Brent Burns

Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

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Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Roundtable: Hot starts, biggest disappointments

Choosing from the teams off to strong starts in October, which one won’t last?

SEAN: The Canucks may very well wind up in the playoffs come April, but it feels like a matter or time before they slowly slide back into the wild card race and out of contention for the Pacific Division crown. The Lotto Line of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller has been unstoppable; Quinn Hughes is playing himself into the Calder Trophy conversation after one month; and the goaltending duo of Thatcher Demko and Jacob Markstrom has been solid with a combined .932 even strength save percentage. They’re banking important points this early in the season, but their 103 PDO will certainly slide back a touch.

Vancouver’s November schedule could pose some difficulty in keeping up this pace with games against the Avalanche (2), Penguins, Oilers, Blues, Predators (2), and Capitals. If they can reach December and find themselves still in one of the top three spots in the Pacific then that could go a long way toward proving doubters they’re for real.

JAMES: The Sabres [1.036] and Canucks [1.031] are marinating in that glorious, glorious PDO right now, and chances are, both will see their hot shooting and goaltending cool down. The question is: how much?

Considering the Canucks’ weak division, and quite a few promising underlying numbers for Vancouver, I think they might be able to squeak into a playoff spot. The Sabres, however, must run through what still figures to be a buzzsaw in the Atlantic — at least if the Lightning and Maple Leafs get their acts together.

So, Buffalo, in particular, falls under “Fool me once …” That said, I can’t totally blame someone who’s being lured in by the gravitational pull of that strong start.

ADAM: The skepticism around Buffalo is legitimate because of the way last year unfolded, but I still think they have a better shot to stick around this year because they are a little deeper and do not seem to be doing it with as much smoke and mirrors as they did early last season. What that means, I don’t know. That is still a brutally tough division and you have to imagine Tampa Bay and Toronto get their acts together. They may not finish high in the standings, but I don’t see a collapse here. The team that I think is still likely to fall off has to be the Oilers, and I hate saying that because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are so amazing. I want to see them on a big stage. But they are literally carrying the offense again, and we have seen this movie before. They are great enough to do it in short bursts to help the team go on some hot streaks, but no two players are great enough to carry a team through an 82-game season unless one of those players is a goalie. There are still just too many flaws on this roster.

JOEY: I’m still skeptical about the Oilers. Yes, they have the high-end talent that most teams can only dream of, but I’m just not sold on the supporting cast. Is James Neal going to keep rolling? Are the other forwards going to do enough scoring to sustain Edmonton’s place in the standings? Can a duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen keep Edmonton in games? I have so many questions for this team it’s not even funny. Look, the Oilers probably won’t finish first in the division, but if they sneak into the playoffs that fan base should be happy with that. I just have a hard time seeing it right now.

SCOTT: The Ducks are 8-6-0 and I am not sure if that qualifies as a ‘hot start’, but I expect them to drop quite a bit the standings. The Flames and Sharks are too talented to remain near the bottom of the division and if they move up, someone has to slide down. Another team to keep an eye on is the Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for an extended period of time, will they be able to generate enough offense to remain competitive in a ferocious Central Division.

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Who is your biggest disappointment — player or team — so far?

SEAN: This could have been noted goon Aleksander Barkov, who has four penalty minutes already after not picking up his second minor last season until March 7… but my choice is the Lightning. Tampa is facing the adversity they noted after-the-fact last season hurt them in Round 1 against the Blue Jackets. A sluggish October that saw them win consecutive games only once, allow two or fewer goals only three times, and allow 3.5 goals (2.7 GPG last season) and three more shots on average per night has led them to a 6-4-2 start.

The challenge is clear for the Lightning: It’s Stanley Cup or bust. We’re going to see who the real Lightning are this season. They cruised for 82 games in 2018-19, and now the teams around them have improved. There wasn’t a lot to remember in October and how they respond will be an indicator of what to expect later in the season.

JAMES: The Sharks are a disaster by just about every measure to begin 2019-20. They’re sinking when it comes to most, if not all, possession stats. About the only thing that’s encouraging is that, unlike the bumbling Bolts, San Jose’s been mostly unlucky. While I fear that their goaltending will only rebound in marginal ways, I don’t expect their offense to remain so toothless.

ADAM: It has to be San Jose. Their commitment to the goalie situation just totally stuns me, but what is even more shocking is the fact the rest of the team seems to have forgotten how to play hockey this season. They are getting completely dominated at even-strength and this team is just far too talented to play like this. No team with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the blue line, and with the talent they still have at forward (even after losing Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi over the summer) should be playing this poorly. It is stunning.

