Joakim Ryan

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LA Kings looking at long rebuild with McLellan as coach

LOS ANGELES — Todd McLellan wants to make the Los Angeles Kings playoff contenders again. He faces an uphill climb in trying to make that happen.

McLellan, who was named coach on April 15, inherited a roster with five players age 32 or older that had the fewest points in the Western Conference last season, scored the second-fewest goals in the league and was 29th out of 31 teams in penalty killing.

That’s why McLellan has modest expectations for what will be considered a success this season.

”Growth. Everyone has to improve in every facet of the game,” McLellan said early in training camp. ”I think I’ve said this before. Old dogs have to learn new tricks, and the new dogs have to be prepared and open to absorb and be professional.”

McLellan spent most of training camp trying to get all his players on the same page. They have spent as much time in front of the white board as they have skating.

McLellan, who had previous stints with Pacific Division rivals San Jose and Edmonton, wants the Kings to be more aggressive on the forecheck and also to be quicker to the puck. Whether that can work with one of the league’s oldest lineups, remains to be seen.

Early reviews by players about McLellan have been positive. Ilya Kovalchuk said the Kings are hoping to exceed expectations even though many think LA’s best days are behind it.

”I believe we still got it. In this league you never know,” he said. ”You see the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup, they were the last team in the whole league by Jan. 6 or something. So you just have to work hard and together as a team cause you can’t just be bunch of individuals. We have some new guys coming, but we have a core that knows how to win and that’s most important.”

WHO’S HERE: Defenseman Ben Hutton was signed Sept. 18 with Derek Forbort (back) and Paul LaDue (knee) likely not ready for the start of the regular season. Hutton spent four seasons with Vancouver. He had 20 points in 69 games last season but also posted a career-worst minus-23 rating, which is why he wasn’t extended a qualifying offer. Fellow defenseman Joakim Ryan, who spent his entire career with San Jose, also provides some experience. The Kings also added forwards Mario Kempe and Martin Frk, but they might have a tough time breaking into the lineup.

WHO’S NOT: The Kings bought out veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf while forward Brendan Leipsic signed with Washington. LA dealt some prospects near the trade deadline for draft picks.

KEY PLAYERS: F Anze Kopitar scored 60 points last season, which was a 32-point decrease from 2017-18. He is expected to bounce back and have increased production this season, but probably not on the level of two years ago.

Kovalchuk had a nightmare return to the NHL last year, with just 34 points and at one point being demoted to the fourth line. McLellan has lauded the Russian during training camp, saying he is more engaged and buying into the new system.

Goaltender Jonathan Quick was hampered by injuries and was in net for only 46 games. This could be the year he is traded after Jack Campbell was signed to a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp

OUTLOOK: Los Angeles is looking to avoid missing the playoffs in multiple seasons for the first time since 2008-09 but has an aging roster with large contracts, which doesn’t give the Kings much salary cap flexibility.

Veteran defenseman Drew Doughty knows the team is in a rebuilding phase. ”It’s just what we got to do,” he said. ”We’re a new team, we’re rebuilding, we’re going to be younger. We shouldn’t be surprised if we make trades this year. We just got to be better.”

PREDICTION: The Kings should improve on last season’s point total but are expected to miss the playoffs and be near the bottom of the Western Conference. The most interesting month of the season figures to be February as they’re likely to be in the trade market again and making the slow steps necessary to rebuild the roster.

Healthy Erik Karlsson key to Sharks’ success this season

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Erik Karlsson arrived in San Jose during training camp a year ago as the potential difference-maker who could push the Sharks over the top and make them champions for the first time in franchise history.

An adjustment period and then a groin injury that sidelined him for much of the second half of the season and slowed him for the playoffs limited Karlsson’s impact in his first year with the Sharks.

But after getting an eight-year, $92 million contract in the offseason, Karlsson is now a centerpiece for a Sharks team undergoing an adjustment after losing captain Joe Pavelski to Dallas in free agency.

”It’s a big difference,” Karlsson said. ”Last year was a big change for myself individually and this team as well with me coming in as late as I did. I think this year is totally different. We’re all familiar with each other, we know what to expect. It will be easier to get into the swing of things.”

When Karlsson got into the swing of things last season he was one of the best players in the game. During a stretch from December to January, Karlsson showed he still has the ability to be the best defenseman in the NHL. He had points in 15 straight games that he played and had 25 points total in that span.

