16-year NHL career

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Brian Gionta announced his retirement from the NHL on Monday, officially putting an end to an incredibly successful 16-year career.

The 39-year-old Gionta made the announcement in Buffalo, where he will be taking on a small, unspecified role with the team that will allow him to remain involved with the sport.

Gionta spent three of his 16 NHL seasons in Buffalo (he was born in Rochester, New York) and was the captain of the team each year. Along with his time in Buffalo, Gionta also spent a significant portion of his career with the New Jersey Devils (the team that drafted him) and Montreal Canadiens.

He did not open the 2017-18 season on an NHL roster and instead spent time preparing to play for the United States Olympic team. Even though he did not record a single point in his five games, he was able to land a contract with the Boston Bruins to close out the regular season where he appeared in 20 regular season games, scoring two goals and adding five assists before appearing in just one playoff game.

For his career, Gionta scored 291 goals and 595 total points in 1,026 games. He was a member of a Stanley Cup winning team with the Devils in 2003 and represented the United States at the Olympics two different times (2006 and 2018).

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.