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.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

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Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers visit Oilers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Oilers have missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, but this year has started successfully under new GM Ken Holland and new head coach Dave Tippett. Edmonton won their first five games of the season before losing on Monday in Chicago, 3-1. Still, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl carrying the load as usual, boosted by a torrid scoring pace from James Neal, the Oilers have shown promise early on.

The Oilers’ two superstars both have four goals and eight assists and are tied for the league lead with 12 points. They are tied with Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, who have played two more games.

During the Oilers season-opening five-game winning streak, they became the first team in NHL history to win their first five games despite trailing at some point in each of those games.

Tonight, Carter Hart will play his first NHL game in his hometown; Hart was born in Sherwood Park, Alberta, which is just east of Edmonton. Hart did play the Oilers last season, but only in Philly; he was called up to the NHL three days after the Flyers played at Edmonton.

Hart’s mother Shauna will be in attendance, but his father John is in Regina on business and will not be at the game. In addition to Shauna, Hart’s longtime sports psychologist John Stevenson (who also works with Braden Holtby) will be there – the first time Stevenson will see Hart play an NHL game in person.

Prior to the game in Calgary yesterday, the Flyers signed Chris Stewart to a one-year contract after he joined the team on a PTO in the offseason. Stewart had three hits in 9:12 of ice time – his first NHL game since March of 2018.

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-OILERS BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude GirouxKevin Hayes – James van Riemsdsyk
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Tyler PitlickScott LaughtonJakub Voracek
Chris Stewart – Michael Raffl – Carsen Twarnyski

Ivan ProvorovJustin Braun
Travis SanheimMatt Niskanen
Robert HaggShayne Gostisbehere

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

OILERS
Leon Draisaitl – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Alex ChiassonRyan Nugent-Hopkins – James Neal
Jujhar KhairaRiley Sheahan – Patrick Russell
Tomas Jurco – Markus GranlundJosh Archibald

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Oscar KlefbomJoel Persson
Kris RussellMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

MORE: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.