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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.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports