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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.

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.

Three questions facing Toronto Maple Leafs

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

Three questions to ponder for the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs…

[Maple Leafs Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough]

1. Will the defense be good enough?

We know the Maple Leafs are going to score goals. This should be the best offensive team in hockey with John Tavares joining one of the best young collections of talent in the league, giving Toronto a dynamic and downright dominant offensive lineup.

The question then becomes will they be able to stop anybody at the other end of the ice?

Defense was a problem for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and the front office really did not do much to address in the offseason, at least when it comes to additions from outside the organization. The Maple Leafs finished the 2017-18 season in the bottom-five in shots allowed per game and surrendered 2.79 goals per game, a number that put them around the middle of the pack. Not great … not terrible … pretty average. Had it not been for some — at times — spectacular play from Frederik Andersen in net that number probably would have been a lot lower given the number of shots they allowed. Not making significant changes to the personnel could be seen as risky, but there is definitely talent on the back end. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are solid top-four defenders, and Travis Dermott had an outstanding debut in the second half. Maybe a little more of them and a little less from Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev could make a big impact in improving the group.

2. Will they give Frederik Andersen a break?

One of the more baffling decisions by coach Mike Babcock down the stretch last year was not giving starting goalie Frederik Andersen more rest as the team approached the playoffs. He took on a massive workload for the second year in a row and with the team having nothing to play for down the stretch continued to run him out there on a regular basis, once again having him finish near the top of the league in games played and shots faced. That is a lot to ask of a starting goalie, and it he probably could have benefitted from some extra rest by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Over the past two seasons only one goalie in the league has appeared in more games than Andersen’s 132 (Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has played in 140) while only three other goalies have played in at least 125 (Sergei Bobrovsky, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Jones). No goalie has faced more shots than the 4,263 that Andersen has faced, while only Talbot has faced more than 3,900 shots. Andersen, Talbot, and Bobrovsky are the only three that have faced more than 3,700 shots, making the 4,200+ that Andersen has had to stand in against seem even more incredible.

Right now Garret Sparks is the top backup on the roster and is coming off a couple of strong seasons in the American Hockey League.

His ability to step in and give Andersen some much needed rest throughout the season could be a big development for the Maple Leafs.

3. Will John Tavares be the missing piece to end Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought?

Players like John Tavares typically do not change teams.

At least not when they are still under the age of 30 and still in the prime of their careers. But not only did Tavares leave the New York Islanders this summer to join a new team, he joined his hometown team, in Toronto, joining a roster that suddenly has Stanley Cup aspirations and is looking to end a championship drought that goes back to 1967.

With all of that comes a ton of pressure.

Tavares is a world-class talent. He is probably one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world and is making huge money over the next eight years and as mentioned above is going to give the Maple Leafs a collection of offensive talent that is nearly unmatched in the league. Even with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner on the roster he is now the face of this franchise and is going to be expected to lift it to new heights and finally help bring a championship back to the city.

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.

Three questions facing San Jose Sharks

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

1. What happens to Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton after this season?

Both players have been the face of the franchise for years now, but they’re both well into their thirties which means they might not be around for much longer. Thornton and Pavelski are both heading to unrestricted free agency at the end of the season. That’s familiar territory for Jumbo Joe, who has signed one-year contracts the last couple of years, but it’s going to new for Pavelski.

In Thornton’s case, he’s coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss every game after January 25th, including the playoffs. The 39-year-old managed to put up 13 goals and 36 points in 47 games when he was healthy. Those are respectable offensive totals, but you’d have to think that the Sharks would want to get younger at a certain point.

Also, we don’t know what he’ll look like on the ice after dealing with a serious knee injury. Will he lose another step? Will he be as productive? There’s a bit of a risk for the Sharks here heading into the season. They pursued John Tavares, but struck out. So that means Thornton, who is earning $5 million this year, will have to give them some type of offensive output.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Kane| Breakthrough: Meier]

Pavelski, 34, isn’t young by hockey standards, but he still put up a healthy 66 points in 82 games last season. Looking at the bigger picture though, his point totals have decreased in each of the last three years (78, 68, 66). That’s not a significant drop but given his age, there could be more dropping in the near future.

If Pavelski puts up another 60-point season, it’ll be difficult not to give him a multi-year extension. But GM Doug Wilson will have some tough decisions to make if the production of these two veterans dips even just a little bit. We know that Thornton is willing to sign one-year contracts, but is Pavelski going to do the same thing?

2. Are the Sharks good enough to win the Western Conference?

Sure, the Sharks have some older bodies on their roster like Thornton, Pavelski and Brent Burns, but they also have Logan Couture, who’s just under 30, Evander Kane (27), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (31), Timo Meier (21), Tomas Hertl (24), so they’re balanced in that department.

They could’ve used another boost in scoring during the off-season, but the group of forwards they have isn’t bad at all. They’ve got guys who can score, guys who can skate and guys who can be physical when necessary. The addition and extending of Kane should do wonders for the Sharks this season.

They’re also fairly deep on the blueline, too. Burns, Vlasic and Justin Braun are a solid top-three, while Brendan Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed are depth players. If San Jose can added another depth piece on the back end before the trade deadline, they’ll be in business.

And between the pipes, Martin Jones showed that he can play at a high level. After going through some rocky stretches during the season (Aaron Dell took over at one point), Jones bounced back down the stretch and in the playoffs. He’s already been to one Stanley Cup Final with this team, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it again?

The Sharks aren’t getting any younger, but the window to win is still open. How open it is is still very much up for debate, but, on paper, this is a team that’s still good enough to go head-to-head with the other teams in the Western Conference.

