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Futures of Thornton, Kane among key questions for Sharks

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With long-term commitments to Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones (not to mention some mid-term deals for less prominent pieces), the San Jose Sharks are largely “set” on defense and in net. They even have backup goalie Aaron Dell locked up through 2019-20.

Things get almost as fuzzy as Joe Thornton‘s beard when it comes to the futures of their forwards, though.

Plenty of questions lingered as members of the Sharks addressed the media on Tuesday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For one thing, it’s more than reasonable to wonder about how viable Thornton can be. This isn’t as much about his age alone (38, turning 39 in July), but how much can be expected of “Jumbo Joe” after tearing up each of his knees.

In 2016-17, Thornton dealt with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. It turns out that his 2017-18 season was derailed by a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, as he told reporters including the Athletic’s Kevin Kurz. Yikes.

On the bright side, it sounds like Thornton is willing to be flexible when it comes to making things work with San Jose. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle is among those who report that Thornton said he’d be willing to a) take a one-year deal and b) accept a cut from the $8 million he received last season.

And that’s where things get fun, at least if you’re a nerd for armchair GM/”franchise mode” discussions. Via Cap Friendly, the Sharks have about $60.49 million committed to their 2018-19 cap as of this moment. With next year’s ceiling expected to be somewhere between $78-82M, that’s ample room for the Sharks to make some interesting moves.

Joe and Evander

On one hand, that could open the door for the Sharks to bring both Thornton and Evander Kane back while also making some other, smaller moves.

There’s a scenario where that could really work for the Sharks. Considering the chemistry Kane developed with Joe Pavelski, the Sharks could have Thornton carry a line, roll with Kane – Pavelski, and then ask Logan Couture to exploit some matchup issues. They could also load up in different ways, maybe putting Pavelski and Kane with Thornton.

The most tantalizing thing for San Jose is that there’s another scenario that could work out even better, at least on paper.

The inevitable Tavares talk

Now, just about any NHL team with a shot at John Tavares should pursue him. It’s a stance that we might as well copy-and-paste at this point. Still, the Sharks hold some key advantages over other pursuers, and they’ve earned specific mentions as an interested party.

Heck, the connection’s been made for more than a year.

They have ample cap space not only to sign Tavares, but also to make some other moves to supplement their group. If Tavares leaves the New York Islanders – a big if, by the way – he’d likely justify such a decision by trying to give himself the best opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. The Sharks stand among the better “win now” teams who also have space to add Tavares. They don’t need to make trades to clear up space for him, either. That’s rare.

It’s to the point that, to some Islanders fans, it might become an irritating meme.

If the Sharks believe they have a real chance at Tavares, they might find themselves delaying other decisions. That’s what happens when you can add the sort of player who not only has a chance to change your fortunes, but perhaps one who could take up close to 20 percent of your cap space.

There’s some precedent to bigger name free agents taking at least a few days to make their big choices. Brad Richards did it, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter added some suspense, and there were even times when things dragged out months when contract details needed to be ironed out, such as when the Devils loophole’d their way to Ilya Kovalchuk. Tavares might want a few nights to sleep on a decision.

Along with that, the Sharks will probably want to really get an idea of how much Thornton has left in the tank. If Evander Kane believes he can get a great deal on the open market, that might mean that his days with San Jose are numbered, even though there were signs that there was a good fit (especially for Kane).

The ripple effects could go beyond 2018-19, too.

Extensions possible

The Sharks also get their first chances to make extension decisions/offers regarding Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The two forwards will see their matching $6M cap hits expire after next season, so if San Jose wants to lock them up long-term, they can do so as early as July.

The relief is that Thornton’s willing to go one year, so those decisions would not need to clash.

A possible Tavares addition makes that more complicated, though such an addition may also help the Sharks to convince one or more parties to take a little less money. Maybe.

(We’ve seen Connor McDavid take less than the max, so hockey players make that call at times, whether they actually should or not.)