JOEY: I realized that the Sharks were getting old in a hurry, but I didn’t expect them to have four wins in their first 13 games. The loss of Joe Pavelski has hit both sides pretty hard. Do you think the player and team would like a do-over there? Logan Couture is a fine captain, but he’s already had to call his teammates out a couple of times. Adding Patrick Marleau is a nice touch, but it just isn’t adding up to victories right now. The Sharks should be worried because it looks like their championship window has been slammed shut.

SCOTT: In Taylor Hall’s final season before reaching unrestricted free agency, GM Ray Shero made a couple of maneuvers this summer to help bolster his roster. With the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes, the Devils hoped to take advantage of a wide-open Metropolitan Division. However, the Devils have failed to protect leads, especially at home and find themselves competing for the top draft pick once again. Coach John Hynes could be the first coach to join the unemployment line if the Devils can’t figure it out on the ice.

QUICK AWARD PICKS AFTER ONE MONTH

HART
SEAN: David Pastrnak
JAMES: David Pastrnak
ADAM: Leon Draisaitl
JOEY: Sidney Crosby
SCOTT: Leon Draisaitl

VEZINA
SEAN: Tuukka Rask
JAMES: Tuukka Rask
ADAM: Tuukka Rask
JOEY: Tuukka Rask
SCOTT: Tuukka Rask

CALDER
SEAN: Quinn Hughes
JAMES: Quinn Hughes
ADAM: Quinn Hughes
JOEY: Cale Makar
SCOTT: Quinn Hughes

NORRIS
SEAN: Roman Josi
JAMES: John Carlson
ADAM: John Carlson
JOEY: John Carlson
SCOTT: John Carlson

————

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.

The Buzzer: Rangers can’t keep up with Bruins’ top line

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Three Stars

1. Top line of the Boston Bruins

Let’s not kid ourselves; it would be pretty silly to try to split hairs regarding which of Brad Marchand (two goals, three assists), David Pastrnak (five assists), and Patrice Bergeron (hat trick) had the best night for arguably the best line in the NHL. We might as well give them the collective award, especially since other players deserve some limelight on a pretty busy Sunday night.

Marchand might have the sexiest night, as he scored five points, with two from goals and three from assists. All of Pastrnak’s five points were assists, and now that Pasta is at 23 points, Pastrnak leads the entire NHL (sorry, John Carlson). Bergeron combined his hat trick with his usual versatile work, including going 15-5 on faceoffs.

Zdeno Chara doesn’t belong in that top three conversation, but his night is worth noting: one goal, one assist, +6, six SOG, and two blocked shots.

2. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues

You could say this is a duo award in a way that the Bruins top line is a three-way tie of sorts, as David Perron (game-winning goal, three assists) also had a four-point night along with ROR, who scored two goals and two assists. The Blues needed those points, too, as St. Louis was merely caught sleeping. The Blues carried a 3-1 lead into the third period against a struggling Red Wings team, but that Detroit squad has Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Anthony Mantha. That trio powered a surge where the Red Wings briefly took a 4-3 lead, only for ROR to tie things up on the power play (primary assist: Perron) and then for Perron to win in OT.

The defending champions had to wipe some sweat off their brow in Motown/Hockeytown/a place with a lot of nicknames.

3. Nick Paul, Ottawa Senators

For some scrolling Twitter or scoreboards, they might see Nick Paul and his two-goal, one-assist night, and ask “Who?” The Sharks might have been asking who is that, or what was that, on this goal:

(Erik Karlsson‘s face says it all.)

Paul is 24, and was a fourth-round selection (101st overall in 2013) by the Dallas Stars. This three-point night gives Paul 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 62 NHL games, sprinkled over multiple seasons with the Senators since 2015-16.

As bumpy as this season is expected to be for Ottawa — you can bet the Sharks are stunned losing on Sunday — it might inspire the Sens to take longer looks at players like Paul. He’s shown some promise in the AHL lately, scoring four points in three games for the Belleville Senators this season, and 39 points in 43 games in 2018-19.

There were some other worthwhile performances on Sunday, including Dylan Strome (2G, 1A also), but Paul got the GWG, and also the novelty factor.

Highlights of the Night

Honestly, that Senators win over the Sharks had quite a few great goals. There was that booming shot by Paul, a great video game-like bit of speed and skill from Anthony Duclair, and an impressive breakout pass from Brent Burns leading to a nifty Kevin Labanc goal. So why not enjoy the highlights from that Ottawa upset, in general?

