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

Injuries to sideline Dubinsky, van Riemsdyk for at least a month

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The 2018-19 NHL season isn’t even a week old and the Columbus Blue Jackets have already had to deal with a few significant injuries, including a new one that popped up over the weekend.

On Monday, the team announced that center Brandon Dubinsky was going to miss four-to-six weeks of action because of an oblique strain, which means he’s headed for injured reserve. What makes the injury even more frustrating, is that it occurred during a team practice on Sunday. The 32-year-old was off to a nice start, as he collected one point in each of his first two games. He’s also won almost 69 percent of his faceoffs so far this season.

The Jackets have also been without top defender Seth Jones so far this season. The 24-year-old is sidelined because of an MCL sprain he suffered during training camp.

There’s been plenty of drama surrounding Columbus over the last few weeks. Not only have they had to deal with injuries, they’ve also had the issues surrounding pending unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky potentially leaving the team at the end of the season.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Getting this team to focus on the task at hand may be challenging for head coach John Tortorella, but it’s his job to keep this team on the straight and narrow path. They’re in a tough Metropolitan Division, so they can’t afford to fall behind the eight ball early on.

Flyers lose JVR for up to six weeks

The news wasn’t much better for another Metropolitan Division team, as the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they’ll be without James van Riemsdyk for anywhere between five and six weeks because of a lower-body injury.

The 29-year-old was banged up during Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Flyers can go in a number of different directions to replace his scoring touch, but none of those options are as good as having him back healthy.

Van Riemsdyk signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Flyers over the summer. He has one assist in two games so far this season.

MORE:
Bobrovsky talks contract distraction, says he’s ‘human’
Panarin took one game to spotlight his importance to Jackets

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.

Panarin took one game to spotlight his importance to Blue Jackets

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What’s tougher: stopping Artemi Panarin or figuring out what the Columbus Blue Jackets should do with him?

Such a question came to mind during the team’s season-opener, as the pending unrestricted free agent scored the overtime game-winner, assisted on the team’s first goal of 2018-19, and greedily hogged the puck as few forwards could do.

(In a good way.)

Say what you will about John Tortorella, but he’s smart enough to know when he should just stay out of the way, and that’s what he did with Panarin, allowing him to stay on the ice long enough to win the game.

In a team sport like hockey, you cannot assign all the credit to one player. Even a team-carrying goalie needs overmatched defenders to block shots every now and then. In the case of last night’s Panarin-propelled 3-2 OT win against the Red Wings, people hand credit to other Blue Jackets, like a lunch-pail trio featuring Brandon Dubinsky.

Let’s be honest, though. Just about every team has those muckers and grinders. The Blue Jackets aren’t that far removed, after all, from being a team with a rat-like mentality.

Such a hard-driving style suits Tortorella’s tendencies, and it’s likely helped Columbus rise to a more respectable level, but stars are what win you games … and hopefully, playoff series.

For all the progress the Blue Jackets have made, they still haven’t advanced to the second round or beyond in their franchise history.

That thought makes losing Panarin – who, at best, is leaning toward leaving – that much more painful. Trading him would mean avoiding losing Panarin for nothing except a roster spot and cap space, yet it could also pull this seemingly rising franchise that much closer to the pit of misery that is being regularly booed in your own building.

What does GM Jarmo Kekalainen do, really?

Theoretically, the best trade return for Panarin would probably come from landing a bunch of futures from a contender, much like the Montreal Canadiens received for Max Pacioretty. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that has reasonable aspirations to win their division and make a deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though.

Do you instead demand present-day assets, knowing that you’re just about assured a meager return?

Or do you just ride things out, hoping that Panarin will change his mind while playing for an – ideally – very competitive team where he’s the man? Because, with all due respect to very good players such as Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and even Sergei Bobrovsky, Panarin reminded the hockey world last night that he’s exactly that for Columbus, at least for as long as he’s wearing a Blue Jackets sweater.

This is a story to watch all season – particularly before the trade deadline expires – and if opening night was any indication, the questions will only burn deeper as 2018-19 progresses.

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.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA features Blue Jackets, Sabres

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NBCSN’s coverage of the the 2018 Kraft Hockeyville USA game in Clinton, N.Y. between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres begins at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelSam Reinhart
Alex NylanderPatrik Berglund – Andrew Oglevie
C.J. Smith – Casey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Justin BaileyEvan Rodrigues – Danny O’Regan

Jake McCabeZach Bogosian
Rasmus DahlinCasey Nelson
Brendan Guhle – William Borgen

Goalies: Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson

[WATCH LIVE – 7 P.M. – NBCSN]

BLUE JACKETS
Anthony DuclairAlexander Wennberg – Kevin Stenlund
Artemi Panarin – Liam Foudy – Jonathan Davidsson
Boone JennerBrandon DubinskyJosh Anderson
Lukas Sedlak – Sam Vigneault – Eric Robinson

Michael PrapavessisSeth Jones
Gabriel CarlssonAdam Clendening
Dean KukanDavid Savard

Goalies: Joonas Korpisalo, J.F. Berube

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

 

Under Pressure: Jarmo Kekalainen

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t the only NHL GM facing difficult decisions.

