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What should Sharks do with Joe Pavelski?

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Not that long ago, Joe Pavelski was the most pressing extension question for the San Jose Sharks. The acquisition of Erik Karlsson knocks Pavelski down a peg, yet CBA quirks might delay extension talks for the star defenseman, and Pavelski ranks as a crucial contract conundrum either way.

After all, Pavelski is San Jose’s captain. The Wisconsin-born forward has developed outstanding chemistry with the Sharks’ other big Joe (Thornton), and it shows in his goal totals; since 2011-12, Pavelski’s 214 goals rank fifth overall (edging Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Kane).

On the other hand, it’s far from a no-brainer for the Sharks to lock Pavelski down, particularly if the forward – understandably – would demand some term.

It might sneak up on you to realize that Pavelski is already 34 years old. He’s about to enter a contract year for 2018-19, so he’d be 35 whenever his next deal kicks in during the 2019-20 season.

Given further context, it’s an even more challenging question. As much as Joe Thornton‘s Hall of Famer-caliber passing has made life easier for Pavelski, it’s worth noting that he’s not just scoring goals from “Ovechkin’s office.” Instead, Pavelski’s developed a world-class knack for tipping and deflecting pucks into the net, which often requires him to go to the “dirty areas” of the ice, which opens the door for dirty hits. So, it stands to mention that Pavelski could be an “old 35” once that contract comes around, and players don’t tend to become more durable with age.

The Sharks’ already-aging roster piles on even more context regarding risks surrounding a Pavelski contract extension.

Brent Burns is 33, and his $8 million cap hit could become worrisome as time goes along, as it doesn’t expire until after 2024-25. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just about to begin a deal that carries a $7M AAV, and he’s locked up for one more season (through 2025-26).

Burns and “Pickles” are more obvious current-day red flags, yet other contracts get a little eyebrow-raising when you consider the learning curve. Logan Couture‘s 29, yet his eight-year ($8M cap hit) extension won’t kick in until 2019-20. He’ll be 30 once it does, and Couture’s commitment runs through 2026-27. Few goalies in Martin Jones‘ range (reliable, not quite elite) enjoy the sort of security he does, as the 28-year-old has six seasons remaining at $5.75M per year.

Add a possible extension for Erik Karlsson (already 28, will be 29 on May 31) to that mix, and especially worrisome types might go into a panic.

Now, don’t get this twisted; the Sharks are justified, in many ways, to go all-in. Even if they eventually foot the bill with an aging roster, not unlike their pals in Los Angeles.

All of those details illuminate how difficult the Pavelski decision could end up being.

With all of that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Pavelski’s agent Dan Plante told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) that there haven’t been any extension talks yet.

“Since there hasn’t been a whole lot of talks about a contract extension at all, I would say that they are lukewarm or tepid, at best,” Plante said. “It’s really kind of non-existent, so maybe non-existent is a better word.”

Plante indicates that Pavelski would prefer to stay in San Jose, amusingly telling Kurz that “he’s a Wisconsin kid, but he’s bled San Jose Sharks since the day that they drafted him.”

(If you too bleed San Jose Sharks, maybe call a doctor.)

Essentially, Sharks GM Doug Wilson can ponder the following avenues:

  • Trade him rather than losing him for nothing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s somewhat tough to fathom that the win-now Sharks would trade their high-scoring captain during an all-in year.
  • Pavelski plays through the season, then the chips fall where they may. Note that Pavelski’s carrying an affordable $6M cap hit during the final year of his current contract.
  • Sign him to a substantial extension. Hey, the Sharks are already going for it, so why not roll the dice another time?

Really, the dream scenario would be that Pavelski accepts the same approach that fellow Joe-in-teal Thornton does with contracts, as “Jumbo Joe” has been content to sign one-year contracts lately. Of course, Thornton is 39, and his two short-term deals came amid questions about his health (one knee per contract, it seems). It would be a tough sell for Pavelski, whose deal carried that $6M cap hit from 2014-15 through 2018-19, not to mention a $4M cap hit during the stretch of 2010-11 to 2013-14.

