Sharks best positioned to withstand big early season injury

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

The Buzzer: Bruins bounce back; working overtime

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Three Stars

1. Brad Marchand – Bad news for those who believed Marchand should have been suspended for jumping Lars Eller during Washington’s 7-0 trouncing of Boston: Marchand didn’t just play on Thursday. Instead, he was dominant.

Marchand assisted on all four of the Bruins’ goals in a 4-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres, with three of his four helpers being of the primary nature. The pesky winger also registered a +3 rating.

Maybe Marchand was feeling a little deferential on Thursday, as he piled up all of those assists yet didn’t fire a single shot on goal.

The Bruins’ other strong candidate for three star treatment was Jaroslav Halak, who stopped all 32 shots for his first shutout (and win) with Boston.

2. Kris Letang – From Patrick Kane to Artemi Panarin to Mathew Barzal, plenty of star players opened their 2018-19 seasons with overtime game-winning goals. Letang probably enjoyed the most impressive night of anyone in that group, as he finished with two goals and one assist, with that OTGWG included in the mix.

Letang had a busy night with the Penguins, delivering two hits, blocking two shots, and logging almost eight minutes of time on the power play alone.

It’s tantalizing to imagine what Letang might be able to accomplish if he’s anywhere near full health in 2018-19. This is a player with four 50+ point and five 10+ goal seasons to his name, even as injuries have often hounded his career. A three-point evening certainly propels him to a strong start.

3. Connor Hellebuyck – Maybe last season’s breakthrough was the tip of the iceberg, not a fluke?

While Hellebuyck didn’t nab a shutout like other three star candidates did (Halak and Ben Bishop), the Jets goalie stopped 41 shots, and only allowed Vince Dunn‘s goal when the game was essentially decided.

At the other end of the ice, embattled Blues starter Jake Allen received a “Bronx cheer” from St. Louis fans when he finally made a save after some serious struggles, and it couldn’t  have helped matters to see Hellebuyck playing so well in opposition.

The new-look Blues seem like the sort of team that could really push the Jets, at least when the goaltending is comparable. Hellebuyck made sure that it would, instead, be quite lopsided.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Radulov‘s celebration was almost as entertaining as his goal. Almost.

Maxime Lajoie made his mom cry tears of joy as he scored in his NHL debut:

The Penguins’ wild game against the Capitals was basically one big highlight reel, including a big Braden Holtby save, so enjoy it here.

Factoids

Plenty of hockey fans love when the Capitals and Penguins trade goal after goal, and chance after chance. If you want that to continue, maybe hide this from anyone who works for the Caps:

It might not be such a bad thing for Alex Ovechkin, though, as he keeps climbing the all-time goal ranks.

Brandon Carlo might want to consult Zdeno Chara for goal-scoring tips.

Scores

Bruins 4, Sabres 0
Penguins 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Islanders 2, Hurricanes 1 (OT)
Predators 3, Rangers 2
Blue Jackets 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Senators 3 (OT)
Jets 5, Blues 1
Stars 3, Coyotes 0
Avalanche 4, Wild 1
Flyers 5, Golden Knights 2

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.

PHT’s Season Preview Roundtable: Blue Jackets, Rinne’s future, surprise teams

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1. You’re Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. How do you handle the Panarin/Bobrovsky situations?

SEAN: I go all-in until the trade deadline. The Metropolitan Division will be a battle, and if you’re going to lose these guys in free agency, might as well load up for a Cup run and try to make your way through three rounds of playoff hockey. Kekalainen has the fallback of using the Feb. 25 trade deadline to flip them both should the season not go as planned. It’s a difficult spot. These are two huge pieces of your team and pieces that can help you win. No GM wants to have a Tavares situation and watch two elite players walk for nothing next summer.

JAMES: While Panarin isn’t interested in an extension and Bobrovsky’s situation is cloudy, Kekalainen received serious peace of mind by receiving an extension of his own. With that in mind, he – or in this exercise, I – can feel far more comfortable if it becomes clear that the best option is the nuclear one: trading both.

