Healthy Thornton could be key for Sharks against Knights

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Joe Thornton‘s contributions to the San Jose Sharks in last year’s playoff series against Vegas were limited to pregame warmups and leadership.

After being hampered by knee injuries the past two postseasons, Thornton is healthy to start the playoffs this year for the first time since leading the Sharks on a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. San Jose opens the first round Wednesday night against the Golden Knights in a rematch of a second-round series won by Vegas in six games last year.

Thornton missed the first two games of the 2017 playoffs before returning to play the final four of a first-round loss despite having a torn ACL in his left knee. He then missed the entire postseason with a torn ACL in his right knee last year.

”He’s put a lot of work in the past couple of years just to have this opportunity,” captain Joe Pavelski said. ”It’s a credit to him. As much as he wants to be around us, we want him around.”

The 39-year-old Thornton enters the postseason playing his best hockey of the season, with his 33 points since Jan. 7 ranking third on the team in that span.

Thornton’s play has given the Sharks three top centers, along with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, after being thin down the middle last year. While the top two lines get most of the attention from the opposition, Thornton has created consistent offense with wingers Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen.

”He’s been an elite player in this league for 20 however many years now,” Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said. ”He brings a lot, he sees the ice extremely well, he’s a big guy and on that third line I think he’s the type of guy who makes everyone around him better.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A healthy Thornton isn’t going to be the only difference when these teams meet in the playoffs for a second straight year. The Sharks also added star defenseman Erik Karlsson in a trade before the season and another skilled forward at the trade deadline in Gustav Nyquist.

The Golden Knights added an entirely new second line that is talented enough to be the top group on many teams. Vegas signed Paul Stastny as a free agent in July, acquired Max Pacioretty in a deal with Montreal in September and then got the big piece that sparked the season at the trade deadline with a deal for Mark Stone.

The Knights won 10 of 11 after the trade, including a 7-3 win in San Jose, before a late-season slump cost them a chance at home-ice in this series

”It was hard last year obviously, we definitely didn’t have as much depth as now,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. ”I think we have a healthy team and we definitely have the depth. We’re a confident group, we know we can make some damage in the playoffs.”

Here are some other things to watch:

KARLSSON’S HEALTH: Karlsson missed 17 games with his second groin injury of the season before returning with some rust for the regular-season finale. San Jose hopes he can shake that rust quickly and get the team back to the form it had in December and January before the first injury happened and the Sharks were playing as well as anyone. Coach Peter DeBoer called Karlsson a critical piece who helps on both ends of the ice.

”He’s probably one of the best, if not the best transporter of the puck in the league,” DeBoer said. ”That speaks for itself. We missed him and it’s nice to have him back.”

IN BLOOM: Perhaps the biggest difference in last year’s series was the play of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had two shutouts and a .935 save percentage in the series. Fleury missed nearly three weeks late this season with a lower-body injury and allowed eight goals in two losses after returning. But he has shown the ability to carry a team in the playoffs in the past.

PLAYOFF JONES: Sharks goalie Martin Jones heads into the postseason with the lowest save percentage of any starting goalie in the playoffs. But ever since arriving in San Jose before the 2015-16 season, Jones has been better in the playoffs than the regular season. His .926 career save percentage in the playoffs ranks sixth best in NHL history among goalies with at least 40 starts. He has allowed two or fewer goals in nearly two-thirds of his postseason starts.

FOURTH-LINE GRINDERS: Both teams have plenty of skill up front but the Golden Knights can bring an element of physicality with the fourth line featuring Ryan Reaves and Williams Carrier. Reaves led the league with 305 hits, while Carrier ranked fourth with 277. The Sharks will answer with enforcer Micheal Haley on the fourth line to start the series but could switch to Joonas Donskoi later. Donskoi, who was on the top line last postseason, has no goals in his last 34 games.

AP freelancer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report

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

Predators decide Tolvanen still isn’t ready for NHL

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The Nashville Predators made some roster cuts on Sunday, with one being a little bit surprising: Eeli Tolvanen.

This doesn’t send a signal to panic, but it is a little frustrating to see the stilted development of the 20-year-old forward, who was the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

For much of 2017-18, Tolvanen made highlight-reel plays in Finland that led people to believe that the Predators pulled off a big steal. That momentum was seemingly halted late in that season, however, as he received limited use in three regular-season games with the Predators. Still, hopes were high for the then-rookie winger.

To Tolvanen’s credit, he didn’t explore a potential out-clause as he stagnated in the AHL last season. Apparently that didn’t earn him enough cool points with the Predators to get him a longer look during this training camp, though.

