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Burns, Karlsson leading Sharks’ resurgence

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The San Jose Sharks are starting to look like the Stanley Cup contender we thought they would be at the start of the season.

It is their two-headed monster of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on defense that is driving them back to that level.

The Sharks enter Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) having collected a point in 13 of their past 16 games (with 11 of those games being wins) to keep pace in the suddenly tight Pacific Division race with the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights.

This is the type of performance we expected to see from the Sharks this season after adding Karlsson to a blue line that already boasted Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brendan Dillon.

On paper, it is one of the best defensive groups in the league, and the addition of Karlsson gave them a collection of Norris Trophy caliber players that few teams in recent league history have ever had. The few teams that have had that type of star-power on their blue line have typically gone very far in the playoffs and made serious runs at the Stanley Cup (if not actually winning it).

Over the past month Karlsson and Burns have been playing at a level that makes the Sharks look like a serious threat to do just that.

[Related: Timo Meier power Sharks during breakout season]

Since Dec. 1 Burns and Karlsson are first and second in the league in scoring among defensemen with 21 and 20 points respectively, while Karlsson has recorded at least one point in 13 of his 15 games during that stretch. That includes his current 12-game point streak.

Burns, meanwhile, has been especially hot over the past two weeks with 12 points in his past five games, including at least two in each of the past four games.

For the season as a whole, both players have been among the NHL’s elite when it comes to driving possession and scoring chances and now the actual production is starting to catch up to really highlight that dominance.

It could not be happening at a better time for the Sharks given the state of the rest of their blue line.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Vlasic has had a down year from his usual standard. Making matters worse, he and Braun are both currently sidelined due to injury. Those two injuries have not only left them short on defensive depth (their third pairing on Monday is expected to be Jacob Middleton and Tim Heed) but has forced Karlsson and Burns to take on major minutes, with both logging more than 29 minutes in each of the past two games.

They have been great in those minutes.

This is what is going to make the Sharks such a tough out in the playoffs. They not only have two Norris Trophy winning defenders on their blue line (Karlsson and Burns have combined to win three, and be finalists three other times), they have a third defender in Vlasic that, when he is at his best, is a legit top-pairing defender in the NHL. When you can send a No. 1 defensemen over the boards at literally any point during a game that is a huge advantage to have in a short series, especially when one of them (Karlsson) has shown the ability to log huge minutes and carry a team on his back deep into the postseason. Given the talent he has around him on this team he won’t have to do it all on his own.

The wild card for this team is going to be getting adequate goaltending. They have managed to stay in the race for the top spot in the Pacific Division despite having some of the worst goaltending in the league with Martin Jones and Aaron Dell both checking in with save percentages under .900 for the season.

Even during this recent stretch where the Sharks have piled up wins, neither one has played at even a league average level. That, more than anything, has taken away from just how good this Sharks team (and their top defenders) can be.

If they can figure out a way to get that position settled, whether it be Jones returning to form or an in-season trade to upgrade the position in the short-term, this could be a fierce team to have to deal within the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs with that type of impact talent on defense.

More: Sharks on the rise in this week’s PHT Power Rankings

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine apologizes to Little; Can Isles keep having success?

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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.

• Bruins forward Karson Kuhlman will get an opportunity to break camp as a second-line winger. (Boston Globe)

Shea Weber still has a desire to improve every day. (Montreal Gazette)

• The Dream Gap Tour is trying to find a way to build a sustainable women’s hockey league. (TSN)

• Who will serve as the Washington Capitals’ backup goalie this season? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have more openings on their roster than ever before, according to head coach Jon Cooper. (Tampa Times)

• Can the Islanders sustain what they did last year under head coach Barry Trotz? (Light House Hockey)

• Will the Panthers make the playoffs this season? The Rat Trick makes five predictions for Florida’s 2019-20 season. (The Rat Trick)

• Sabres defenseman Matt Gilmour to a different bath to get to the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Alex Nylander has produced during the preseason, but will that be enough to get him a spot on the Hawks roster? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Klim Kostin may finally be ready to make the jump to the NHL with the Blues. (St. Louis Game-Time)

Patrik Laine apologized to Bryan Little for the comments he made to a Finnish reporter. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of Little, he deserves to play with better players. (Jets Nation)

• 2019 first-round pick Thomas Harley has been impressing during Dallas Stars training camp. (Defending Big D)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Change or keep current playoff format?

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The topic of the Stanley Cup playoff format has bubbled up over the last few seasons which makes you wonder if we’ll see a change in the near future. After switching to the 1 vs. 8 conference format in 1993-94, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to bring back the divisional concept beginning with the 2014 postseason. While the emphasis on bringing back rivalries has worked in some areas, there has been plenty of opinions out there about moving away from the current setup.

During the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago we asked a number of players their thoughts on the current playoff format and whether they’d keep what we’ve got or make a change. Here’s what they said.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably keep it. Maybe the top seed should play the eighth, but this creates a lot of rivalries between team, so I kind of like it as it is.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “The wild card is perfect like that, but I would do whoever has the most points play against [team with fewer] points.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think it works right now. I’d keep it.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “I don’t think it’s beneficial for our division because our division is so tough. In my opinion I would like it to be [1 vs. 8, re-seed after Round 1]. First round you play Tampa Bay, best team in the league, and third round you might play Carolina who was number whatever. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I prefer the conference [1 vs. 8] because you have the chance to play different teams every year instead of having to go through the same division team in the first or second round every single year.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I would keep it. I don’t have any issues with it.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I’d change it. I think majority of the guys are on that side. I do understand the rivalries and what it creates and it has created some great rivalries. I think from our perspective you want to earn that rank and that position you have in the playoffs, 1-8. I’m probably just a little biased, that’s what I grew up with.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: “It is what it is at this point. I do think it should be the top eight teams from each conference. To me, it kind of seems to make the most sense. You’re going to have 32 teams in the league, you want the top 16 teams in the playoffs, right? It’s kind of the way it works. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Maybe go back to the old way [1 vs. 8].”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “I like it. I don’t have a problem with it. I think once you get to the playoffs you’re going to have to win out anyways. Whether you beat the best team in the first round or in the Stanley Cup, they’re the best team, right? You’re going to have to win it all anyway. I don’t mind it.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “I would keep it, I don’t mind it. For me, it doesn’t matter. If you want to win the Cup you have to beat anybody, so I’m good with that.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “I’d change it. It should be No. 1-8 in the conference, doesn’t matter your division, anything. It should just be the top eight teams ranked 1-8.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “I say change it. Either 1 vs. 16 or 1 vs. 8.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I like the current playoff format. I’d also like to see some type of wild card, maybe a three-game play-in series to get a couple more teams. From a business side of it, looking on the other side, you can have a great season and miss the playoffs by a couple of points. Now with adding teams in the league and still being a 16-team format, when you’re the ninth seed and miss the playoffs by two spots, from a fan’s perspective it’s an unsuccessful season not making the playoffs when you were really so close. I think it kind of adds something to support those teams that just missed the playoffs to have some type of play-in series like baseball has now so those market can feel like they accomplished more when they just missed out by a little and the next season the teams a little more ammo when they go and try to sell tickets.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.