Pavelski might feel like he’s owed a heartier commitment after ranking as a bargain for basically his an entire career, and justifiably so. Keeping him around might not be the best option for the Sharks, however, which explains the impasse.

What would you do regarding Pavelski if you were Wilson?

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.

Erik Karlsson up for challenge of finding fit with Sharks

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Let’s get the business part out of the way first. An extension with the San Jose Sharks isn’t on Erik Karlsson’s mind just yet. As he was formally introduced on Wednesday afternoon, he donned the team’s jersey for the first time after a few days of waiting for immigration issue to be sorted and packing for the biggest move of his life.

“I realized I have a pretty big closet, I have a lot of things to bring,” joked Karlsson, who’s in the final year of his contract. “I didn’t think I had enough, but I think I have more than enough.”

While the Karlssons will keep their house in Ottawa, what happens in the next year is still up in the air. There was an expectation that an extension would be announced not long after the trade from the Senators was finalized — like Max Pacioretty. But not so fast noted The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, who pointed out that per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, an eight-year contract cannot be signed just yet, if Karlsson and his wife do decide they want to stay.

Break out your handy CBA and turn to page 285 and you’ll read this:

“An SPC with a term of greater than seven (7) years, provided, however, that a Club may sign a Player to an SPC with a term of up to eight (8) years if that Player was on such Club’s Reserve List as of and since the most recent Trade Deadline. With respect to potential Unrestricted Free Agents only, the ability to re-sign a Player to an SPC of eight (8) years expires when the Player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent. With respect to a Player who becomes a Group 2 Restricted Free Agent, a Club may sign such Player to an SPC with a term of up to eight (8) years provided such Player was on such Club’s Reserve List and/or Restricted Free Agent List as of and since the most recent Trade Deadline.”

LeBrun added that the Sharks were aware of this rule when they made the trade.

Since we have five months before that situation can be resolved, the focus can be on the ice and Karlsson practiced with his teammates for the first time on Wednesday. General manager Doug Wilson added the “difference-maker” he so badly sought over the summer and his upgraded offensive arsenal can dig in for a Western Conference fight with the likes of the Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets.

[Erik Karlsson on Ottawa: ‘I never wanted to leave this place’]

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer wasn’t sure when he’d try to get Karlsson into one of the team’s final five preseason games. The next little while is about getting him settled into a new city, familiar with his new teammates and up-to-speed on the team’s systems.

“I don’t think Erik has to adapt at all,” DeBoer said. “He just has to do what he does. He’s one of the best players on the planet. We just need him to do what he’s done for his whole career… We play up-tempo, we play aggressive. We play the way he plays. He’s going to fit right in.”

“It’s definitely going to be a change,” Karlsson said. “I like to see challenges and I think it will be a fun challenge, not only for me but this whole team. They’ve been a successful team for a number of years. They were extremely good last year and I’m extremely excited to be part of a good organization and good hockey club right from the start. I’ll do everything I can to fit in as good as I possibly can and being able to play the best hockey I know I can do.”

Karlsson skated with Marc-Edouard Vlasic while Brent Burns was paired with Justin Braun. That’s a very, very strong top-four to throw out on the ice every night, and there’s still two weeks to experiment with different pairings.

(At one point, DeBoer put Karlsson out with Burns and Joe Pavelski during a three-on-three drill. Good luck slowing that trio down.)

The different dimensions of Karlsson’s game that he’s bringing to San Jose will give DeBoer plenty of options when he looks to deploy his new defenseman.

“What I love about Erik’s game, everybody looks at the offense, but he’s an exceptional defensive player, too,” said DeBoer. “So, I think we can use him in every situation. There’s very few players in the world that I would term that you can use in the last minute of games when you’re up, or you’re down, to shut down the other team’s best players to create offense when you’re from behind, and he’s one of those guys. He has those types of tools. We’re going to use him in a lot of different ways.”