Factoids and tidbits

  • Uh oh: Rangers star Mika Zibanejad left Sunday’s game and didn’t return because of an upper-body injury.
  • Also Rangers-related: with two assists, Tony DeAngelo became the first Blueshirts blueliner to generate multiple points in three consecutive games since Brian Leetch did it in 1996-97, according to NHL PR.
  • The Islanders’ seven-game winning streak is their longest since 1989-90. Read more about that streak here.
  • Also via NHL PR: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (both tied with Carlson for second in the NHL with 21 points) are the third set of Oilers teammates to generate 20+ points through the first 12 games of a season; Wayne Gretzky did so twice with Mark Messier, and once with Jarri Kurri. Gretzky’s lowest total during that time was 28 points, while he hit 33 during the other two occasions. Alright player, that Gretzky.
  • Seven of James Neal‘s 10 goals have come on the power play so far, tying him with Messier (1987-88) and Bill Guerin (1998-99) for the most PPG for Oilers players through the first 12 games of a season, according to Statscentre.

Scores

FLA 6 – EDM 2
STL 5 – DET 4 (OT)
OTT 5 – SJS 2
NYI 5 – PHI 3
BOS 7 -NYR 4
CHI 5 – LAK 1
VGK 5 – ANA 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

The Buzzer: Predators rally over Capitals, Laine carries Jets, Marleau’s big return

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. It is not a stretch to suggest that Laine’s 2018-19 season was a bit of a disappointment. Not necessarily a bad season, just not what anyone really expected from him. He is doing his best to make everyone forget about that so far this season. He continued his incredible start on Thursday with a four-point night (two goals, two assists) to help the Jets pick up a 5-2 win in their home opener against the Minnesota Wild. He now has three goals and 10 total points in the first five games for a Jets team that is now 3-2-0 despite having a woefully undermanned defense.

2. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks. Is he the missing ingredient for the Sharks? That remains to be seen, but for one night he was by scoring two goals in a 5-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Maybe signing a 40-year-old veteran after an 0-4 start was a desperation move on the part of the Sharks, but he definitely made an impact in his first game back in teal. Read more about it here.

3. Ryan Johansen, Nashville Predators. Thanks to a four-goal third period the Predators were able to overcome a 4-2 deficit against the Washington Capitals to win for the third time in their first four games. Johansen played a big role in the win with a pair of goals, his first two of the season.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Brayden Point made his return to the lineup for Tampa Bay with three points as part of a huge 7-3 rout of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos also had four points each. Read more about all of their performances here.
  • The Edmonton Oilers are 4-0 for the first time since 2008-09 thanks to a great performance from Mikko Koskinen in net and James Neal‘s seventh goal in four games, already matching his season total from a year ago. Read more about the Oilers — and Neal’s — great start here.
  • Sidney Crosby scored a goal and added an assist to lead the Penguins to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks, handing the latter their first defeat of the season.
  • The Calgary Flames overcame a two-goal third period deficit to defeat the Dallas Stars. Johnny Gaudreau scored the winner in the shootout.
  • Anthony Mantha continued his fast start and helped the Red Wings win again as they topped the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Phillip Grubauer stopped 39 shots for the Colorado Avalanche and Andre Burakovsky scored his first goal with the team as they came from behind to defeat the Boston Bruins. The Avalanche had a little bit of luck on their side as two potential Bruins goals were wiped out by video review.
  • David Perron scored two goals and Ryan O'Reilly finished with four points as the St. Louis Blues rallied past the Ottawa Senators for their third consecutive win.
  • The Arizona Coyotes are on the board with their first win of the season thanks in part to a two-goal effort from Conor Garland. Barrett Hayton also recorded his first NHL point in his first ever game.

Highlights of the Night

This sequence by the Coyotes to take a 2-0 lead over the Vegas Golden Knights is really something to see.

Burakovsky’s first goal as a member of the Avalanche was quite the individual effort.

Gaudreau’s shootout winner was a pretty slick backhander.

Blooper of the Night

Pretty much the only thing that did not go well for the Tampa Bay Lightning during their big win over the Maple Leafs was this play here.