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Panarin’s allowed Columbus much latitude here, so the question essentially becomes closer to “When?” than “If?” Here’s where Kekalainen and I might differ, though: if the best trade package revolves around “futures” rather than “currents,” then so be it. This franchise is restless about winning a playoff series, but with Seth Jones at 23 and Zach Werenski at 21, it’s not as if the situation is now or never.

Resolving Panarin-Bob in the best way possible may just come down to timing.

[Metropolitan Division Preview]

The Bob situation is a tougher call because an extension might not be best for the team, rather than the goalie. Bobrovsky is already 30. It’s fascinating that Bob might want the same deal as Carey Price, as Price’s $10.5M per year looks especially scary considering that the deal just began while he’s … 31. Yes, the same age that Bob would be.

If $10.5M was the rare, would Bobrovsky at least dial his term demands to a less-imposing range of say, 5 seasons? If I’m Kekalainen, those are the answers I would need. If the answers aren’t positive, then trading both might really be the best – if most painful – thing to do.

The thing is, people will wonder how you could move a $7.425M goalie, yet things get easier during the trade deadline. Also, teams that want to win get more desperate. What if the Flames are on fire (sorry) but Mike Smith goes on IR? What if things are coming together for the Stars, but Ben Bishop is on the shelf or in a deep slump? Contenders could conceivably offer a huge price to rent Bob.

ADAM: You have to let the season play out. Yes, the possibility of losing one or both of them for nothing as free agent sucks. But you’re a playoff team, you’re probably going to be a playoff team with them. As long as you have a realistic chance to do that you have to take a run at it and see where you can go. If the team falls out of the playoff picture by the deadline, or is on the bubble, and you are sure you can’t get them signed, then by all means make them available and see what you can get. But until it reaches that point you make a run with this group.

JOEY: I think you have to do your best to convince both players that Columbus is where they need to be. That might be easier said than done, but you have to pull out all the stops for these two guys because they’re the two most important players in the organization. Panarin put up 82 points last season and he’s still going to be just 27 years old when free agency hits. That’s a talent worth trying to keep. As for Bobrovsky, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for years now, but some teams aren’t willing to pay goalies top dollar. Still, Kekalainen has to do everything he can to make these players feel like they need to be Blue Jackets. This team still hasn’t won a playoff round, and they won’t be doing that anytime soon if they lose those two players.

If, for whatever reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t willing to commit to being Blue Jackets after they’re eligible to sign extensions on January 1st, Kekalainen has no choice but to move them both. Even if the Jackets are in a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose those guys for nothing in the summer. 

SCOTT: If you trade them now, say buh-bye to the playoffs. Panarin is the only point-per-game player the Blue Jackets have. Hell, he was the highest scoring player on the team by nearly 30 points and the highest scoring forward by almost 40. Panarin is the type of player you build around, so if money is the issue, PAY. THE. MAN.

Of course, it appears Panarin doesn’t want to be there, so whenever the best possible deal presents itself is when you need to pull that trigger. That’s the reality of the situation. You need — NEED — to get the best possible return given how talented he is and what you’re losing.

Still, you need to try your damnedest to convince Panarin to stay.

And that applies to Bob as well.

Bobrovsky, like Panarin, is one of the best at what they do. No Bob = no playoffs.

But if it comes to it, they have to go by the deadline. You can’t do what the Islanders did last summer and watch your best player(s) walk for free. The return at the deadline probably isn’t what it would be now, or a month or two into the season once the injury bug hits someone in the league. A tricky road to cross.

2. Will this be Pekka Rinne‘s final season with the Nashville Predators?

SEAN: Juuse Saros appears to be ready to take over the No. 1 role in Nashville, but Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and has been such a huge part of that franchise for the last decade. I can see Poile wanting to keep the tandem in place in the future as long as Saros take strides and Rinne doesn’t take a huge step back. A short-term deal — a bridge-type extension — could be ideal considering their salary cap situation, allowing for a transition phase.