San Jose does have to mull over the risk/reward regarding a roster that could get old fast, however. Couture turned 29 in March, so he’d be 30 before an extension would kick in. Pavelski is already 33 and will turn 34 in July. Burns is 33 and Vlasic is 31. Kane is relatively young compared to that group at 26, but sometimes snipers age that much more dramatically.

***

These are all situations for GM Doug Wilson to mull over, although the Tavares situation would be a rubber stamp for any executive even halfway worthy of having the gig.

If Tavares is an unrealistic dream – and, again, it’s very dangerous to assume that he won’t stick with the Isles – then the good news is that the Sharks still have space to bring back some key players, maybe dabble in free agency, and maybe even try to make a splashy trade or two.

Falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round might be the sort of thing that gets the Sharks in a Twitter squabble with the Kings, but there could be some really interesting possibilities in this franchise’s future. Wilson just needs to make the right moves … and maybe enjoy some good luck.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: 3 reasons Pens got bounced; Is Thornton done in San Jose?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Capitals and Predators both came up with huge wins last night, so TSN’s Scott Cullen took a deeper look at the key numbers for each team. (TSN.ca)

• Sports books in Vegas may not have seen the Golden Knights’ success coming, but they’ve embraced the position they’re in. The Golden Knights have hit the jackpot with different players and it could result in a Stanley Cup. (Sporting News)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have taken down the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. USA Today looks at five reasons why the Bolts can go all the way. (USA Today)

• The Bruins are going to be watching the rest of the playoffs from home for a few reasons. First, they simply didn’t do enough at five-on-five. (NHL.com)

• If you’re not Tampa, Boston or Toronto, the Atlantic Division will be a brutal place to play for the next few years. All three of those teams are clearly ahead of the rest right now. (Sportsnet)

• Last year, the Sharks said goodbye to Patrick Marleau. Is it time to do the same with veteran Joe Thornton, who will become an unrestricted free agent in July? (Mercury News)

• Not only do the Golden Knights have incredible players on their top lines, but they’ve also built up a solid group of depth players that have helped them reach this point. (Las Vegas Sun)

• Penguins fans may still have fresh wounds from last night’s playoff exit, but it’s time to analyze why they failed to get by Washington. The Pittsburgh Tribune looks at the three reasons why they were eliminated. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• Even though the Rangers have said that they’re going to be retooling, former NHL coach Dan Bylsma isn’t buying it. (New York Post)

• Former Islanders GM Bill Torrey passed away last week, so Newsday decided to look back at the top 10 moves he made during his tenure in Long Island. Bringing a guy like Denis Potvin into the organization was a home run. (Newsday)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Jets and Predators.

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.

It’s all finally clicking at the right time for Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — Hockey can be a funny, random game that can make no sense on any given night or throughout any given season. Results are sometimes prone to luck, or one shot, or one bounce, or one mistake, or one play perhaps more than any other major sport. That is just the nature of the game. Sometimes you’re great and you lose. Sometimes you’re just average and you win. That randomness can also make the game extraordinarily frustrating, and no great team — and they have been a great team — has been on the wrong side of that more often over the past decade than the Washington Capitals.

It has almost always happened in the same round (the second) and against the same team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) every year.

On Monday night in Pittsburgh, after years of torment and heartbreak, the Capitals finally — FINALLY — toppled both of those demons and kicked the wall down.

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal at the 5:27 mark of overtime lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in Game 6, sending them into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 and the first time in the Alex Ovechkin/Barry Trotz era (or any coach that Ovechkin has had).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

To say there was a sense of relief and elation in the Capitals’ locker room would be an understatement.

It’s not only Ovechkin and Trotz’s first trip to the Conference Final as a duo, it is also Trotz’s first trip in his 19th year as an NHL coach. Not being able to conquer that obstacle has been an obvious thorn in the side of an organization that has been one of the best in the league for more than a decade. Finishing with the best record in the league three times in 10 years is a major accomplishment. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen and has consistently performed in every situation for them. That, too, is worth something (a lot, actually). But because they haven’t had that one season where everything worked together in unison for them at the right time of year the results were always the same.

Disappointment.

