Kevin Labanc

Breaking down Golden Knights’ lopsided win vs. Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights closed out an exciting opening night of the 2019-20 season by easily handling the San Jose Sharks 4-1 on Wednesday.

Let’s bat around some takeaways from that contest while the Golden Knights hope Nate Schmidt‘s injury is minor, and the Sharks likely hold out the same hopes for Kevin Labanc.

Vegas probably could basically have “two first lines”

Early on in Wednesday’s game, Mark Stone reminded people of why he’s such a two-way force that he’s a rare winger who might be able to win a Selke Trophy. Stone emphatically opened the scoring on a booming power-play goal, added an assist later in the contest, and generally looked like an irresistible force. Cody Glass was Stone’s centermen alongside a possibly rejuvenated Max Pacioretty, while Paul Stastny occasionally took defensive zone faceoffs. Considering how easy Stone and Pacioretty made it for Glass on his first NHL goal, you get the feeling that any line with Stone could be a borderline top trio …

Yet, you can’t declare Stone the consensus player of the game.

That’s because Reilly Smith and the Golden Knights’ more established top line with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault ended up being frighteningly dominant. Smith’s second goal of the night, a shorthanded tally, felt like the story of Wednesday’s game, as Karlsson and Smith passed back and forth against an overmatched Martin Jones.

It’s not just Erik Karlsson; it’s not just Jones

When it comes to the Sharks’ occasional struggles to keep the puck out of their net last season, a lot of people blamed the goalies, especially Jones. Some would say that Karlsson and Brent Burns make life tough for their own goalies, not just opposing ones.

While Burns was available Wednesday — as you could see in him colliding with a teammate during Smith’s SHG — Karlsson had to be a late scratch for personal reasons, and the Sharks still struggled mightily on defense. (Smith actually had another great chance on an early penalty kill, too, but Jones was game.)

Overall, Jones made some tough saves to keep the Sharks within striking distance at times, but this was such a lopsided contest that it didn’t matter.

This growing rivalry should be fun, unless you’re on the ice

Yes, this wasn’t an epic back-and-forth like that notorious Game 7, but these two teams boast the sort of firepower (and beef) that means there’s rarely a dull moment. Imagine if Evander Kane wasn’t suspended.

The Golden Knights have only existed for two seasons plus this opener, yet they’ve been a strong Western presence, accelerating the disdain with opponents, especially their Pacific Division rivals in San Jose.

San Jose needs its top guys to stay healthy

The Sharks did a pretty good job navigating a ton offseason. They could have lost Erik Karlsson. They might have taken a big risk on an aging Joe Pavelski. Timo Meier could have broken their salary cap breathing room.

Even so, losing Pavelski and other players (like sneaky-good Joonas Donskoi) means that the Sharks aren’t as deep as they’ve been in the past. If Karlsson or Burns gets hurt, that defense starts to look shaky pretty quickly. Possibly losing Kevin Labanc could be brutal for a team that’s a little thin on the wings.

In general, the Sharks might be vulnerable to lulls this season when they’re core players can’t suit up. Actually, it might be something head coach Peter DeBoer should try to mitigate; maybe you rest a burdened guy during a back-to-back, or lighten minutes when you have a lead?

To be fair to the Sharks, they didn’t exactly get an easy draw. Even with Schmidt out, Vegas is a daunting opponent, particularly at home.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Big winners of the NHL’s restricted free agent signing period

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With Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Mikko Rantanen all signing new contract extensions this weekend, the NHL’s summer-long restricted free agency drama has come to a mostly anticlimactic end.

All the top players stayed where they were supposed to stay, nobody unexpected ended up getting traded, no additional offer sheets were actually signed, and the only big development was the shift by players to opt for shorter-term bridge deals instead of max long-term contracts.

Now that everyone is signed for the start of the 2019-20 season (which starts Wednesday night with Blues-Caps at 7 pm on NBCSN), let’s take a look at some of the big winners from the RFA signing period.

Teams that won big

Tampa Bay Lightning. Brayden Point‘s three-year deal is a massive short-term win for the Lightning. They entered the offseason facing a salary cap crunch but still managed to get one of their top players — Point — re-signed without really having to do anything significant to the rest of the roster. At a salary cap hit of just a little more than $6 million per season for the next three years the Lightning have a steal in Point given the way he blends elite offense and Selke caliber defense. Having a core player that good, signed for that cheap, is a huge advantage to a contender whose championship window remains wide open.