MORE: Karlsson trade gives Sharks NHL’s most explosive defense

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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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Power Rankings: 10 players who could be traded this season

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It’s the summer and with no regular season games being played it’s awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. This week we look at more players that could be on the move in trades during the 2018-19 regular season.

The potential class of free agents for the summer 2019 was looking to be an impressive one, with Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Drew Doughty, Joe Pavelski, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a bunch of other top-line players all eligible to hit the open market. As is always the case when we look ahead to potential free agents, many of them will never get close to reaching unrestricted free agency.

Doughty has already been re-signed by the Los Angeles Kings. Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and almost immediately re-signed to a new deal. It is really difficult to see Pavelski getting away from the Sharks, and now that Erik Karlsson is there to help form what could be a super-defense, they will almost certainly work to get him signed to a new deal as well.

That obviously puts a big dent in the potential free agent market.

The other factor at play is what all of these potential UFAs mean for the trade market, and we’ve already seen that at play with the recent trades of Pacioretty and Karlsson.

There could be more throughout the regular season.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 pending unrestricted free agents that could be traded this season, starting with a pretty dynamic duo in Columbus.

1-2. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

What in the world are the Columbus Blue Jackets going to do here?

They should still be playoff contenders this season, but their two best players — and the two players that help make them a playoff contender — are entering the final years of their contracts and it remains to be seen if either one wants to actually re-sign with the team.

This is, pretty clearly, a no-win situation because, again, what in the heck are they supposed to do?

On one hand, you don’t want to put yourself in a position to lose two players of this caliber for nothing other than salary cap space. You also don’t really want a season-long storyline playing out like the New York Islanders went through with John Tavares.

On the other hand, the team with these two should still be good enough to make the playoffs, and you never want to punt on that chance as long as it exists. The key thing to watch here will probably be what sort of season the Blue Jackets are having. As long as they are in contention for a playoff spot and feel they have a chance to make some noise, they’re probably going to see what they can do with this core as it stands.

But if they show any sign of falling out of it or find themselves on the playoff bubble? They almost have to see what the market for these two would be in a trade.

Are they the most likely players to be traded this season? Not at all, because, again, the Blue Jackets should be good. But the possibility that one (or even both) could be on the move is certainly out there. And if they are, they would be the most impactful players available. That is what puts them at the top of these rankings.

As for two players that almost certainly will be traded…

3-4. Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators: These two are pretty much guaranteed to be moved, aren’t they?

Derick Brassard, Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson are already gone as part of the Senators’ rebuild, and owner Eugene Melynk’s grand plan seems to involve the team having “15 or maybe even 16” new faces on it by the start of next season.

[Related: Stunning one-year rise and fall of Ottawa Senators]

Given the contract statuses of Stone and Duchene, as well as the tear-it-all-down-to-the-ground rebuild that is underway, there is virtually no chance either player remains on the team at the end of this season.

If they somehow make it through the trade deadline without being moved, why would they ever want to re-sign with this franchise?

5-6. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers

At this point there is no secret about what Hayes is as a player. He has over 300 NHL games on his resume and his production has been fairly consistent across the board every season. The player you see is the player you are getting, and if the Rangers felt he was a long-term fit beyond this year they probably would have tried a little harder to buy out some of his UFA years in his latest contract. The fact they did not makes him a pretty big trade candidate.

Zuccarello is a little different.

He is 31 years old, he is set to become a UFA after this season, and all of that makes him a logical trade candidate for a rebuilding team. But the Rangers’ rebuild is still tough to get a hold on. This doesn’t seem to be a complete tear down like, say, the Senators, and it seems possible he could remain with the team. He seems to love playing in New York, has said he wants to remain with the team, and he could still be a fit in whatever their plans are.