When great players and great teams consistently fall short, they can never shake that underachiever label, or choker label, or whatever label you want to throw on it, whether it is fair or not. And it is almost never fair.

“Oh absolutely,” said Trotz when asked if he ever felt some sort of a kinship with his players when it came to meeting the same result in the playoffs at the same point every year, and what it felt like to finally get over that hump.

“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns. He is a great player in this league. This league is a tough league, I think we’re only the team in the past few years to get to the second round [every year]. Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups. It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You just have to stay with it. There is a kinship there, there is no question for that whole group. Backstrom. Ovi. Myself. Everybody.”

What makes all of this so surprising this season is that it is this Capitals team that has taken the next big step for the organization. That it is this Capitals team that might finally end up being the one.

There have probably been better Capitals teams than this one, both in terms of the roster on paper, and the results on the ice during an 82-game season. Any of the recent Presidents’ Trophy teams come to mind, and there were times this very season where it looked like the Capitals, on their way to a third consecutive division title, maybe just were not as good as their record.

But again, sometimes hockey is weird. And where better Capitals teams ran into a hot goalie, or didn’t have a little puck luck on their side, or didn’t have the depth around Ovechkin and Backstrom, this one seems to have all of that finally happening in their favor.

Braden Holtby has been a world-class goalie six years. He has won a Vezina Trophy, was a runner-up in another year, and entered these playoffs with the second best save percentage in NHL playoff history. But for as great as he has been there was always that one goalie, in that one series, that always just seemed to stand on his head a little bit more. Three years ago it was Henrik Lundqvist. Two years ago it was Matt Murray. Last year it was Marc-Andre Fleury when he, quite literally, stole the series from a Capitals team that probably carried the play through the seven game series.

This year it was Holtby that got the best of his counterpart, and it was a big difference in the series. Maybe the difference.

He did that after starting the playoffs on the bench in the first round. Since returning to the lineup he is 8-2 with a .926 save percentage. There were many playoff series in the past where he has posted better numbers and, somehow, still ended up on the wrong side of it.

In previous matchups with Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin would seemingly match each other goal-for-goal and point-for-point only to have the Penguins’ depth players end up being the difference.

This year it was the Capitals’ that had the depth scoring come through.

They managed to do all of that while overcoming a lot of the adversity that has typically sunk them in the past, whether it be the aforementioned goalie drama to open the playoffs, or injuries.

The Stanley Cup playoffs can sometimes be a battle of attrition where it is not just simply the best team that wins, but the healthiest team. The Capitals went into Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh playing without half of their top-six. Tom Wilson was sitting out due to a suspension. Andre Burakovsky has not played since Game 2 of the first round. Then, the most damaging loss of them all came less than an hour before faceoff when it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would not play due to an upper-body injury.

The stage seemed set for the Penguins to take advantage and send the series back to Washington for yet another Game 7 where anything could have happened.

Then the Capitals came out and completely shut the Penguins down, limiting a back-to-back champion that was facing elimination on home ice to just 22 shots on goal over 65 minutes of hockey.

“I don’t think anybody would have favored us being without him tonight, then with another two top-six forwards not playing,” said forward Lars Eller when asked about the absence of Backstrom.

“Having three top-six guys out, that just makes it so much better. It tells us how deep we are and what this group is all about. It’s great, it just tells how this group fought through this adversity because we faced some adversity without those guys.”

Without Backstrom (and Wilson, and Burakovsky), Eller said the Capitals didn’t really try to do anything different, but just had to make sure they had the right mindset and that everyone was prepared to step up and do a little more.

“You try to keep the same mentality, but just knowing obviously that you might play a few more minutes and stuff like that,” said Eller. “It takes a little bit more from everybody, and if you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude you can get it done, and we got it done. Guys stepped up. Our fourth line guys, [Nathan] Walker coming in, [Alex] Chiasson with a big goal, [Travis] Boyd came in after playing in I don’t know how long, they all did great in the hardest possible environment. Pittsburgh, Game 6, it doesn’t get much bigger and they handled themselves incredibly well. It was just great to be a part of.”