Boston Bruins. This looked like it was going to be a tricky situation for Don Sweeney at the beginning of the summer as he had to try to re-sign top defenders Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, as well as forward Danton Heinen, all while having limited wiggle room under the cap. He managed to get all three players signed for a combined cap hit of under $11 million per season. Not bad. McAvoy should have a monster contract coming his way when his current deal ends, but a lot current money will be off the books by then.

San Jose Sharks. Timo Meier‘s contract (four years, $24 million) was the big one this summer and looks like a perfectly fair deal for both sides. Meier very well could end up outperforming that deal before it’s done, but he will still be young enough to secure another significant contract. But getting Kevin Labanc signed for just $1 million for this season after his 17-goal, 56-point season was a really nice bonus for the Sharks. He is betting on himself, but in the short-term the Sharks are getting a huge advantage this season with some additional cap flexibility as they try to get Joe Thornton his Stanley Cup ring.

Carolina Hurricanes. They won at the very beginning of the summer when the Montreal Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer sheet. The Hurricanes easily matched it, got their franchise player signed, and the whole process helped them to avoid all of the drama and stress that every other team had to deal with in trying to negotiate a deal. That is a win.

Players that won big

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs. He managed to get a six-year deal out of the Maple Leafs that averages just under $11 million per year. The breakdown of the contract will pay him $41 million over the first three years, including $31 million in the first two years and $16 million this season. It is, by far, the biggest of all the RFA deals signed this summer and when compared to the deals signed by Point and Rantanen (two players that are not only similar to him, but maybe even better) it is a huge win for him to get pretty much exactly what he wanted.

Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers. Provorov has No. 1 defender potential and the Flyers definitely treat him like a No. 1 defender, but he has not yet consistently played at a level to justify all of that. Despite that, he still managed to get a six-year, $40.5 million contract this summer. That is significantly larger than the deals signed by McAvoy and Zach Werenski (Columbus), both of whom are probably already better than Provorov. If he becomes the player the Flyers think he can be, it will be a fine contract. But he has to become that player first.

Jacob Trouba, New York Rangers. He managed to get out of Winnipeg (something that seemed inevitable for a couple of years now) thanks to a trade to the New York Rangers where he signed a huge seven-year, $56 million contract, complete with a no-move clause and trade protections. Of the major RFA defenders this offseason (Trouba, McAvoy, Provorov, Zach Werenski) this is by far the biggest contract signed. That $8 million per year cap hit is also tied for the fifth largest among all defenders in the NHL. Is he that good? Trouba is a fine player and will make the Rangers’ defense better, but that is a huge investment in a player that is probably best suited to be a No. 2 defender on a contending team. Risky move for the Rangers, but a huge win for the player across the board.

More RFA signing news:
Jets lock up Connor with seven-year contract
Avalanche avoid breaking bank with Rantanen’s contract
Jets come to short-term agreement with Laine

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Under-drafted players who could help your team

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Welcome to the first adds/drops column of the 2019-20 NHL season. Every Monday, we’re going to recommend players that you might want to consider letting go of or putting on your fantasy hockey team in standard Yahoo leagues.

Given that we’re still in the preseason though, we’re going to do something a little different. This week, we’ve highlighted some players taken in less than 60% of Yahoo drafts who I think have a good chance of becoming meaningful producers this season.  Not all of these players are ones who should be added right away, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on.

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks (LW/RW, Drafted: 56%) – In a summer where many RFAs were fighting to redefine the market, Labanc wasted little time in agreeing to a one-year, $1 million contract. It’s an awfully low price after scoring 17 goals and 56 points in 82 games, but it signals a willingness to bet on himself. If he comes up big this season, he’ll be due for a massive raise, especially given that he’ll have arbitration rights. He won’t lack for motivation and at the age of 23, he should be able to continue to trend upwards.

Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (C, Drafted: 24%) – Not all first overall picks are created equal. Hischier was the top pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, but he didn’t come with the fanfare of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews before him and the Devils’ latest first overall pick, Jack Hughes, is already looking like a bigger piece of the franchise’s future. All the same, Hischier does have untapped potential going into his third NHL campaign and with the Devils’ offense looking much deeper than it has in recent years, he should have more to work with too.

