Brent Burns

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At 35, Mark Giordano finally wins Norris Trophy

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The 2019 Norris Trophy goes to: Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano. Giordano beat finalists Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks) and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning).

Sometimes the wording of an award can provide some insight, or perhaps semantic debates, on an award, so note that the Norris Trophy is described as: “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” Do with that, what you may.

Giordano, 35, didn’t have the instant transition into the NHL that, say, Hedman enjoyed. The 35-year-old went undrafted, and was playing in Russia as recently as 2007-08 before finally truly cementing his spot with the Flames starting in 2008-09. He’s been one of those “hidden gems” for some time, but he won’t slip under the radar any longer, as Gio is now a Norris Trophy winner.

As you can see the voting really dropped off after the top five, while John Carlson and Morgan Rielly weren’t that far from being in the top three.

Hedman won the Norris Trophy in 2018, while Burns won in 2017, so they’re probably not too upset to see Giordano get his kudos.

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.

Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Breaking down Erik Karlsson’s playoffs with Sharks

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Heading into an eventual Game 3 win against the St. Louis Blues, Erik Karlsson was due.

OK, now he wasn’t due for something along the lines of scoring an overtime game-winner after fellow Sharks player Timo Meier got away with a hand pass, but Karlsson was due.

Through 16 games during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Karlsson had not been able to score a goal for the San Jose Sharks. Few would complain about his overall production, what with his 13 assists in those 16 games, but even acknowledging that defensemen take lower-percentage shots, you had to think that Karlsson was starting to get at least a little bit frustrated.

Karlsson ended up with two goals during the Sharks’ controversial 5-4 overtime win against St. Louis, and you wonder if the goals will really start to flow in now, starting with Friday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream). If so, the Sharks stand a great chance to improve on their 2-1 lead in Round 3.

That goal-drought-breaking Game 3 serves as a nice excuse to take a look at Karlsson’s overall work during his first – and possibly only – playoff run with the Sharks.

Health questions

Karlsson literally limped into this postseason, so it was only natural to wonder how effective he could really be for the Sharks. After San Jose’s Game 1 win, Karlsson explained to Pierre McGuire that things definitely started rough for him, but that his health has improved as the postseason’s gone along.

Despite Karlsson’s assurances, there have been times when it’s been really difficult to shake the impression that the star defenseman isn’t at 100 percent. It’s something that Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos and others speculated about, and while some of that might merely be speculation, it’s tough not to read too much into any slow pivot, seemingly timid approach, and other bit of body language.

Not needing to be Superman

Remember Karlsson’s epic playoff run from 2016-17, when Karlsson nearly willed the Ottawa Senators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, with help from friends like Mark Stone and Craig Anderson? Plenty of hockey fanatics already knew that Karlsson can be otherworldly at his peak, yet for those who stubbornly stood by as naysayers, it was eye-opening and mouth-shutting.

Interestingly, when you look at the simplest numbers of all, Karlsson’s not that far off from that run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2016-17, Karlsson generated two goals and 16 assists for 18 points in 19 games. During this run, Karlsson has two goals and 13 assists for 15 points in 17 games.

But it’s clear that the Sharks aren’t asking him to shoulder the same burden as he did with Ottawa. Most obviously, Karlsson’s seen his ice time shrink from 28:08 per night during that Senators run (when he seemed to be dealing with a lower-body injury as well), to a still-impressive but less Ryan Suter-like 25:34 TOI average with San Jose.

Brent Burns is the big reason why Karlsson’s numbers are robust, but not outrageous … and the Sharks are really leaning on Burns, whose ice time average is at a startling 28:53 per night, up significantly even from his work during previous playoff runs.

When the Sharks landed Erik Karlsson in that trade, the tantalizing thought was that, as two right-handed defensemen, Peter DeBoer could have one of Burns or Karlsson on the ice during almost every shift of a game. That’s pretty close to coming to fruition during this deep run.

Ups and downs

Back during his Ottawa days, Karlsson looked impressive from a possession standpoint, and outright outrageous when you considered his stats relative to his teammates.

He often fit that bill during the regular season, yet Karlsson’s fancy stats have been a little less fancy during the playoffs. According to certain metrics at Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson’s actually been on the wrong end of chances more often than on the positive side.

That’s really not such a bad thing overall, though.

For one thing, Karlsson and Burns are facing tough competition, and by logging such large minutes, they’re keeping lesser players from getting swamped in ways that could really put the Sharks in a bind. So maybe Karlsson hasn’t always been off-the-wall amazing like he’s been in the past – quite plausible if he’s nursing an injury – but, to put things mildly, he’s worth the rare mishap.

