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We may soon see Sharks at their best

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With a 6-3-2 record, the San Jose Sharks have been fine (good enough to lead a shaky Pacific Division), yet they haven’t been lighting the scoreboard on fire like many expected after landing Erik Karlsson. It’s easy to blurt out “small sample size,” yet with 11 games played, you could “build a file” on San Jose.

There are a few reasons to be excited about the near future, starting with Tuesday’s game against the New York Rangers.

Take a moment to dig a little deeper on the Sharkies.

The return

So far in 2018-19, Joe Thornton has been limited to two games played and about 32 minutes of ice time, collecting an assist before swelling in his knee sidelined him once again.

At age 39 and with 1,495 regular-season games (plus 160 playoff contests) under his belt – and, most worrisome, recent surgical procedures for both knees – it’s fair to wonder what Thornton can contribute. “Jumbo Joe” can bend a game to his will thanks to his smarts, strength, and size, but there’s a cutoff point where Thornton could be slowed too much.

In other words, there are some reasons to curb enthusiasm for Thornton’s return, which is happening tonight – along with the re-bearding process:

We’ve discussed the potential hiccups, but the Sharks could be awfully interesting if Thornton’s close to his full form.

It will be interesting, for one thing, to see how the Sharks’ lines shake out. As of the morning skate, Thornton looks to get his familiar running mate Joe Pavelski back, while Timo Meier could conceivably be the latest young gun to get the Jumbo Boost. Logan Couture centers Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc, while Evander Kane gets pushed down to the third line.

The dream for the Sharks is that they could send wave after wave of attackers against overwhelmed opponents. Considering the Rangers’ flaws, Tuesday stands as an opportunity to build early confidence.

From a challenging schedule to robust opportunities

The Sharks’ 6-3-2 record goes from a shoulder shrug to a thumb up when you consider the hurdles they’ve mostly cleared. Most obviously, they’ve played eight games on the road versus just three at home.

As The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz details (sub required), the challenges go deeper for this California crew thanks to travel and time zone considerations:

Out of the 11 games the Sharks have played so far this season, they’ve changed time zones before five of them, or nearly half. That includes all three games of their recent road trip, when they went to Nashville (CST), Carolina (EST) and Anaheim (PST). Their previous road trip saw the Sharks go from Los Angeles to New York, where they played four games against the Metropolitan Division before returning for a brief two-game homestand.

Less than four weeks into the season, the Sharks have already crisscrossed the nation twice.

The Sharks are now set to enjoy quite the pay-off.

Tuesday’s game against the Rangers begins a four-game homestand, and the situation is even cushier once you zoom out a bit, as they’ll play 10 of their next 12 games in San Jose.

Tue, Oct 30: vs. Rangers
Thu, Nov 1: vs. Columbus
Sat, Nov 3: vs. Philadelphia
Tue, Nov 6: vs. Minnesota
Thu, Nov 8: at Dallas
Fri, Nov 9: at St. Louis
Sun, Nov 11: vs. Calgary
Tue, Nov 13: vs. Nashville
Thu, Nov 15: vs. Toronto
Sat, Nov 17: vs. St. Louis
Tue, Nov 20: vs. Edmonton
Fri, Nov 23: vs. Vancouver

This next month-ish stretch provides San Jose with chances to pull away from the Pacific pack, and there aren’t a ton of back-to-backs to leave Thornton and other veterans weary. (They might even be smart to allow Thornton to rest on one of those back-to-back road games.)

It could also open the door for Erik Karlsson to get more settled in …

Mixed reviews on Karlsson

Earlier this season, PHT took a look at Karlsson’s up-and-down start. With seven assists but still zero goals in his first 11 games, it seems like Karlsson remains effective, yet also a work in progress.

The debate surrounding Karlsson’s been quite fascinating, really.

On one hand, there are deeper looks that paint a less pleasant picture of the star defenseman as he acclimates himself to a new team:

Meanwhile, Sharks blog Fear the Fin provided high praise for the pairing of Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, which you can read here.

Interestingly, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer seems to have placed his defensive pairings in a blender, partnering Brent Burns with Joakim Ryan, Karlsson with Brenden Dillon, and Vlasic with Justin Braun.

This is ultimately the time of year when it makes extra sense to tinker. Either way, this could really be the stretch where Karlsson gels with his new team, as he’ll be able to avoid some of that extra travel, while DeBoer gets the last line change most nights.

***

Things aren’t perfect for the Sharks, yet they currently lead the Pacific (both San Jose and Vancouver have 14 points, but San Jose has two games in hand).

For all we know, it may take more time to see this team’s best, but there’s a strong chance that November may offer a glimpse of the Sharks’ ceiling.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

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.

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.