[Central Division Preview]

JAMES: With the Ryan Ellis extension settled, the Predators don’t really have any enormous contracts to settle for 2019-20 (although Kevin Fiala is a gem). With that – and Juuse Saros’ ridiculously cheap contract – in mind, Nashville could enjoy the basically unprecedented luxury of a gradual transition from Rinne to Saros over a couple of seasons. Goalies are unpredictable, so why not try to convince Rinne to spend more time with the only team he’s known? The guy’s made a ton of cash, seems to love Nashville, and could conceivably move on, say, after 2019-20.

There’s logic to parting ways for both sides, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this will be his second-to-last season.

Then again, I thought Ellis would leave for greener pastures, so take that prediction with a grain of salt.

ADAM: It certainly looks that way. His age, combined with the fact that his replacement is already in the building and will probably get more of a role this season makes it seem inevitable. He was a great goalie for a long time in Nashville but I think this season is it for him there. Eventually Saros has to play because he might be too good to keep on the bench.

JOEY: I know Rinne’s heading into the final year of his contract, I know Juuse Saros is going to push him for the number one job and I know Rinne struggled in the playoffs, but I don’t think the Predators will want to lose him. He’s been with them for his entire career and he’s been a valuable contributor throughout the years. On the flip side, he’s also going to have to accept a decrease in pay if he’s going to stick around beyond this year.

Rinne is scheduled to make $7 million this season. He won’t be getting that kind of money again going forward, but Saros’ new deal only pays him $1.5 million per year for the next three years, so the Preds could be able to “splurge” to bring back Rinne on a short-term deal. The 35-year-old shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave a Predators team that has a real chance at success over the next few seasons.

SCOTT: Ideally, no.

Ideally, the Predators find a way to sign him to a shorter deal that takes him to the end of his career and provides a smooth transition as Saros turns into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. A one year deal, even, given the cap crunch for Nashville doesn’t come until after the 2019-20 season when Roman Josi is going to need big money.

Of course, that ball is in Rinne’s court. He’s the UFA at the end of this season and there are teams out there that would want the services of a guy one year removed from winning the Vezina. How many would line up is yet to be determined, and he’s not getting any younger, but GMs take risks and Rinne is still a good goalie, despite his blunder in the playoffs last year.

Any short-term contract likely means a pay cut for Rinne, who really doesn’t need to take a pay cut unless he wants to remain in Nashville.

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3. What level of regression — if any — will the Vegas Golden Knights experience this season?

SEAN: George McPhee did a good enough job refueling the tank this off-season that the monumental drop-off that many were expecting after last season shouldn’t go down. William Karlsson won’t be chasing a Rocket Richard again and Marc-Andre Fleury may play at a Conn Smythe calibre again, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny will help with scoring depth and they still have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to make a big splash to stay in the mix in what will be a brutal Western Conference playoff battle.

JAMES: Quite a bit, yet I believe that they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Losing Nate Schmidt for 20 games is a big blow, as the inevitable toll of injuries hasn’t even kicked off. That defense could be in trouble, for real this time. While the top line is very good, I expect them to at least cool down from last season’s “molten lava” state. The drop could be really steep for Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention “Huh?” successes like Deryk Engelland. On the bright side, it was brilliant to bring in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. They might just make the difference between getting in the playoffs and barely missing out.

ADAM: There almost has to be some. William Karlsson might be a good player, but he’s not 43 goals good. Marc-Andre Fleury is a really good starting goalie whose career has done a 180 from where it was five or six years ago, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that same level of play over another full season, especially at his age. I don’t know that Erik Haula is a 30-goal scorer every year. So there is definitely some potential for regression there. That said, don’t you kind of make up for that by adding players like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty? And even if the aforementioned trio does regress, they are not going to suddenly become bad. They just might go from great to really good.