For years the the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau San Jose Sharks were the “so close, but couldn’t get it done” team in the NHL, and they carried that label for more than a decade through years of postseason exits. After everyone seemingly gave up on them ever breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they finally did it two years ago. It may not have resulted in a win, but it was still a major accomplishment and huge step for an organization that had yet to take it. After years of premature first-and second-round exits there came a point where everyone wondered if the Penguins in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era would ever get another Stanley Cup. When it seemed that their window had slammed shut, they won two in a row.

This finally seemed to be the year where the Capitals reached that point where everyone outside of their organization and fan-base had given up on them after years of “this is the year” kept ending with the same result. Now here they are in the Eastern Conference Final after beating their long-time nemesis.

Given what this team has done in previous seasons, and given the way some of their top players have performed in both the regular season and playoffs, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.

Truth is, they probably deserved it long before this season. But that is not the way hockey works.

Sometimes you just never really know when all of the forces are going to align and work in your favor.

After years of “this is the year” proclamations coming up empty, this might actually be the one.

Especially after finally getting through second round and the Penguins the way they did it.

————

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.

Bruins should target a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency

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Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, Rick Nash was … well, Rick Nash during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fair or not, the typical narrative stuck. Nash generated a mountain of scoring chances (39 shots on goal in just 12 games), but connected on precious few, finishing with three goals and two assists for five points. It says a lot about his career-long playoff woes that his 7.7 shooting percentage during this run was actually a bit better than his career mark of six percent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nash is far from the only player outside of the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) who fell short of the mark, but he stands out as being a guy who’s unlikely to return considering his expiring contract. Whether they bounce back or not, guys like David Krejci and David Backes are locked down through 2020-21.

[Lightning eliminate Bruins in Game 5]

Ultimately, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should look to free agency and ask himself: “Who can give us a little more than Rick Nash and other depth players?”

An unclear window

The Bruins deserve a ton of credit for drafting and developing some real gems in Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie McAvoy. Even so, the Bruins are powered by some players whose windows of dominance could start to close. Brad Marchand will turn 30 on May 11. Krejci and Bergeron are both 32. Backes is 34. Zdeno Chara is still somehow a top pairing defenseman at 41.

Some aging curve questions are scary, and doubling down with a free agent can be really scary. That said, you never know when your window will close as a contender; the Bruins would be wise to take their best shots over the next season or two.

Intriguing wingers

The Bruins could very well get a younger version of Nash in some free agents who bring some size and skill to the table.

There’s a decent chance that Evander Kane will not hit the market, but if he does, the Bruins could conceivably be a good fit considering all of the veterans they have on hand. Kane isn’t the only interesting option, either.

James van Riemsdyk stands out as one of the more interesting fits. While there’s some risk that JVR could be the next Bobby Ryan (a consistent 20+ goal guy who was once cheap who could then sign an albatross deal), but the American winger has shown that he can score, even when he’s receiving minimal ice time. That said, van Riemsdyk is already 29 and hasn’t always been the most prolific playoff point producer, either.

Like Kane with the Sharks, it’s unclear if James Neal or David Perron will be back with the Vegas Golden Knights, but both are interesting considerations for Boston. Neal could add even more snarl to a lineup that already includes Backes and Marchand, not to mention his ability to score goals with remarkable consistency. Perron, meanwhile, would be the slicker option, and possibly the cheaper one?

Centers

Let’s get this out of the way first: any team with a shot at John Tavares should do what it takes to make it happen, even if it calls for creative trades. The Bruins are no exception, though it’s tough to image Tavares wearing the spoked B.

Another tough-to-imagine scenario: the return of Joe Thornton. That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it?

Now, the Nash example calls more for winger comparisons, but who’s to say that the Bruins wouldn’t dip into the market for a mid-level center? Such a gameplan could be fruitful if management believes that Krejci could be liberated by a Claude Giroux-style move to the wing, or more advantageous matchups as a third-line center. Among other ideas.

Paul Stastny would be intriguing.