***

Overall, Karlsson’s been a gem for the Sharks. Perhaps they might grumble at the occasional mistake, emotional flare up, or bit of detached-looking body language when Karlsson’s on the ice for an opponent’s goal, but they’re likely ecstatic with the ultimate results.

Now, if you’re a team pondering a long-term deal with Drew Doughty-type money? Then maybe you’re more concerned by every wince and slow turn.

That’s not the Sharks’ problem, and if Karlsson really heats up, he could create even bigger headaches for the Blues.

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.

Lack of mega-money players an anomaly this postseason

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Every postseason a new storyline emerges as to how NHL teams should construct their rosters, and it usually revolves around the teams playing the deepest in the playoffs and how they managed to get there.

After all, everyone wants to copy off the teams that win and not the teams sitting at home.

The new trend could be anything, really. Sometimes it revolves around defensive structure, or size and grit. Sometimes it is about speed and skill. We are always looking for the next “thing” that is going to take over the NHL. To be fair, there can be some merit to these storylines and trends.

The one thing that stands out about the four teams playing in the Conference Finals this season is that none of them have a really huge salary on their roster. This is a fact that was pointed out in an article by the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on Monday when talking about the upcoming crop of restricted free agents and how teams might try to approach them given the salary structures of the remaining playoff teams.

There is not a single player in the top-20 of NHL salary cap hits still playing in the playoffs, while San Jose’s Brent Burns ($8 million) is the only one in the top-25.

St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O'Reilly ($7.5 million each) and Boston’s David Krejci ($7.25 million) are the only other ones in the top-40.

Carolina’s highest paid player is Jordan Staal who counts $6 million against the cap, the 89th largest salary cap hit in the league. The Hurricanes also have one of the lowest total payrolls.

In the article LeBrun quotes an unnamed NHL executive who points out of the favorite talking points of executives in the salary cap era: “You need depth to win and can’t allocate too much cap space to any individual players.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The first part is 100 percent true, because you do need depth to win.

The second point is just … wrong. That is not a personal opinion, and it is not something that is going to change just because of one mostly unpredictable postseason. It is a fact. That is what makes it so maddening every single time it gets mentioned. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ core can’t be discussed without fear over their future salary cap situation and how they are going to build a contending team around so many big-money players. There is always trade speculation mentioned around teams that “need” to shed salary because they have too much money going to too few players.

I hate this mindset, mostly because there is zero factual evidence to back it up.

While it is true that the four Conference Finalists this season have made it this far without a mega-money player on their roster, it is also true that this development is an anomaly in recent postseason history.

Burns is currently the only player in the Conference Finals that accounts for more than 10 percent of the league salary cap this season.

The Blues and Bruins both have players in the 9 percent range, while the Hurricanes don’t have anyone that takes up more than 7.5 percent.

Let’s just take a quick look at how that compares to the past five years of Conference Finalists. The table below looks at the highest cap percentage on each team that played in the Conference Finals that season.

Of the 20 teams over the previous five years, 16 of them had at least one player accounting for more than 10 percent of their allotted salary cap space that season; 13 of them had one taking up more than 10.5 percent; nine had more than 11 percent; seven had a player taking up at least 12 percent.

That includes multiple Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington over the previous three seasons.

Many of these teams also had multiple players taken up between 10 to 12 percent of the salary cap on their own.

In any contract negotiation there are always going to be two sides with very different goals. The player is usually going to try and get as much money as they possibly can for their production. They have short careers and an even shorter window to get a significant contract, so they are going to try and cash in when they can. The team is going to try and get the player for the best bang for their buck, not only because of the salary cap, but because that is just how sports teams work. It is obviously beneficial for a team to get a superstar at a below market contract (think Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado) in a capped league but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes you have to pay your best player top dollar. It is always worth it.

If there is a team in the NHL this offseason looking at the roster construction of these four teams and thinks it is going to be beneficial to trade a big money, star player for multiple, cheaper assets or play hardball with an RFA over an extra two or three million it is probably going to end very, very badly for them. Because they are either going to make a bad trade for the wrong reasons (quality for quantity) or risk damaging a relationship (or maybe even losing) a core player.

Just because this particular postseason will not have a mega-money player in the Stanley Cup Final does not mean that is always the best way to go about building your team.

Star players still matter a lot, and star players still cost a lot money.

One postseason will not change that.

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.

Sharks vs. Blues PHT 2019 Western Conference Final preview

Even though it is a rematch of the 2015-16 Western Conference Final it is probably not the matchup we expected this season.

