Sharks best positioned to withstand big early season injury

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Doug Wilson didn’t go looking for Joe Thornton insurance last summer. The general manager of the San Jose Sharks already had it.

The Sharks didn’t panic when they found out their longtime star had another setback with a series of nagging right knee injuries. They knew what they could count on from captain Joe Pavelski and the rest of the supporting cast.

”We’re very fortunate we have a lot of players that can go up and down in the lineup,” Wilson said. ”Our players just look at it as they just move up a role or slip into a different position, and it’s not really that much of an adjustment for them because they’ve done it before.”

All over the NHL, teams are adjusting on the fly to a surprising number of significant injuries early in the season, including a handful of starting goaltenders.

The Kings are calling Jonathan Quick week-to-week with a lower-body injury. The Panthers will be without Roberto Luongo for two to four weeks because of a sprained ligament in his right knee, and the Penguins don’t know when Matt Murray will be back after being diagnosed with yet another concussion.

The Flyers have ruled out high-priced forward James van Riemsdyk for the next five to six weeks, and the Blue Jackets are without top defenseman Seth Jones and center Brandon Dubinsky .

The Sharks in particular seem best prepared to withstand the loss of Thornton because of organizational depth in the form of summer addition Antti Suomela and ready-made NHL forwards like Rourke Chartier, Marcus Sorensen and Dylan Gambrell.

The Sharks hope doctors caught the infection in Thornton’s knee early enough that he won’t be out too long. Still, Wilson expected to use 28 or 29 players this season and credits the versatility of players on the roster and coaching of Peter DeBoer for having San Jose ready for this scenario.

”When you lose a difference-maker, no team can just plug and play to replace a difference-maker. But then you become the sum of all your parts,” Wilson said. ”A lot of our guys are not kids. … When people say they’re new or younger, they’re actually mature players. And most importantly our coaches and our players trust them, and that’s half the battle.”

No GM can go into an offseason making moves on the uncertain scenario that a star will go down. But previous experiences paved the way for Los Angeles, Columbus and Florida to have a plan in place.

Quick missed four months two seasons ago, and Luongo sat out two months with a groin injury last year. Florida has backup James Reimer signed long term as an option already, and Los Angeles traded for former top prospect Jack Campbell and brought back veteran Peter Budaj as depth.

”We’ve experienced it here two years in a row,” Kings GM Rob Blake said. ”We lost Quickie for four or five months and Jeff Carter the same last year. (Coach John Stevens’) message is the same: the next guy up, someone’s going to come in and fill that spot. Will he be at the level of Jonathan Quick? Will he be at the level of Jeff Carter or (Anze) Kopitar? Probably not. But they are adequate players, and the rest around have to be better, too.”

The Penguins for now are counting on young goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry to shoulder the load without Murray. Knowing them from his time in Pittsburgh, Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said: ”They’re both very talented goalies. … I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

Often, it’s not about one player filling a void. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen doesn’t expect one defenseman to replace Jones or one center to step right into Dubinsky’s role.

”If somebody comes from being the seventh, eighth defenseman to thinking he’s going to play 27 minutes to replace Seth Jones with all his strengths, probably either he shouldn’t be the seventh defenseman or he’s got unrealistic expectations,” Kekalainen said. ”Everybody who’s coming into the lineup from outside of the lineup should have their eyes wide open with the opportunity in front of them, but also realizing what their own strengths are and what their role on the team is and how they can be successful.”

That’s the case in Philadelphia, where Jordan Weal gets the first crack at filling in for van Riemsdyk after being a healthy scratch the first two games of the season. Like the Sharks, the Flyers believe they have flexibility among their forwards.

”We have a lot of players that are versatile in terms of being able to play the middle or play the wing,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”In the short term, that’ll challenge us and challenge our depth and challenge somebody else to step in and do a good job.”

VEGAS ADVERSITY

After losing just two of their first 10 games last season as an expansion team, the Golden Knights have already lost twice in their first three games. For a Vegas team that didn’t face much adversity in a charmed inaugural season that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a chance for coach Gerard Gallant to emphasize some fundamentals with a tough road schedule early.

”I thought we played loose and were not concentrating enough and were making mental mistakes,” Gallant said. ”So, it’s just about getting focused and getting ready to play every game.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals host a 2019 favorite in the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

LEADERS (THROUGH MONDAY)

Goals: Auston Matthews (Toronto), 5; Assists: Brad Marchand (Boston), 7; Points: Matthews (8); Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 28:44; Wins: John Gibson (Anaheim), 3; Goals-against average: Ben Bishop (Dallas), 0.50; Save percentage: Bishop, .984.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

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.

Pens’ Justin Schultz out four months with fractured leg

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be without Justin Schultz for a while.

Schultz underwent successful surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture in his lower left leg, according to the team. Schultz was injured on Saturday night in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after falling awkwardly on his leg.

He’s expected to miss four months, pegging his return in the middle of February at the earliest.

Fair warning: the video isn’t for the faint of heart.

Schultz had been producing at a point-per-game rate before getting injured, with four assists in Pittsburgh’s first four games. That was good for second on the team in terms of defensemen scoring behind Kris Letang while averaging over 17 minutes during his first three games.