JOEY: The Golden Knights lost David Perron and James Neal in free agency, but they replaced them with forwards like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which makes them even better (on paper at least) heading into this season. And, don’t forget, they had to overcome the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury early on in the season. If Fleury plays between 50-60 games, that definitely makes them better, too. 

[Pacific Division Preview]

Vegas may not get repeat performances from every player that had a career year in 2017-18, but as a team, I think they’ll be more than just competitive. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Knights and Sharks are battling for the Pacific Division crown throughout the year. They know they have a first line that works in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and now they also have Stastny and Pacioretty playing a second-line role. This team will be just fine.

SCOTT: I guess this depends on whether you think all the career years that were had in Vegas last season were just a fluke.

I don’t. Vegas good great deals in the scrap bin that was the expansion draft and they immediately found some uncanny chemistry. George McPhee didn’t stand still over the summer, either. The addition of Paul Stastny was bigger, and then getting Max Pacioretty was bigger. Those guys can make up for any regression we might see from the likes of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Remember, this was a team that dealt with crippling goaltender injuries and still managed to win the Pacific Division. I’ll stop betting against this team until they give me a reason to.

4. What team that is flying way under the radar and could surprise people this season and why?

SEAN: They came within a point of the playoff last season, and with a year under their belts with head coach Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers appear ready to take that next step. There are a lot of other teams in the East to get excited about, which could allow the Panthers to fly under the radar this season. Between Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov up front, and Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in the back, there’s a very strong core there. Add in the potential of youngsters Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom and Sunrise, Florida could provide us with a big surprise this season.

JAMES: The Florida Panthers have been the subject of ridicule for some time, but they looked like a dangerous team late last season. Barkov and Trocheck give them a one-two punch at center that can hang with just about any other duo. As brittle as Reimer and Luongo are, both goalies are capable. There are some great supporting cast members, and we could see the ascent of intriguing young players such as Henrik Borgstrom. These Cats can play.

[Atlantic Division Preview]

ADAM: Not saying they will do it, but it would not shock me if Arizona really came out of nowhere this season. Their entire season was made last season when they got off to that terrible start. It is not a coincidence that Antti Raanta played in almost none of those games. When he was in the lineup they were not only competitive, they were pretty good. Now they have Alex Galchenyuk coming in, I still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player, and they have a top-tier defenseman. The Arizona Coyotes are my sleeper team.

JOEY: The Arizona Coyotes. Yes, I realize that they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the last few seasons, but they ended last season on a high note. They also had a positive offseason, as they were able to get Oliver Ekman-Larson re-signed and they added a talented center in Alex Galchenyuk, who could be a big-time difference maker once he gets healthy. Even though the ‘Yotes are still a little young, they could be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19. The fact that Antti Raanta looked a lot more comfortable in a number one role toward the end of last season is an encouraging sign. 

Today’s NHL is all about being young and fast, and the Coyotes are certainly both of those things. They may still be a year away from earning a postseason berth, but they could still shock a lot of people as soon as 2018-19.

SCOTT: The Buffalo Sabres. Rub your eyes. Splash some water on your face. Pinch yourself. But the fact of the matter is the Sabres went out and made some moves this summer in an effort to get better. And they weren’t empty moves. Skinner. Berglund. Hutton. Sheary. Oh, and some kid named Dahlin. Sure, Dahlin was the product of a disastrous season, but he’s an immediate upgrade to their defence. Casey Mittlestadt should play an important role as well. I said it before, but I believe Buffalo have gone from the joke of the NHL to a team that could work its way into the *gasps* playoff discussion this year.

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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.

PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

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

Will goalie be selected in first round of 2019 NHL Draft?

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As much as you need an elite center and a star defenseman, goalie remains the make-or-break single position in hockey. Unfortunately, it’s easier to herd cats than predict goaltending performances.