[Related: Rangers could once again be active in trade market]

7. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders: The Islanders are going to be a fascinating team to watch over the next year because three of their top forwards are all eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season (Nelson, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle).

They will also have to give their new franchise cornerstone, Mathew Barzal, a new contract at some point over the next two years as he will be eligible for restricted free agency following the 2020-21 season.

It is certainly possible that any of Eberle, Lee, or Nelson could be dealt before the deadline, especially if the team struggles on the ice (and given the makeup of the roster, that seems inevitable). But they have to keep someone. If you were to look today at the most logical trade candidate it might be Nelson because he is probably the least impactful of that trio.

Facing restricted free agency and arbitration this past summer, the Islanders and Nelson agreed to a one-year deal, setting Nelson up for UFA status next summer. That puts him in a nearly identical situation as the one Hayes is in with the Rangers. There is very little secret as to what he is as a player, and if the Rangers were serious about making him a part of the core moving forward they would have tried harder to buy out some of his UFA years. They didn’t.

8. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings: As the Red Wings move into the post-Henrik Zetterberg era there are definitely going to be more changes.

The team has committed to its rebuild, and there does not seem to be much sense in them re-signing Nyquist at this point in his career given where the team is going in the short-term and its current salary cap situation. They probably shouldn’t be expected to get quite the same haul as they did for Tomas Tatar a year ago (mainly because Tatar still had four years of term left on his contract and Nyquist is a pending UFA) but he could still be a useful rental for a contender that needs some depth scoring.

[Related: What’s next for Red Wings in post-Zetterberg era]

9. Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks spent the summer acting like a team that can make the playoffs, but let’s be honest … they are probably not making the playoffs this year. Edler has been a staple on the Canucks’ defense for a decade and been one of the best and most productive defenders in the history of the franchise. He is the biggest pending UFA the team has and is still a strong top-four defender. His no-trade clause could complicate a potential move as he holds all of the cards in where he goes, but he could help a contender.

10. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres: I know, I know … the Sabres just traded for him. And it was a great move. Skinner is an outstanding player, a great goal-scorer, and will help bring some offensive punch to a Sabres team that needs a lot of help. And the price was certainly right for them not even having to give up their own first-round pick or either of the conditional first-round picks they have from St. Louis or San Jose in 2019 or 2020.

At this point there is no new contract in place for Skinner as he enters the final year of his deal, so that certainly creates an interesting scenario. He is still only 26 years old (and does not turn 27 until May) so he could absolutely still be a part of the Sabres’ core going forward if they can get him signed.

If they can’t, and if the team stinks again, is it really hard to imagine the Sabres trying to make another move? Give how little they gave up to get him in the first place they could probably easily get back equal value at the deadline.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?

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The offseason is where you fill out your BINGO card of sports cliches, and this post undoubtedly leans on the “best shape of my life trope,” or something close to it.

Yet, you could almost picture the San Jose Sharks pulling out a favorite of a GM after a quiet offseason or trade deadline: “[Injured player] coming back is like landing a big player.” Such a tactic really fits here because a) the Sharks missed out on big-ticket free agents, despite lobbing a hefty offer at John Tavares and b) Joe Thornton is making promising statements about his health.

(Naturally, this marks that key moment where we first tap the brakes and remind you that plenty of athletes believe that they’ve healed, only to aggravate an injury, sometimes even during training camp. So, please, PLEASE don’t use this as a reason to bet your mortgage on the Sharks winning the Stanley Cup or something similar.)

On one hand, people might wonder: “What else is Thornton going to say?” That’s fair, although there are moments when the typical optimism of the summer can’t hide the cloudiness of certain injury updates. You’ll notice that when a player admits they “aren’t quite 100 percent” and other variations.

So, yeah, Thornton’s interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) seems promising, and not … too misleading? Hopefully?

“I feel good. I know my birth certificate says 39, but I think not playing a full 82 games and playoffs last year, my body feels really, really good and I feel healthy,” he said. “It’s kind of like a lockout year for myself, you get time to refocus and finally train a little bit and go again. I’m real excited for the year.”

