Tomas Hertl

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

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.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

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.

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.

Hertl’s contract already looking like bargain for Sharks

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Tomas Hertl has been one of the biggest stars for the San Jose Sharks this postseason, and that is helping to make him one of the biggest steals in the NHL under the salary cap.

Entering Game 2 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), Hertl finds himself near the top of the playoff leaderboards in goals and points while also scoring several season-saving goals for the Sharks, including a Game 6 overtime winner in Round 1 and two of the Sharks’ three goals during their third period Game 7 comeback.

That performance has also made him one of the current front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP (though he might have a tough time surpassing his teammate, Logan Couture, if the Sharks win it all) and comes on the heels of a breakout regular season performance that saw him take a massive step forward in his development and realize pretty much all of his potential.

It also happened in the first year of a four-year, $22.5 million contract that is well below what other comparable players are pulling in right now.

First, just look at the season that Hertl had.

He finished with a career high in goals (35), total points (74), while also recording a 54 percent Corsi percentage. The Sharks not only controlled the pace of play when he was on the ice, but he helped put the puck in the back of the net. A lot. Even better, he did the bulk of that damage at even-strength, not needing to rely only on a ton of power play production to boost his numbers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That performance across the board put him in some pretty exclusive company among the NHL’s elite forwards.

Consider the following…

  • There were only 16 forwards in the entire NHL, including Hertl, that topped the 30-goal, 70-point, 53 percent Corsi marks this season. When you look at the salaries of those players, Hertl pretty clearly outperformed his contract.
  • Out of the 16 players in that group four of them (Sebastian Aho in Carolina, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado, Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary, and Auston Matthews in Toronto) were still on their entry-level contracts and making less than $1 million per season against the cap.
  • Among the remaining players that were beyond their entry-level deals there were only two of them that made less than $6 million per season against the cap — Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, and Hertl. The average salary cap hit for those remaining players (not including Hertl) was $6.9 million per season. Hertl counted just $5.25 million against the Sharks’ cap.
  • It is also worth pointing out that the four entry-level players are all going to see significant bumps in their pay this summer that will put them well above the $6 million mark. Matthews already signed an $11 million per year deal, while Aho, Rantanen, and Tkachuk are all in a position to demand — and get — significant money.

In hindsight it is easy to look at that and think, wow, Hertl really sold himself short on that deal. If he continues to perform at the level he has shown throughout the regular season and playoffs he is definitely going to be playing on a well below-market contract.

But it was not that easy to see at the time of the deal.

When Hertl signed that contract this past summer he had not yet seen his play — or role — blossom the way it did this season. He was obviously a talented player with a lot of upside, and a pretty productive one. He was a fairly consistent 20-goal, 45-point player, and at that level of production was probably doing fairly well for himself at $5.25 million per season.

A lot of things went right for Hertl and the Sharks since then.

For one, he saw a pretty significant increase in his ice-time and went from being what was mostly a 16 or 17 minute per might player, to a 19-minute per night player. An extra two or three minutes per game over the course of a full season adds up, especially for a skilled player that is going to get more chances as a result of it.

He was also entering his age 25 season, which is usually when scorers tend to hit their peak level of production.

And then there was the fact he absolutely shot the lights out all year, scoring on 19.9 percent of his shots during the regular season and 16.4 percent of his shots in the playoffs. That is a significant jump for a player that is usually more of a 10-12 percent shooter. That spike in shooting percentage probably added another 10-12 goals to his total for the season. That number is also probably to regress next season, but even if it does the Sharks are still going to have what should be a 25-30 goal, 60-65 point, possession driving winger in the prime of his career on what still might be a below market contract.

Getting a top-line player for a million or two below the cap isn’t a total franchise-changing move, but every additional dollar helps when building the rest of your team around them. Especially when you are a team like the Sharks that has to deal with some pretty significant free agency questions this summer with Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski.

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.