He’s not the sexiest scorer, but Stastny is a strong two-way player. It’s tough to imagine the Jets being able to afford re-signing him considering that they’re going to have to give big raises to Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine going forward. There’s quite a bit of risk with Stastny being 32, but he makes some stylistic sense, too.

The funniest idea

Hey, Leo Komarov is a pending UFA, and he obviously has chemistry with Marchand …

(Ideally) cheaper options

Generally speaking, NHL teams are better off exploiting the bargain bin instead of taking big swings. The Bruins have seen that firsthand, as the Backes deal is one they’d almost certainly want to take back. Many of the above ideas are expressed while realizing that, eventually, those contracts will probably be a headache.

Boston may instead be better off going short-term or cheaper, possibly with more than one signing.

Patrick Maroon‘s value should be interesting to follow. Will a team overpay for a big guy who can score a bit, or will his solid work with New Jersey go under the radar?

The Bruins might be better off going after Maroon or fellow short-time Devil Michael Grabner. Thomas Vanek is another interesting consideration. While he’s become a notably one-dimensional player, Vanek showed that he can really boost a team’s offense. In a specialist role, Vanek might excel, and the Bruins should keep an eye on him if the market is tepid.

***

Look, players usually hit free agency in the NHL for a reason. These are players who, for whatever reason, end up being deemed expendable.

The Bruins and other teams must look at free agency as finding the cherry on top, rather than some cure-all. Rick Nash fell short of that mark, but maybe one of these options could make the difference?

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.

Joe Thornton return among Sharks’ possibilities for Game 4

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When asked about the San Jose Sharks’ lineup for Game 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights, Peter DeBoer repeatedly deflected questions, hammering the phrase “game-time decisions” in each instance.

That hasn’t stopped people from speculating about who might be in or out of the mix.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The most interesting name popping up is Joe Thornton. The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz notes that Thornton said that he’s probably not ready for Game 4, yet Kurz believes there’s some possibility for a pleasant surprise once those game-time decisions are in.

Kurz isn’t the only reporter who’s showing some optimism about a possible return for “Jumbo Joe” tonight. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle goes as far as to label Thornton as “likely to play.”

Thornton’s already gone through some of the vague-if-positive steps of recovery, even warming up with the Sharks recently. If nothing else, it seems like the 38-year-old has a shot at playing sometime during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Really, it would be a shame if he did not. That’s especially true if the pending UFA doesn’t re-sign with the Sharks, as that would make for an unceremonious end to his decade-plus with the team.

Thornton underwent surgery in late January, and even at his previous “bringing the game to his own speed,” it was reasonable to wonder how he’d fare against the lightning-fast, aggressive Golden Knights. That would be an even more valid question if Thornton plays at less than 100 percent.

Even a hobbled Thornton could make a big difference, whether he skates with Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski on a top-heavy first line or gets eased into the mix as a third-line center.

The Sharks’ official Twitter feed acknowledged the uncertainty at hand while pointing to another tweak to monitor: it looks like Joakim Ryan will replace veteran defenseman Paul Martin tonight. Do note that DeBoer wouldn’t give a concrete answer on that subject, either, though:

If that swap stands, Ryan will be making his first-career appearance in an NHL postseason game. The 24-year-old played in 62 games for the Sharks during his rookie season, averaging 16:45 TOI and scoring 12 points. His possession stats are fairly promising, all things considered.

It’s actually remarkable that Paul Martin has been able to stay in the lineup for this long considering how often he was a healthy scratch (or demoted to the AHL) during the regular season. Let’s just say that this is a mere sample of the less-than-positive reviews of his recent work:

After the Golden Knights throttled the Sharks 7-0 in Game 1, the two teams have traded overtime victories. Game 4 will go a long way in determining if this could be a long, fascinating series or if Vegas might continue to dominate in ways that still seem shocking.

You’d have to think that even a less-than-optimal Thornton would give the Sharks a serious boost, but we’ll have to see how the game-time decisions play out.

Game 4 takes place on NBCSN tonight with puck drop slated for 10 p.m. ET. This is the livestream link.

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.