Karlsson then got hurt Jan. 16 in Arizona. He returned to take part in All-Star weekend in San Jose but had to wait two more weeks to play a real game. He got hurt again Feb. 26 in Boston and didn’t play again until the regular-season finale.

While Karlsson still wasn’t at full speed when he returned, he managed to make a major impact in the playoffs. He had 14 assists in 19 games and also scored two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 of the Western Conference final against St. Louis. The Sharks then lost the next three games with Karlsson hurt for parts of Games 4 and 5 and not even making the trip to St. Louis for the final game of the season.

”He’s one of the most dominant players in the world when he’s healthy and playing his game,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”We saw that during stretches last year when he was healthy. It makes everybody better, the team better. I’m excited, knock on wood, to have a full season with him healthy and ready to go.”

Here’s a look at the Sharks’ season:

WHO’S HERE: D Dalton Proud, F Jonny Brodzinski, assistant coach Bob Boughner.

WHO’S NOT: Pavelski, F Joonas Donskoi, F Gustav Nyquist, D Justin Braun, D Joakim Ryan, F Micheal Haley.

KEY PLAYERS: Martin Jones is coming off the worst season of his career, allowing 2.53 goals per game and ranking 52nd out of 56 goalies with at least 20 starts with an .896 save percentage a year ago. Better play in the net will go a long way toward San Jose’s success this season. Forwards Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier emerged with career-best seasons with each reaching the 30-goal mark for the first time in their careers. With Pavelski and his 38 goals gone, those two will be counted on to do even more offensively this season.

OUTLOOK: The Sharks have one of the most potent defenses led by former Norris Trophy winners Karlsson and Brent Burns. They need shutdown defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic to bounce back from a down year after allowing their most goals in a season in 22 years. GM Doug Wilson also didn’t do much to replace the production of Pavelski, Donskoi and Nyquist up front, hoping at least a few of a group of untested players featuring Brodzinski, Dylan Gambrell, Sasha Chmelevski and Alex True can fill that scoring void.

PREDICTION: The Sharks finished second in the Pacific Division with 101 points and then made the run to conference final against eventual champion St. Louis. With Karlsson and Burns leading the defense and a strong core of veteran forwards featuring new captain Logan Couture, 40-year-old Joe Thornton, 30-goal scorer Evander Kane, Hertl and Meier, the Sharks have all the ingredients for another deep run.

Which teams should take a chance on Andrei Markov?

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After being away from the NHL for two seasons, Andrei Markov is ready to return to North America. He made that clear during an interview with the Montreal Gazette last month. The Russian blue liner left for the AK Bars Kazan of the KHL two seasons ago and he’s hoping an NHL team will take a chance on him now.

His preference would be to play out the final year of his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, the Montreal Canadiens, but that doesn’t appear to be likely at this point.

The 40-year-old needs to play just 10 more games to reach the 1,000 mark for his career. That’s an important milestone for him.

“It’s something you want to be there,” Markov said of reaching that plateau. “It’s important, you know. But most important probably is to try to play one more year in the NHL, to prove that I can still play in that level.”

But can Markov keep up with the current pace of play in the NHL?

After multiple knee surgeries, it became clear that he wasn’t ever going to be the fastest player on the ice anymore. But his hockey smarts were always his biggest asset. There weren’t too many players that thought the game better than Markov when he was at his best. Whether or not the body can still perform at a high level remains to be seen.

Markov was negotiating his own contract the last time he and the Habs failed to come to terms on an agreement (two summers ago), but he’s since hired Allan Walsh to be his agent.

“He’s certainly looking to play on a team where there’s a role for him,” Walsh told TSN 690 radio in Montreal last week. “We believe that he can really help any team’s power play, that he can contribute meaningful five-on-five minutes, that he can serve as a veteran presence in the room, and he’s always been known as a bit of a quiet guy but he’s also been known as a quiet leader. He’s always been in amazing physical shape in his entire career and he’s in great shape right now.”

Walsh went on to say that his new client isn’t looking to sign a PTO and he’s looking to play for a team that’s ready to win right away.

Keeping all that in mind, which teams would be the best fits for Markov? Let’s look at some options.