To be fair to the Predators, they might just want to see more out of Tolvanen before pulling the trigger on a longer NHL look. He was fine in the AHL last season (15 goals and 35 points in 58 games with the Milwaukee Admirals), but not quite mind-blowing enough to kick the door down.

That said, it was a little frustrating to see a lack of experimentation from Predators head coach Peter Laviolette last season. Personally, I felt like Tolvanen was worth a try on a power play unit that was absolutely awful; the 2018-19 rendition of the Predators didn’t have a ton of players with a shot on par with what Tolvanen can unleash.

With Matt Duchene‘s shot added as an option on the power play, it might have been tougher to squeeze Tolvanen into the mix, although his abilities make you believe that it was worth more of a try.

It remains a little baffling that the Predators are sending Tolvanen down so early, although his waive exempt status plays a role in the decision.

A player like Tolvanen can sometimes provide that extra spark — and some extra easy goals — that can help you win a few extra games, or maybe even break open a tight playoff game. Of course, Laviolette might contest that he’s still at a point in his career where he’d make a mistake that would instead open up such opportunities for the Predators’ opponents.

Tolvanen could easily resurface for the Predators during the 2019-20 season, and maybe do so more than once. It’s nonetheless difficult to fight a bit of impatience when he’s down in the AHL, especially if it means he’s losing opportunities to one or more of Frederick Gaudreau or Miikka Salomaki.

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 Carolina Hurricanes

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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: Better after an impressive offseason.

Getting to match what’s basically a team-friendly offer sheet for Sebastian Aho was a nice start, but the dirt-cheap Jake Gardiner signing capped quite a run of savvy moves. While Gardiner makes them even richer on defense, they have a more varied offense after adding Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel to the mix.

Strengths: If the Hurricanes don’t have the best defense in the NHL, they’re absolutely in the top five, and their group might be the deepest. It’s possible that Gardiner may help them boost a middling power play, and all of that defensive depth could allow management to make a trade down the line.

Their offense is looking considerably more impressive on paper, especially if they acknowledge the obvious and truly unleash Andrei Svechnikov next season.

Carolina figures to be a five-on-five beast once again.

Weaknesses: Petr Mrazek put together a strong finish to last season, but goaltending remains an issue. It’s unclear what James Reimer has left to offer, although he was once an analytics darling.

It’s plausible that the power play may remain hit-or-miss, as the Hurricanes might lack at least a tiny bit in that true superstar finishing ability.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It seemed like Rod Brind’Amour was a pretty nifty fit in Carolina in his first season as a head coach, keeping an even keel through some early season bumps, and allowing his team to loosen up with the “Storm Surge.” This franchise doesn’t want to go right back to missing the playoffs after breaking their last drought, but even in that situation, “Rod the Bod” seems fairly safe. Let’s put him at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mrazek, Martin Necas, Justin Faulk

Mrazek breathed life into his NHL career by playing well enough down the stretch to convince Carolina to stick with him via a new contract. He still has quite a bit to prove. If you cannot succeed behind this defense, then you don’t have a lot of excuses.

Necas seems like he’s on the verge of a full-time leap to the NHL, yet the Hurricanes don’t necessarily have a ton of room to carry a player if it’s evident that he can’t hang at this level in 2019-20. Getting another burst of high-end skill could really move the needle for Carolina, though.

Will Faulk stick with the Hurricanes through this season (and maybe even beyond), being that he’s entering a contract year? Could he even be traded before the upcoming campaign begins? It sounds like it was close to happening before, and should be a situation to watch until we get some resolution.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Metropolitan Division is a bit of a mystery, what with the Blue Jackets suffering huge losses while the Devils and Rangers made big strides forward. It sure seems like there’s a lane for the Hurricanes to make the playoffs pretty comfortably, and their superior depth might just put them in a cozy position to win the division.

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 Vegas Golden Knights

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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: Far worse.

The Golden Knights cringed under a cap crunch during this offseason, losing intriguing KHL import Nikita Gusev, valuable scorer Erik Haula, and underrated defenseman Colin Miller while getting table scraps in return.

Luckily, the Golden Knights have been feasting lately, as Mark Stone is really only getting started after being a late addition around the 2018-19 trade deadline.

Strengths: The Golden Knights’ forward group is remarkable. Stone basically elevates Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to the equivalent of a top line, and Vegas already had one (or, at worst, a strong “1B”) in Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. They also have a top-six-quality winger in Alex Tuch if someone goes cold or gets hurt. Few teams can match that group, and it remains resounding that Vegas built this group up so quickly.

Bonus points if Cody Glass ends up making the team and getting meaningful minutes.

When he’s hot, Marc-Andre Fleury can still steal games for his team.

