How far can Sharks go with Erik Karlsson?

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At some point, it will feel natural for hockey fans to see Erik Karlsson wearing San Jose Sharks teal. Such a vision may never stop feeling unsettling for their unfortunate opponents.

In November 2005, the Sharks sent shockwaves through the NHL by landing Joe Thornton, who went on to win the Hart Trophy, propel San Jose to years of being Stanley Cup favorites, and make Jonathan Cheechoo rich. Could the Sharks reap similar rewards by acquiring Karlsson in a blockbuster trade? Might things work out even better – with San Jose landing that elusive championship – or far worse, with the blockbuster flopping “Waterworld”-style?

No doubt, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer must be giddy to make the most of a foreboding defense that now includes Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Then again, he’ll look pretty foolish if he can’t cook with such premium ingredients.

Let’s consider the biggest factors working for and against the Sharks as PHT previews the 2018-19 season.

[Predictions, including first coach fired and overrated teams]

The Sharks were already a playoff team

In 2015-16, the Sharks fell two wins shy of finally winning that Stanley Cup. They’ve clinched playoff berths three seasons in a row, only missed once since 2003-04, and only missed twice since 1997-98.

(Easy to forget how much success this team has enjoyed, huh?)

Even with Thornton on the mend from a knee injury that ultimately required surgery, the 2017-18 Sharks managed to sweep the Kings before falling to Vegas during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fittingly, a splashy trade (landing Evander Kane) propelled San Jose to a higher level.

The Pacific Division arms race may have complicated things at times, but don’t forget that the Sharks have been favorites to win the division even before they bamboozled Ottawa to grab Karlsson.

World-class talent

Karlsson, 28, is a two-time Norris Trophy-winner, and you could make a sound argument that he’s been the best defenseman in the world for more than just two seasons.

The stupendous Swede’s scoring should speak for itself, but as a reminder, he finished sixth in scoring among defensemen (62 points, only six behind leader John Carlson) despite missing 11 games and possibly being banged-up physically. Oh yeah, he managed that deluxe season – poor by his terms, miraculous by most others’ – with the drama-rich, talent-poor Ottawa Senators.

Of course, it’s not just about the scoring with Karlsson.

Even a “down” season places Karlsson among the truly elite. Simply put, Karlsson tilts the ice in his team’s favor when he’s on duty, and he’s been the sort of big-minutes defenseman who can carry a team to, say, overtime of Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.

Other All-Star defensemen almost always pale in comparison to Karlsson when it comes to crucial puck possession and transition skills. (Sorry for linking this, Brent Burns.)

[How will Vegas follow its incredible first season?]

Some quibbles with Karlsson, and the Sharks

Granted, there are some caveats when it comes to Karlsson.

The biggest concern, particularly if the Sharks aim for a contract extension, comes down to injury risks.

As you may remember, hockey fans got their first real introduction to Eugene Melnyk’s eccentricities when the Senators owner wanted a crime-scene investigation regarding Matt Cooke tearing Karlsson’s Achilles tendon back in 2013.

Karlsson’s incredible play during the Senators’ deep playoff run became downright jaw-dropping when you consider that he was gutting it out through hairline fractures in his foot. Plenty wondered if Karlsson was hindered by that issue through last season, and who’s fully certain that he’s even at full speed now?

Overall, Karlsson hasn’t always enjoyed the greatest injury luck.

Considering all of the mileage he’s put on his body, you could probably get away with calling Karlsson “an old 28.” He’s easily worth the risk of lingering issues, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

Loaded defense

It’s remarkable that the Sharks’ defense was already in the NHL’s upper crust before adding Karlsson.

Burns is the only defenseman who’s really matched or exceeded Karlsson’s offensive production, so the Sharks boast the most offensively explosive duo of defensemen in recent memory.

After years of lugging around some limited (or downright abysmal) defensive partners in Ottawa, Karlsson figures to play alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, easily one of the most proficient “shutdown” blueliners in the NHL.