It goes without saying, but it’s a big blow to the Penguins’ back end.

With Schultz out, the Penguins are going to be looking for players to step up, including his partner Jack Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with the club this summer. Johnson has yet to produce a point so far this season. Olli Maatta is also another candidate that needs to jumpstart his season in a hurry. Maatta has already been a healthy scratch this season, and like Johnson, has yet to put up a point.

The Penguins started the season with Maatta and Johnson together so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give that a go again.

“We have capable NHL defensemen so I’m confident that we can put guys in that I know can help us win games,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s a very good player and has been very good for us for a long time. So it’s a tough loss from our standpoint, but certainly we’ve got to be prepared with the guys that we have.”

The injury will also mean more time for rookie Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak, who could be paired together going forward. Both players have spent time in and out of the lineup early on. Riikola could stand to benefit most from Schultz’s absence, so there’s a big opportunity there for him to grab some extra minutes.

Schultz was the second man over the boards on the power play after Letang. Perhaps Riikola gets a look there as well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

What’s behind Hurricanes’ early-season success?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a mighty fine start, eh?

A 4-1-1 record, with their lone regulation loss coming against the Winnipeg Jets in a game they thoroughly dominated but lost on a late third-period hiccup. The Hurricanes have been a pleasant surprise in the NHL in the infancy of the 2018-19 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed out last week, the team is young, fun and worth watching.

They are all three of those things, and they’re doing so in such dominant fashion thus far. Case and point: Over the past two games, Carolina has logged a whopping 100 shots on goal. They peppered Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild into submission on Saturday night, finally winning the game in overtime on sheer volume alone on their 57th shot.

On Sunday night in Winnipeg, a team playing the second game of a back-to-back put up 43 more against a team that’s touted as a Stanley Cup contender. The Hurricanes enjoyed 61 percent of the possession in the game, producing 34 scoring chances, with 14 of those being of the high-danger variety.

Their loss on vs. the Jets was bad luck more than anything. Winnipeg didn’t deserve to win the game. The Hurricanes didn’t deserve to lose.

And while the ‘L’ might be a sobering reminder that life isn’t always fair in the NHL, Carolina’s play as a whole has put the league on watch.

The Hurricanes roll four lines that control the game’s shot share. Here’s a handy-dandy chart to explain:

Source: Natural Stat Trick

Carolina has been overwhelming teams thus far and it’s coming from everywhere. There’s little drop off no matter who’s on the ice.

There’s a disclaimer here and that is that the season is young. These are far from concrete numbers over the course of an 82-game season, but what they do show is how well the Hurricanes are clicking together amongst their four lines and how it’s having a direct effect on their results, even with the small sample size.

Are these numbers likely to regress? Yes.

But while they may fall closer to the earth going forward, they could get covered off if Carolina’s goaltending improves. Petr Mrazek was sensational against the Jets, and Curtis McElhinney has allowed eight goals in three starts. That’s good. But with the Hurricanes controlling so much of the offense, they’re giving up just 25 shots per game. Their team save percentage is sitting at .886 through six games, which is hardly world-beating.

The return of Scott Darling at some point could help that if he’s the re-invigorated man he claimed to be over the summer. And while regression will set it at some point, league-average goaltending would go a long way into mitigating its effects.

For now, the Hurricanes sit atop the NHL in possession, tied with the San Jose Sharks. They’re sixth in goals-for percentage, which is simply the percentage of goals-for vs. goals-against, third in scoring chances for, second in high-danger chances for, which is shots that occur in the slot in front of the net, and first in high-danger goals for, meaning goals scored from those high-danger areas.

In layman’s terms: The NHL’s most exciting team is also one of its most dangerous.

And the plan is for that to continue.

“We’re going to continue to try to play like that,” said forward Jordan Staal Sunday night. “It’s been our aggressive style. Obviously, we’re a quick team and we’re trying to play that way and create turnovers. Our [defense] has been really good with good gaps and creating a lot of shots, too, to kind of create seconds. We’re going to continue to try and pepper goalies and try to get some more goals.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

PHT Morning Skate: Pastrnak’s rise to superstardom; Gritty now in costume form

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

William Nylander hasn’t asked for a trade nor have the Maple Leafs been shopping him. (Sportsnet)

• An inside look at the Calgary Flames’ decision between Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm at the 2013 NHL Draft. (Calgary Sun)

• Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen sported Anaheim Ducks-inspired cleats this weekend. (NHL.com)

• Can you guess who leads the NHL at 24 minutes a night? (Edmonton Journal)

David Pastrnak coming into his own as a superstar in the NHL. (Metro US)

• Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brett Connolly’s failed fist bump is the NHL’s GIF of the year. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

Tyler Seguin talks misconceptions about some of the NHL’s most controversial players. (SportsDay)

• Gritty is now a Halloween costume because of course he is. (NHL.com)

• NHL players come from all ends of the earth. Here’s a breakdown. (The Hockey News)

Austin Watson and his curious case. (Toronto Star)

• Ottawa Senators veterans opening their homes to the team’s future. (Ottawa Sun)

Lars Eller doesn’t believe in the Maple Leafs. (TSN.ca)

Frederik Andersen is doing something he doesn’t normally do: get off to a good start. (Toronto Star)


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