Admittedly, to some extent, it might come down to Thornton’s vivid way with words in Kurz’s story. Adding details such as it almost being “like a lockout year” reminds me of Mike Modano and Teemu Selanne seemingly finding another gear following a full season lost. (Their rebounds didn’t make it worth it, but did dull the pain a bit.)

Of course, it’s one thing to be healthy, and another to actually be effective. Would the already slow-skating Thornton slip from “able to slow the game down” to being too slow to really be viable, much like what seemed to finally happen to Jaromir Jagr in 2017-18?

Again, Thornton had a quip for that, as Kurz reported:

“They’ve said that since I’ve been 16 years old, and I think I’ve had a pretty good career,” Thornton said.

“I think when I’m out there I dictate the play. It doesn’t matter who I play against, I usually dictate the play. I’ve had that criticism for 22 years. I think I’ve kept up pretty good.”

That’s the challenge with sports: an athlete is able to defy critics … until they can’t any longer. We can’t really know that until we actually see Thornton in action, and it’s possible that the sublime passer might not hit his groove right off the bat.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and consider what this could mean for the Sharks.

Better than we remembered?

Much like David Krejci, Thornton was more effective than maybe some of us might recall in 2017-18, with some of those hazy memories influenced by lower totals thanks to missed games.

Thornton was limited to 36 points (though with 13 goals, thanks to shooting luck), yet he did that in just 47 contests. His .77 point-per-game average would translate to a 63-point output over 82 games. That’s fantastic stuff, especially since Thornton has developed into an increasingly effective two-way performer as San Jose’s spread the scoring wealth a bit.

A reasonably healthy Thornton could tie the Sharks roster together like a Lebowski rug, and I don’t say that just because Thornton’s beard may be lush enough to serve as a rug itself.

Greater expectations?

The Sharks already looked dangerous after landing Evander Kane, going 12-6-1 and sweeping the Ducks before the Golden Knights knocked them out, and that was with Thornton unable to play.

With Thornton, the Sharks could put together two dynamic forward combos (possibly Kane – Logan Couture, Thornton – Joe Pavelski), surround them with some other nice forwards (Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl come to mind), roll out two world-class defensemen (Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), and deploy a respectable starting goalie in Martin Jones.

A healthy Thornton may also inspire GM Doug Wilson to push more chips to the middle of the table; maybe he’d go after Max Pacioretty, even as a rental, if it becomes clear that Joe is the difference-maker they expected?

It was disappointing for the Sharks to miss out on Tavares, along with some other big names. Those letdowns may sting further if Ilya Kovalchuk looks Thornton/Jagr-level ageless with the Kings.

Regardless, it’s tempting to pencil in San Jose as prohibitive favorites to win the Pacific Division if Thornton is as spry as he claims.

[Where they stand: Pacific Division in July]

Beyond the Sharks’ appealing balance and viable top-end talent, other Pacific teams carry question marks. The Golden Knights were already going to have their skeptics even before Nate Schmidt‘s 20-game suspension was announced. The Kings got Kovalchuk and may have their own healed-up center in Jeff Carter, yet that team has issues ranging from depth to aging concerns. There are worries about Anaheim taking a step back, Calgary once again watching a busy offseason flame out, the Oilers’ idleness haunting them, and the Coyotes still being a few strides short of true competitiveness. There’s also the Vancouver Canucks. They exist.

Back in late July, a small majority (27.32 percent) of PHT readers voted the Sharks as the favorites in the Pacific, edging Vegas (23.61 percent), and that was before this positive outlook on Thornton and the Schmidt news, among other developments.

Plenty can change during the span of the 2018-19 season, and even during training camp, but it’s tough to blame Sharks fans for feeling that much more exciting after today.

In fact, it could get to the point where “Pacific Division favorites” would be thinking far too small.

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.