DeBoer could easily mix and match in other ways, as while Vlasic – Karlsson makes sense on paper, he might conclude that Vlasic and Burns could be the better match. After all, the Sharks have other nice defensive options, with Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon standing out.

It’s to the point where the Sharks might need to part ways with a fairly productive depth defensive scorer in Tim Heed, as Elliotte Friedman discussed in the Sept. 27 edition of his “31 Thoughts” podcast.

Finding the right fit

All of that said, DeBoer must figure out a way to align all of these pieces in the right way, and the power play stands as the most fascinating challenge.

According to Left Wing Lock, the Sharks’ current top power play unit features Karlsson, Burns, Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture. It’s easy to picture that set of five players enjoying immense success considering the mixture of handedness (three right, two left shots), hockey IQ, and sheer talent.

This remains a situation to watch, however.

After all, Karlsson and Burns are both right-handed defensemen who are used to calling the shots – and in Burns’ case, taking a ton of shots – while quarterbacking a power play. Talent tends to trump these concerns, but it’s also worth noting that analytics argue that you tend to get more out of an alignment of four forwards and one defenseman than you would from the more traditional three-forward, two-defensemen setup.

There’s also some evidence that, for all of his strengths, Karlsson hasn’t always been dynamite on the power play.

By going with Karlsson and Burns on the top unit, Evander Kane and others settle for secondary opportunities.

As much as anything else, this task may come down to managing egos.

[Karlsson trade part of a dream summer for hockey fans]

Again, there are counterpoints for why this would work, even beyond the obvious notion that San Jose is just loaded with talent. Burns was drafted into the NHL as a forward, so he likely would know what he’s doing if deployed in more of that way on the PP.

It’s also promising at A) DeBoer seems generally to be a bright coach and B) he’s already shown a knack for integrating star players. Burns’ ice time skyrocketed around the time DeBoer took over in San Jose, and the coach deserves a decent chunk of the credit for the Wookie-like defenseman getting the green light to shoot the puck with reckless abandon.

(DeBoer also frequently pushed all the right buttons with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey.)

Old and new

In the grand scheme of things, Karlsson possibly being “an old 28” isn’t a huge worry in 2018-19.

Things could go sideways if Father Time comes knocking with other players, though. Beard or no beard, Thornton is 39 and comes off of knee surgery for the second consecutive year (both knees). Pavelski is somehow 34, and Burns isn’t far behind at 33. Both Vlasic and Braun are 31. Even Couture is 29, nearing the big 3-0, when the aging curve can sometimes be cruelly steep.

Wear and tear can really rear their ugly heads for older players, especially ones who’ve regularly made the playoffs and represented their teams in international competition.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

On the other hand, the Sharks have some decent younger forwards who could conceivably stem some of the tide. Timo Meier generates hype as an up-and-comer, and supplied some steak with that sizzle already considering his 21 goals in limited ice time last season. Kevin Labanc isn’t a superstar in the making, but he’s another guy who can step up if there’s serious decay and/or injuries.

A legit contender

This post breaks down many of the fork-in-the-road concerns for the Sharks, but what’s the general outlook?

Well, Karlsson gives the Sharks the most offensively dynamic defense in the NHL – on paper – and you could make a legitimate argument for San Jose having the flat-out best defense overall. NHL teams rarely get two Norris winners on their rosters, particularly in the salary cap era. (The Ducks landing Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger comes to mind, and even then, Karlsson makes San Jose’s combination younger.)

Combine an elite defense with a robust offense and a reliable goalie in Martin Jones, and the Sharks don’t really have many – if any – glaring holes.

As we saw with the Golden Knights team that dispatched the Sharks in 2017-18, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the NHL. Adding a superstar to an established winner isn’t the slam-dunk for the Sharks as it is for, say, the Golden State Warriors.

We can only speculate about how well Karlsson will mix with San Jose’s impressive group, but with the information at hand, it sure seems like a tide-turner for the Sharks. It might just be enough for them to finally win it all.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.