The difference between the Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM and many of his under-pressure peers is that, frankly, the ceiling’s higher for Kekalainen. While Senators GM Pierre Dorion is essentially just trying to clean up a severe mess, Kekalainen could help the Blue Jackets finally break through — if he can succeed in walking a tightrope (with alligators licking their chomps below, really).

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough]

Given the cruel nature of sports, it doesn’t seem to matter much that a frequently promising Blue Jackets team lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions two years in a row. The heat’s already rising considerably, and the toughest times may just be ahead.

Breaking bread

Just consider the uneasy futures for two of the Blue Jackets’ most important players.

There’s been plenty of speculation regarding Artemi Panarin‘s situation, as the game-breaking forward’s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19. The general feeling, via the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, is that (no hard feelings but) Panarin simply doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career in Columbus, or seemingly most markets that aren’t large. Among other gloomy reports: Panarin wants “all business set aside” by Sept. 13, according to Portzline (sub required).

So, should Kekalainen trade Panarin sooner rather than later, instead of risking being in a similar place as the Islanders, who saw John Tavares leave for nothing but cap space and an open roster spot? The good news is that Panarin and his reps are illuminating the subject for Kekalainen. The bad news is that the hockey world knows, so he’ll look foolish if Columbus ends up with nothing, yet other GMs also know that he might be at a disadvantage.

Kekalainen would be forgiven for sweating the Panarin situation alone, yet that’s just one of some pressing issues for Columbus.

What to do about Bob?

Sergei Bobrovsky also will need a new contract after his $7.425M AAV expires after next season, and that situation is comparably tricky, only in different ways.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick apart the work “Bob” has done in Columbus, generating a beautiful .923 save percentage over 312 regular-season games, with especially impressive work done during the past two years.

The elephant in the room, for many, is Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles. More analytical types will roll their eyes at such criticisms – particularly when the tone really condemns – but it’s also fair to note that, for all Bob has accomplished in winning two Vezina trophies, Columbus hasn’t been able to put it together enough to win a mere playoff series yet.

If you’re Kekalainen, you’re fearful that Bobrovsky could become the next Carey Price.

Bob is already 29, and he’ll turn 30 on Sept. 20. When the Montreal Canadiens extended Price with a massive eight-year, $84M contract, it probably felt – to them – like the price of doing business with an all-world goalie. That deal already looks horrifying, and it’s only officially going to begin in 2018-19, with Price already 30.

The Bob situation could turn out poorly for Kekalainen in a variety of ways, sadly.

The Blue Jackets may decide to roll with Joonas Korpisalo and other, younger, cheaper options … only to see “Bob” flourish somewhere else. Conversely, they could see Bob turn into Carey Price 2.0, a goalie with memories of elite work but a contract that screams “albatross.”

The Panarin and Bobrovsky situations stand as brutal challenges, and the Blue Jackets also must pay some young players soon. Most pressingly, Zach Werenski is set to enter the final season of his rookie contract. The American defenseman is, bar none, an elite talent. It’s unlikely that his value will go anywhere but up after he accrues another season of work in 2018-19. Getting that contract done would provide some cost certainty, yet Werenski might be smart to wait this out for maximum value. That’s another big challenge, and a crucial situation regarding Columbus’ future.

Reaching for the Alka-Seltzer yet, Blue Jackets fans?

Some hope, but big risks

You could probably place Kekalainen somewhere in the Brad Treliving range of NHL GMs.

There’s a lot to like about what Kekalainen has done since taking over in 2013.

Sure, the Panarin situation is challenging, but it was a huge win for Columbus and could still reap rewards if they make the painful decision to trade him. As nice a talent as Ryan Johansen is, it seemed like his relationship was untenable with John Tortorella, so Kekalainen deserves even more kudos for (in my opinion) winning the trade by landing near-Norris-level defenseman Seth Jones. Kekalainen’s draft acumen has paid off nicely, too, with Pierre Luc-Dubois ranking as the latest breakthrough.

Even so, you have to wonder if the clock is ticking on his tenure, and there are some less-than-ideal contracts on the books, considering that Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, and Cam Atkinson combine for $17.225M for the next three seasons (with Atkinson’s $5.875M lingering through 2024-25).

There’s a nightmare scenario where the Blue Jackets end up on the wrong end of the Bobrovsky/Panarin situations while still never tasting the second round of a postseason, all while spending a pretty big chunk of cash.

Fair or not, it’s tough to imagine the franchise keeping Kekalainen around if most of these situations go sour.

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.