3. Are Brent Burns’ better days behind him?

Burns has been one of the top offensive defensemen of the last five years, but he saw his goal totals drop to 12 (that’s awesome for a regular defenseman). By the 33-year-old’s standards, that’s a significant dip. Over the previous four seasons, he had scored 22, 17, 29, 27, so you can see why 12 is a big drop off for him.

The truth is, Burns got off to an incredibly slow start last season. He didn’t score his first goal until the 21st game of the season and he had just one goal in his first 26 contests. Thankfully for San Jose, he turned it on in early December, as he scored five goals in five games. He also notched 21 points in 15 games between Dec. 7 and Jan. 13.

In the end, Burns finished with 12 goals and 67 points in 82 regular-season games. He also added another seven points during San Jose’s run to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So, are his better days behind him? Yeah, probably. But that’s totally normal. He’s logged a lot of minutes over the last few seasons, so it’s only normal that he’s going to slow down at a certain point. But is he totally finished? Absolutely not.

Any defenseman that can score 12 goals and 67 points in a “down” year is a player totally worth keeping. He’s still an incredibly valuable piece of the puzzle for the Sharks, and they’ll need him if they want to see this core group of players win a Stanley Cup.

MORE: PHT Time Machine: 1991 dispersal draft and birth of the Sharks

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.

Can Darling, Mrazek finally give Hurricanes better goaltending?

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Asking the Carolina Hurricanes to get better goaltending sometimes feels like asking water not to be wet.

This franchise has been through a lot since it gradually became clear that Cam Ward wasn’t quite the brilliant netminder he seemed to be in leading them to a stunning Stanley Cup in 2005-06. Really, it says a lot about how much Carolina clung to the hope of Ward being “the guy” that it’s taken until 2018-19 for the two sides to move on.

Carolina brought Scott Darling in during the 2017-18 season in hopes that he’d be the next, say, Cam Talbot or Martin Jones: a backup who turned out to be an effective starter. Instead, Darling proved to be the latest goalie who couldn’t cut it in Carolina, putting up the sort of stats that only looked solid during Gretzky’s dynasty days with the Oilers: 13-21-7 with an abysmal .888 save percentage.

Those are the sort of stats that make you step back and maybe take a seat for a moment. Such stats should send a goalie directly to a sports psychologist.

The question, then, for the Hurricanes is: can Darling salvage his career? Were his strong numbers with the Chicago Blackhawks merely a mirage? And, can Petr Mrazek revitalize his career, either instead of Darling or alongside him?

Having a good attitude won’t necessarily cause fewer pucks to go in Carolina’s net, but shaking off a colossal failure of a 2017-18 season is absolutely crucial for Darling and the Hurricanes.

Judging by an entertaining Q & A with the Hurricanes website, it sounds like Darling is taking a positive approach to a potential tandem with Mrazek, and it also seems like the towering goalie hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

” … Having Petr (Mrazek) come in will be good. He’s kind of in the same boat as me; we’re both trying to prove that we can be the guy we’re supposed to be. I’ve had the chance to talk with him a little bit, and he seems like an awesome guy. Overall, the team as a whole, I’m extremely optimistic about this season.”

Darling also points out something interesting, and a matter that has to put a lot of this in perspective. Not only have Darling and Mrazek faced each other in the NHL and AHL, but they’ve also been in opposite nets as far back as their ECHL days. That’s what happens when you come across a big sixth-rounder (Darling went 153rd overall in 2007) and an athletic fifth-rounder (Mrazek was selected 141st in 2010). These goalies were forced to fight to prove that they even belonged in the NHL, let alone deserved chances at starting gigs.

So, such a thought should provide Hurricanes fans with at least some solace.

It’s also fair to argue that a season can simply get away from a player, goalies included. Darling’s 2017-18 was undoubtedly a disaster, yet his overall body of work in the NHL has been very promising lately, which is why he received a risky contract in the first place. In 75 games with Chicago, Darling managed a dazzling .923 save percentage. Sure, those starts were likely sometimes cushier than the ones he’ll enjoy with Carolina, yet goalies can be unpredictable. Recent examples are comforting, whether they actually forecast sunnier days or not.

(Mrazek’s successes have been dynamic at times, too, although his stronger moments are starting to get a little more distant. He hasn’t really enjoyed a great run since managing a .921 save percentage with Detroit in 2015-16.)

The rest of the Q & A is fairly standard stuff. OK, standard stuff for hockey off-season fodder; from here, it seems like a 29-year-old giant of a goalie making $4.15 million per season probably shouldn’t wait until now to address, you know, nutrition.

My girlfriend has been great. She’s a vegetarian and eats really healthy, so she’s been teaching me how to eat healthy, which I had no idea how to do.

Anyway, it’s a fun read. The most fun stuff comes when Darling discusses getting big on ‘the gram (his dog has a way to go to catch Jaccob Slavin‘s two floofy doodles), and some of the more mundane stuff like TV watching. If nothing else, it seems like Darling can be charming.

Also, the dog.

/Subscribes to The Daily Moose.

Apparently Darling is responsible for the captions, and they seem quite regal indeed.

So, if history repeats itself, people might look back at this almost-inevitable “feeling great in the off-season/best shape of my life” story and shake their heads at any optimism about Darling and/or Mrazek. There’s the chilling possibility that Darling has simply been exposed, or that last season’s failures broke his confidence. On the other hand, both goalies have enjoyed considerable success in the past, so a rebound or two is far from impossible.

If nothing else, Darling is holding down the fort when it comes to doggos.

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.