Weaknesses: It sure feels like the Golden Knights are rolling the dice a bit in net, though. Fleury turns 35 on Nov. 28, and their backup options leave a lot to be desired. That netminder situation sometimes resembles a wobbly Jenga tower.

While I like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, and believe the latter may have “another gear,” it’s fair to wonder if the Golden Knights’ defense is a stride or two behind the NHL’s best. They’ve done well to craft a pretty good defense in a short time, but that group isn’t as impressive as their forwards.

Gerard Gallant has made some magic, but like with any NHL head coach, he has his quirks. If he indulges in leaning too much on Fleury, Ryan Reaves, and Deryk Engelland, it could be to the Golden Knights’ detriment.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Gallant won the Jack Adams in 2017-18, and has managed to bring Vegas to two playoff berths in as many seasons. About the only glaring criticism you can muster (beyond those smaller aforementioned quirks) is that maybe — just maybe — Gallant could have done more to settle his team down after Cody Eakin drew that notorious major penalty in Game 7 against the Sharks.

Overall, Gallant is pretty safe, although the Golden Knights aren’t shy about spending, so they expect to be a contender. Let’s put Gallant at a two.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Theodore, Glass, and Stone.

Theodore had a cancer scare a few months ago, and thankfully, it sounds like he took care of that matter. Here’s hoping that he’s 100 percent to start the season, because he’s a blast to watch.

Glass is intriguing as a prospect who could, ideally, give Vegas another weapon — if he makes the team.

After a tumultuous final season with the Senators and trade to Vegas, Stone gets to settle in. This could be a good time for those in the hockey world who didn’t already know it to clue into something: he’s probably even better than he’s hyped up to be.

Playoffs or Lottery: With a weak Pacific Division in mind, the Golden Knights should be focused on winning a Stanley Cup, not merely making the playoffs.

It’s strange to say this so early in the team’s existence, but a trip to the lottery would be as disastrous as owing an old mob casino a bunch of money.

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 Vancouver Canucks

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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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

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

Better or worse: They are definitely better, it is just a question of how much better and if it is enough to matter. Hopefully a full season from Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson having a year of experience under his belt, the arrival of Quinn Hughes, and the offseason additions of J.T. Miller and Tyler Myers all add something to the team. Trading a future first-round pick for Miller is a risk, and Myers’ deal is yet another bizarre long-term contract for a veteran that isn’t a core player, but they are short-term upgrades. Whether that gets them closer to being a playoff team remains to be seen, and it all kind of makes you question what the long-term plan actually is.

Strengths: For all of their flaws, the Canucks do have a lot of young talent they should be able to build around assuming they don’t screw it up. They have had Calder Trophy contenders in each of the past two seasons (Boeser and Pettersson, the latter of which won it) and could have another one this season (Hughes).

Weaknesses: They lack quality depth at forward, they have holes on defense, the goaltending is probably average, and for a team that has been one of the worst in the league for the past four years and does not have a single player making more than $6 million per season they are somehow completely capped out and have no wiggle room to work with financially. They invested too much money and too many years in veteran, declining depth players and just don’t have enough around their top young players to seriously compete for a playoff spot. That all points to their biggest overall weakness: The front office.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Travis Green has been the Canucks’ coach for two non-playoff seasons, but what does that mean? Do we know what kind of coach he is? What exactly has he had to work with here? Still, any time a coach is looking at the potential for a third consecutive non-playoff season you have to think their seat is at least a little warm. We will put him at a 7 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Pettersson, Hughes, and Thatcher Demko.

Pettersson is fascinating simply because he is the team’s best, and most exciting player and it is going to be interesting to see what he does in year two. His rookie season was great, but he cooled off considerably after the first month of the season when it came to scoring goals, and a lot of his goal-scoring success was the result of an incredibly high shooting percentage. Can he sustain that?

Hughes is an important player for the Canucks because they really need him to be an impact player simply due to the position he plays. They need someone on defense that can be a young, top-pairing defender and he definitely has that sort of potential. There are certainly going to be growing pains for him as a rookie, but the potential for stardom is absolutely there.

Jacob Markstrom has been pretty solid the past two years as the team’s starting goalie under less than ideal circumstances, but is he a long-term solution in net? He is an unrestricted free agent after this season and an already cap-strapped team has a big decision to make. That is where Demko comes in because he could be a long-term solution. Markstrom has earned the right to open the season as the starter, but Demko’s play when he gets his opportunities could create an opportunity for the Canucks to move Markstrom and turn the net over to their potential long-term goalie.

Playoffs or lottery: Even with their impressive young talent this is still not a playoff team. They are also not a team that is going to be bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league. That leaves them in that messy middle ground that is really difficult to get out of.

MORE:
Boeser gets three-year bridge deal with Canucks
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.