• San Jose Sharks: We know that the Sharks are top-heavy on their defense with players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but they also have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. The issue with San Jose last year was that they didn’t have enough depth to fill out their blue line every night. During the postseason, there were many nights when Joakim Ryan was playing less than 10 minutes per game (sometimes less than five minutes). Ryan is no longer there, but they now have Tim Heed, Dalton Prout and Radim Simek on the fold. Markov on an affordable contract could be an intriguing fit in San Jose.

• Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers’ defense is a little more crowded than San Jose’s right now, but there’s an obvious connection between their team and Markov’s camp. Of course, Markov played for assistant coach Michel Therrien for many years in Montreal and he also played part of a season for Alain Vigneault a long time ago. Again, the Flyers have young depth on the blue line, they added Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but maybe they can find a way to make it work.

Florida Panthers: Markov has spent a good chunk of the summer training in Florida, so he’s familiar with the area. The Panthers made it clear that they want to start winning with a little more regularity. That’s why they signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year deal this off-season. They also added Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman this summer. Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Keith Yandle and Stralman will make up the top four, but Mark Pysyk, MacKenzie Weegar, Ian McCoshen and Joshua Brown will battle for the five, six and seven spots on defense. There’s room for Markov if they believe he can play.

Nashville Predators: Like the Sharks, the Preds are also top-heavy on defense. Even after trading P.K. Subban away, they still have Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. Youngster Dante Fabbro is also expected to play a big role in Nashville this season, so the top four is full. Beyond that, there are some question marks. Also, the Preds also owned the worst power play in the NHL last season. Could Markov help them improve in that area?

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.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

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.

It’s San Jose Sharks Day at PHT

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

2018-19
46-27-9, 101 points (2nd in the Pacific Division, 2nd in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in conference final to St. Louis Blues

IN:
Dalton Prout
Jonny Brodzinski
Tom Pyatt
Trevor Carrick

OUT:
Joonas Donskoi
Gustav Nyquist
Joe Pavelski
Joakim Ryan
Francis Perrson
Kyle Wood
Justin Braun

RE-SIGNED:
Erik Karlsson
Kevin Labanc
Timo Meier
Tim Heed
Dylan Gambrell
Antti Suomela
Maxim Letunov
Nick DeSimone

2018-19 Summary

Three weeks before the start of the season, Sharks general manager finally got the difference-maker he’d been seeking for so long. Acquiring Erik Karlsson was seen as the final piece of what would help San Jose break their Stanley Cup drought.

While Karlsson’s regular season was limited to 53 games due to injury, he played all but one of their 20 playoff games, but in the end it wasn’t enough. The Sharks reached the Western Conference Final for the second time in four seasons, but they fell to the eventual champion St. Louis Blues in six games.

The Sharks saw another strong season from their offensive leaders in Karlsson (45 points), Brent Burns (83 points), Tomas Hertl (35 goals), Logan Couture (70 points), captain Joe Pavelski (38 goals), Evander Kane (30 goals), and Joe Thornton (51 points). There were also breakout seasons from Timo Meier (30 goals, 66 pooints) and Kevin Labanc (56 points), but when you look back at the 2018-19 season from San Jose’s perspective you can’t help but ask one real simple question:

How would it have ended if they received adequate, consistent goaltending?

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

Martin Jones had a rough season and ended with a .886 even strength save percentage. His backup, Aaron Dell, wasn’t any better with an .899 ESSV%. Those numbers put both 57th and 60th among all NHL goaltenders who appeared in at least 20 games last season, with Jones coming in dead last at No. 60. The red light lit up often when he was between the pipes with the netminder allowing at least four goals 26 times in his 82 total appearances.

The Sharks offense bailed out their goalies often, finishing second overall in with 289 goals, and while they were able to make it to the conference final despite their Achilles heels in goal, it’s not a plan to bank on again.

This coming season will see some change on the roster. Pavelski is gone to Dallas; Donskoi signed in Colorado; and Justin Braun was dealt to Philadelphia. As of Saturday, Joe Thornton, who turned 40 in July, remains unsigned, as he decides between coming back on another one-year deal or retirement. 

Another old face who is still an unrestricted free agent is Patrick Marleau, who spent 19 seasons in San Jose before signing in Toronto where he played the last two seasons. He was dealt to Carolina in June at the NHL Draft and later bought out, putting him back on the market and igniting rumors he could make a return to the franchise where he began his NHL career.

Even with a few questions lingering, 2019-20 is still a Stanley Cup-or-bust season for the Sharks as their window remains wide open as they seek their first championship.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.