Nikita Gusev, New Jersey Devils (LW, Drafted: 20%) – Gusev is one of the most interesting X-Factors going into the 2019-20 campaign. If you looked at his KHL statistics alone, you’d be wondering if he was a potential superstar.  He had 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games with St. Petersburg SKA last season. To put that in perspective, Artemi Panarin had 62 points in 54 games with St. Petersburgh in his last season before his 77-point rookie showing with Chicago.  That said, KHL success doesn’t always translate directly into the NHL. Just ask Vadim Shipachyov or Ilya Kovalchuk. They were both stars with St. Petersburgh too, but Shipachyov’s NHL stint ended up including a goal in just three games while Kovalchuk was at best a mixed bag in his NHL comeback attempt. Still, there is certainly potential here and it seems like Gusev will get a chance to prove himself, likely as a mainstay on the Devils’ second line. Plus, for what it’s worth, he’s looked good so far in the preseason with two goals and four points in three games.

Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning (D, Drafted: 16%) – There’s no question that Shattenkirk’s tenure with the Rangers was a major disappointment and his stock has understandably tanked as a result. He’s still just 30-years-old though, so a comeback isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. He’s getting a fresh start with Tampa Bay and has plenty of motivation after being bought out over the summer. “This is obviously an important year for me to show everyone I’m back to my old self and prove that I can be a player in this League again,” Shattenkirk said via NHL.com.

Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins (G, Drafted: 13%) – If you’re not happy with your goaltending situation, you might want to take a long look at Halak. Obviously he’s not the starter in Boston and that’s not expected to change, but he’s likely to get far more work than your typical backup. He made 37 starts last season and that helped keep Tuukka Rask fresh for the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bruins use Halak regularly again this season and he should often be solid when he is used.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld.]

Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs (RW, Drafted: 10%) – This is more of a short-term pickup and even then, Kapanen is someone you want to keep an eye on during training camp rather than grab right away. He’s likely to spend most of the season as a third liner, but Zach Hyman will miss about a month of the regular season with a knee injury so that’s created a top-six opening that Kapanen is a favorite to fill. He’s been getting a chance alongside John Tavares and Mitch Marner so far.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (LW/RW, Drafted: 8%) – Calgary signed Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract over in the summer of 2018 and that ended up being a disaster. How bad was it? So bad that swapping Neal for Milan Lucic and his albatross contract actually made sense to Calgary. Neal had just seven goals and 19 points in 63 games while averaging a career-low 14:57 minutes last season, but Edmonton will give him every opportunity to bounce back. The Oilers are desperate for secondary scoring to complement McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Neal might be able to fit in better than he did with the Flames. He’s far from a safe bet, but there are far worse gambles out there.

Corey Perry, Dallas Stars (RW, Drafted: 5%) – Perry can’t seem to catch a break. After being bought out by Anaheim over the summer, his comeback attempt has already been delayed due to a broken foot. That said, there is still reason to pay attention to him. What I really want to know is how he’s going to do with a healthy knee – something he hasn’t had in years.  Keep in mind that after he suffered a torn meniscus during a preseason game in 2018 and needed surgery as a result, it was decided to take that opportunity to also repair a MCL injury that he had been dealing with for years. Because he missed a large chunk of 2018-19 and played in a limited role when he did return, it’s still not clear how he’d perform if he were fully healthy.  Perhaps we’ll get the answer to that in Dallas…provided he doesn’t suffer any other setbacks.

Ryan Dzingel, Carolina Hurricanes (LW/RW, Drafted: 4%) – Dzingel took a big step forward last season with 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games, but he was passed over in the early rush of UFA contracts. That worked to the Hurricanes’ advantage though as they were able to scoop him up to an affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract. The Hurricanes are a pretty interesting team this season and Dzingel is well positioned to play a significant top-six role there. Keep an eye on him during training camp and the early part of the season because it will be interesting to see who his linemates are. They might end up being Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter, which would obviously be a pretty promising situation for Dzingel.

Alexander Nylander, Chicago Blackhawks (LW/RW, Drafted: <2%) – Nylander was taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, but through three seasons as part of the Sabres’ organization, he only appeared in 19 NHL games.  Chicago acquired him over the summer and there’s potentially a huge opportunity for him with the Blackhawks. There’s an opening on the top line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews that Nylander has been auditioning for. If he gets it, then he’ll definitely be worth taking a chance on in standard leagues.