The San Jose Sharks being here is in no way a surprise.

They loaded up for this season and built a team that should have had Stanley Cup expectations from the very beginning. Re-signing Evander Kane and acquiring Erik Karlsson to add to a roster that was already full of stars was a definite “win-now” approach to the offseason. Even though they were some valleys during the season, the Sharks have mostly met expectations. They are good. Really good.

It is the Blues that are a surprise.

After narrowly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago they were one of the busiest teams in the offseason in an effort to fix their offense, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, and David Perron to their forward group. At the mid-way point of the season it all looked to be for nothing because their goaltending dropped them down to the worst record in the Western Conference.

But since January they have been one of the league’s best teams, made a run at the Central Division title, and are playing like a true contender.

SCHEDULE
Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Monday, May 13, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 15, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Friday, May 17, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Tuesday, May 21, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Thursday, May 23, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
(All times ET, subject to change)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

OFFENSE

The Sharks’ offense is clicking on all cylinders in the playoffs, averaging more than 3.07 goals per game. They have four of the top-eight individual scorers in the playoffs and played almost all of Round 2 without a 38-goal scorer from the regular season in Joe Pavelski. It’s a deep group that doesn’t have any real weaknesses and is loaded with impact talent. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl enter the series tied for the postseason lead in goals (nine) while the Sharks also have the two best offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

The Blues, meanwhile, have been … solid. They spent a ton of resources over the summer to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago, and improved it to the point where they could make a late season run at the Central Division and are just four wins away from the their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. They could use a little more from Vladimir Tarasenko, especially at even-strength, and he is probably due to bust out at any time.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. They have the deeper group and more impact players at the top.

DEFENSE

Just like at forward the Blues do not have quite the star power that the Sharks do on the blue line, but you can not argue with the results they get. The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season when it came to limiting shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances, and once Jordan Binnington took over in net all of that started to translate into fewer goals against. Alex Pietrangelo is playing great hockey this postseason and quietly making a Conn Smythe case for himself if the Blues can keep winning.

For San Jose, it’s all about the superstars. Burns and Karlsson might be one of the best duos any team has had on its defense since Anaheim had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They are the most dynamic offensive blue liners in the league and both control the pace of the game when they are on the ice. And they are on the ice A LOT. Burns is playing more minutes than any other player in these playoffs (by a wide margin) while Karlsson is playing more than 25 minutes. For at least two thirds of the game the Sharks have a Norris Trophy winner on the ice. That is a tough matchup for any team to deal with.

ADVANTAGE: Sharks. When your blue line has three Norris Trophies (and maybe a fourth in a few weeks) that is a huge advantage.

GOALTENDING

This was the biggest question mark for both teams coming into the playoffs.

On the San Jose side, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell were statistically the worst goalie tandem in the league during the regular season and one of the worst any championship contender has ever had. Four games into Round 1, it was looking like that was going to be their undoing. But Jones caught fire starting in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights and has been pretty good ever since.

But can he keep that going? If he does, the Sharks might be completely unbeatable. If he doesn’t, it could sink a potential championship team.

One of the biggest reasons the Blues found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in early January was because their goaltending was getting torched on a nightly basis and it was sabotaging a team that was much better than its early season record indicated. They didn’t need someone to steal games, they just need someone to not lose them.

That is where Jordan Binnington came in and ever since making his first NHL start in mid-January he has been one of the most productive goalies in the league. He had a small slump early in Round 2 against the Dallas Stars, but rebounded nicely in Games 6 and 7.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. Jones has a more extensive resume and more of a track record, but Binnington is the better goalie at the moment.

SPECIAL TEAMS

On paper you would think that the Sharks would have a pretty significant advantage here, especially on the power play given the players they have their disposal. But it has not played out that way at all during the playoffs where both special teams units have been pretty much identical in their performance. Neither one has been great, neither one has been bad, they have both just been mostly average.

ADVANTAGE: Push, but with the qualifier that the Sharks have the potential to make this advantage IF their power play unit gets hot, which it is perfectly capable of doing.

PREDICTION

Blues in 6. On paper everything is there for the Sharks to take this. Star power. Depth. Everything they have done as an organization has been built around winning it all this season. But while the Sharks have some advantages, the Blues are no slouches and have been an incredibly good team for about four months now. The way they have played since Craig Berube took over behind the bench is at a Stanley Cup level and even though he has almost no track record in the NHL I am more confident in him being able to get through this series without a meltdown than I am in Martin Jones. In a close series, that might be the difference.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT Roundtable
• Conference Finals predictions

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.