With that in mind, it’s not that shocking that the Marc-Andre Fleury/Rick DiPietro/Roberto Luongo era of goalies going high in drafts is no more. Instead, it’s increasingly common for there to be zero goalies selected in the first round of a draft. None went in 2018, for example, as the Rangers were the first team to select a netminder when they tabbed Olof Lindbom in the second round (39th overall).

American goalie prospect Spencer Knight recently admitted to NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce that he’s pictured becoming one of the rare recent goalies to go in the first round.

“You do think about it, and if I told you I didn’t I’d probably be lying,” Knight said “You do think about all the different ways it could go, but I think the biggest thing is to worry about the small things, the everyday things. It’s very cliché but it’s true. You do have to focus on one day at a time and enjoy the process because all these things only come around once. You only play in this (All-American Prospects Game) once, you only get drafted once.”

Here’s a quick glance at goalies who went in the first round since PHT began draft coverage in 2010.*

2017 – Jake Oettinger (26th pick)
2015 – Ilya Samsonov (22)
2012 – Andrei Vasilevskiy (19)
2010 – Jack Campbell (10), Mark Visentin (27)

* – If I happened to miss one, please note in the comments, email, or social media.

It’s too early to tell if the Dallas Stars will be glad they selected Oettinger (although, oof, they could have landed Eeli Tolvanen), and the same can be said regarding the Washington Capitals and Ilya Samsonov. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning do a solid job of shining a light on the highs and lows of drafting goalies with such prominent picks.

While it was refreshing to see Campbell earn a few nice starts with the Kings, the goalie hasn’t justified his draft status. That said, the Stars themselves haven’t had much luck finding answers in net, whether they’ve tried in other rounds, free agency, or via trades. Instead, they’ve sunk a ton of money into bad options, and the hope is that Ben Bishop can reverse that trend (and maybe hold down the fort while Oettinger develops?).

On the other hand, the Lightning knocked it out of the park with Vasilevskiy, who’s on the short list of hyper-promising young NHL goalies. It almost makes too much sense that Tampa Bay’s success in drafting Vasilevskiy allowed them to part ways with (wait for it) Ben Bishop.

Ultimately, there are only 31 starting jobs, and only 62 NHL goalie gigs including backups, aside from those rare stretches where three netminders make a roster.

/nods to J-F Berube.

There have been some fascinating, semi-recent studies regarding drafting goalies early, and the high risk-reward factor.

Back in 2016, TSN’s Travis Yost laid out one of the many arguments against drafting a goalie in the first round. Yost, like many others – including, clearly, NHL teams – notes that there’s simply an incredibly heavy opportunity cost with such an investment. That’s particularly true since many of the NHL’s standout goalies come later in the draft. Henrik Lundqvist and reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne went in the seventh and eighth round of their respective drafts, as just two prominent examples.

On the other hand, the payoff from finding a high-end goalie can be enormous. Hockey Graph’s Matt Cane summarized such thoughts following Yost’s post:

Drafting is an inexact science; there isn’t a team in professional sports that hasn’t whiffed badly on their selections. As a New York Giants fan who’s marinating in the poor choice of Saquon Barkley at second overall (mesmerizing talent, terrible value), going against the grain can hurt that much more.

You ultimately have to trust your scouts and your gut while making the decision, whether it be with Knight in 2019 or any other prospect.

It makes you wonder: which teams might want to take such a plunge next year? One could picture a team with aging goalies looking for answers (maybe the Senators if they do manage to trade for a first-rounder?) or teams that seem to be in perpetual pursuit of puckstoppers (the Hurricanes come to mind, in particular).

The smarter, studied route may be to accrue information by seeing goalies succeed overseas, in junior/college hockey, in the AHL, or even on another NHL teams.

Still, if you can identify a Vasilevskiy, you can really reap the benefits. That’s easier said than done, much like goaltending in general.

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.