Typically I’ll also be recommending players to drop in this column.  I’ll hold off on doing that this week because it’s too early to write anyone off.  I will say that there are some very obvious risky players who are being taken relatively early in fantasy drafts.  Mikko Rantanen (Avg. Draft Position: 24.2), Patrik Laine (42.3), Brayden Point (46.8), Dustin Byfuglien (56.2), Matthew Tkachuk (60.1), and Kyle Connor (115.7) all haven’t participated in training camp yet.  They’re out with the exception of Byfuglien, who isn’t with the team for personal reasons and is reportedly considering retirement.

Odds are their absence isn’t news to you, but it’s still worth repeating that missing training camp can hurt a player’s production during the regular season and the more time they miss, the bigger the impact will be even after they do return.  Drafting any of those players at this time is a big gamble and if you haven’t had your draft yet, then you’ll want to seriously consider avoiding them despite how good they can be under normal circumstances.  That of course changes if any of their situations are resolved in the next few days.

If you’re on the hunt for rankings, projections, strategy and advice on how to dominate your drafts, check out the all-new Rotoworld NHL Draft Guide. Now mobile-optimized with a new look and feel, it’s never been easier to take our award-winning advice with you to your drafts for that extra competitive edge! Click here to learn more!

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Previewing the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Sharks lost a lot this offseason, with Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Braun all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of talent (and goals) leaving, and while Braun wasn’t one of their top defenders he still played 20 minutes per night. That is a lot to replace in one summer and it would be awfully difficult to say right now that the Sharks, on paper, are better than the team that ended the 2018-19 season. They are still really good, but they have a lot to replace.

Strengths: It is the defense. How can it not be the defense? The Sharks have two Norris Trophy winners in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns leading their blue line, and both look to be contenders for the award for the foreseeable future. Their No. 3 defender, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is no slouch either. That is as good of a top-three as you will find anywhere in the NHL. The biggest key will be Karlsson staying healthy as he has missed 40 games over the past two years, including 29 a year ago.

Weaknesses: Until they show otherwise this team’s Achilles Heel will be in net. The Martin Jones and Aaron Dell duo was the league’s worst a year ago, and it remains a testament to how great the rest of the team was in front of them that the goaltending performance did not completely ruin their chances. Teams that get the level of goaltending the Sharks received tend to miss the playoffs. The Sharks not only still made the playoffs, they were a contender. With the team around them looking a little thinner in some areas it just puts even more pressure on the goalies to perform.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The most vulnerable coaches at the start of each season tend to be the ones that have been with a team for a few years, have high expectations, and have not yet won it all. That pretty much describes Pete DeBoer’s situation in San Jose. He would not seem to be in immediate danger, but if the Sharks get off a slow start or regress this season he might start to feel a little more pressure, if for no other reason than the old “shake things up” coaching change. He is a 6 out of 10 on the hot seat rating.

Three most fascinating players: Jones, Joe Thornton, and Kevin Labanc.

There is no way to sugarcoat Jones’ performance a year ago — it was bad. But for as bad as it was, his overall track record in the NHL is a mostly solid one. He backstopped the Sharks to a Stanley Cup Final appearance a few years ago, he has received Vezina Trophy votes in two different seasons (finishing 6th and 7th) and his overall numbers are at least a league average level. He is definitely capable of better than he showed. Was last year a fluke? Or was it a sign of things to come for him in the Sharks’ net? Not to put too much pressure on one player, but the answer to those questions will play a big role in what the Sharks are capable of this season.

Thornton is back for yet another run at that elusive championship. He may be 40 years old, but he showed a year ago he can still play a big role for a contender with 50 points and dominant possession numbers. The Sharks lost a lot over the summer, but being able to bring back Karlsson and Thornton were big wins for the front office.

Labanc has shown steady improvement every year he has been in the NHL and is coming off an impressive 56-point season that made him one of the team’s top scorers. That is why it was so surprising to see him sign a one-year, bargain contract as a restricted free agent this summer. It was a big bet on himself and if he can continue to develop into a top-line scorer he should be in line for a significant contract this summer. With Pavelsi, Donskoi, and Nyquist out the door he should get a pretty big opportunity to play an increased role in the offense.

Playoffs or lottery: They may not be as strong on paper, but this is still not only a playoff team, it is one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. They lost some talent, but they still have Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and Labanc up front, they have an elite defense, and while the goaltending is a question mark and a potential problem, Jones’ track record in the NHL suggests he should be better. Still one of the best teams in the Western Conference and the entire league.

MORE:
Sharks open camp with new captain after Pavelski’s departure
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

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

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

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

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

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

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

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

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

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

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

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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