 

Factoids

  • Phil Kessel skated in his 777th consecutive game, moving him past Craig Ramsay for the seventh-longest consecutive games streak in NHL history. [NHL PR]
  • Marleau is only the 13th player in NHL history to score at least one goal in 22 different seasons. [Sportsnet Stats]
  • One more Marleau fact: His consecutive games streak extended to 789, the sixth-longest in NHL history. He is also the only player to appear in every possible game during his 30s, which is just incredible. [Ross McKeon]
  • No player in Oilers franchise history has scored more goals through the first four games of a season than James Neal’s seven. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Ovechkin scored two power play goals for the Capitals to move ahead of Luc Robaitaille for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list. [NHL PR]
  • The Red Wings’ win against the Canadiens snapped a nine-game losing streak against Montreal. [NHL PR]
  • Sharks defenseman Brent Burns became the 23rd defenseman to reach the 200-goal mark. [NHL PR]

Scores
Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Toronto Maple Leafs 3
Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 2
Edmonton Oilers 4, New Jersey Devils 3 (SO)
Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
St. Louis Blues 6, Ottawa Senators 4
Nashville Predators 6, Washington Capitals 5
Winnipeg Jets 5, Minnesota Wild 2
San Jose Sharks 5, Chicago Blackhawks 4
Calgary Flames 3, Dallas Stars 2 (SO)
Colorado Avalanche 4, Boston Bruins 2
Arizona Coyotes 4, Vegas Golden Knights 1

MORE:
• 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.

How worried should winless Sharks be after loss to Predators?

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With the nostalgic signing of Patrick Marleau, plenty of San Jose Sharks fans were thinking of the past on Tuesday. That’s good, because right now, the present hasn’t been pretty.

The Sharks sunk to 0-4-0 on the young 2019-20 season after the Nashville Predators beat them 5-2. This is San Jose’s second 0-4-0 start in franchise history, with the only other instance coming in their awkward earlier phase in 1993-94.

Is it time to play the “Jaws” theme for a rattled Sharks group, or is too soon to ponder such horrors? Let’s bat around a few thoughts.

Sharks’ offense not going swimmingly

Tuesday’s performance brought out backhanded compliments.

After only managing a goal apiece in their first three losses, the Sharks finally scored two goals. Granted, it felt a little empty, as Brent Burns made it 4-2 with about 4:23 remaining in the third period. Also, they finally scored a goal on the power play.

San Jose managed a strong effort in the second period, but Pekka Rinne managed to only allow an Evander Kane deflection goal during that middle frame. Much like against Minnesota, Nashville really turned up the power in the third period to pull away from the Sharks.

A few players stick out as needing more. Timo Meier seemed like a bargain at a $6M AAV, but so far, he’s been ice cold, opening the season without a goal or an assist. Tomas Hertl brought hype as possibly the Sharks’ best center over Logan Couture, yet while Couture is contributing, Hertl is also at a goose egg.

Sharks get stung in transition

To some extent, San Jose is going to “live by the sword, and die by the sword” when it comes to gambling ways from defensemen Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Karlsson’s attempt to transition died a painful death on this Filip Forsberg goal:

While Burns has been reasonably productive, Karlsson’s off to a slow start, with an assist in three games (and a healthy baby being born keeping him from the season-opener … maybe he just needs to get his sleep schedule right?).

San Jose is awfully top-heavy, so they’re going to need their best guys to be strong. That perceived lack of depth might mean more tough nights like these than the Sharks are accustomed to.

Predators’ mix looks good again

Matt Duchene now has six assists in his first three games in gold. That pass to Forsberg in the 4-1 goal above ranks as one of his sweetest dishes, and he’s had some great moments that didn’t end up on the scoreboard. Duchene made a fantastic toe-drag move during Tuesday’s game but was thwarted by Martin Jones, while he made a tremendous play to Mikael Granlund that forced Devan Dubnyk to make a highlight reel save in the team’s opener.

As Duchene could attest considering the early reactions to his cold start in Ottawa vs. the misleadingly hot Nashville start for Kyle Turris, it’s too early to say that the Predators “won” in essentially trading Duchene for P.K. Subban. Subban may eventually prove to be a more positive impact-player, all-around, for New Jersey.

The Predators were looking for the right combination of offense, defense, and goaltending in bringing in Duchene, though, and he might just give Nashville that extra gamebreaker to reach that next level.

That’s because Nashville already had some of those, from Forsberg to Roman Josi, who scored two goals and looks like he’ll cost someone (maybe the Predators, maybe a different team) a pretty penny on his next contract.

The Sharks don’t need to panic about making the playoffs, yet with each loss, they are certainly making their climb bumpier, especially as the Vegas Golden Knights appear as molten-hot as the Sharks are ice-cold. Besides, they faced a dangerous Vegas team twice, the Ducks are quietly undefeated, and the Predators could very well be the real deal.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.