Since it’s inevitable that a few guys will get banged up in a Stanley Cup Playoff run, are the San Jose Sharks the frontrunners to come out of the Western Conference because of how they’ve played without defenseman Erik Karlsson and now forward Evander Kane? — @jumbofan2018
I’ll only consider the Sharks to be the favorite in the Western Conference if they have Karlsson (groin) and Kane (undisclosed) healthy in the playoffs and they can avoid facing the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference First Round. That’s not a knock on them, it’s just reality. Facing Vegas in the first round will be far more difficult than facing any of the teams battling for the two wild-card spots in the West. Vegas is deep, especially after acquiring forward Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 25. Vegas is better in goal than San Jose; I’ll take Marc-Andre Fleury to win me a playoff series.
The good news is that the Sharks, who have won their past two games without Kane and Karlsson, and are 10-3-1 without the defenseman this season, have a nine-point lead on the Golden Knights for second place in the Pacific Division, a big enough cushion to give the two players time to get healthy before the playoffs. That’s big. The bad news is that they’ll face Vegas in the first round if they can’t make up the three-point differential between them and the division-leading Calgary Flames. That would be hard to do without Karlsson and Kane, which likely would leave San Jose in that first-round series against Vegas. The Sharks could certainly win that series if it happens, but in that case it would be far more difficult to get out of the first round than if they won the division.
At the GM meetings, any talk of fixing the playoff system? — @joedocnewman
The quick answer is no. Talk of the playoff format is not on the agenda here in Boca Raton, Florida. That’s a conversation more for the Board of Governors than for the general managers.
But it hasn’t been a topic of conversation among NHL executives because, contrary to your question, they don’t feel the system is broken. The NHL went to the current format, with the second- and third-place teams in each division playing each other in the first round, for the 2013-14 season to enhance the first-round matchups by featuring rivalries and creating a high-level of excitement, intensity and interest right out of the gate in the playoffs. That has been the result of the current format. Honestly, is there anything better in sports than the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs? I think the only thing that even compares is the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but those are one-and-done games, so it’s different. I love the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but it doesn’t give you the two weeks of nightly intensity and emotion that the first round of the playoffs gives you. That’s what this format offers.
I understand the counterargument that some of the best teams in the NHL will be eliminated in the first round because of this format, but what’s to say they wouldn’t be eliminated anyway? Don’t forget that the Sharks, in 2008-09, and the Washington Capitals, in 2009-10, each won the Presidents’ Trophy and were eliminated in the first round under the old format. It happens. The NHL wants the best two-month tournament. You can’t get that with a slow burn to the Stanley Cup Final.
Do you think John Tavares‘ incredibly hostile reception on Long Island will have an effect on the decision-making of star players who are considering leaving their team as a UFA? Will they want to go through what Tavares went through last Thursday? — @FreeWheelinRob
Nobody wants to endure what Tavares experienced in his return to play the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday. The relentless booing and chanting of “We don’t need you” had to take a chunk out of Tavares emotionally. I believe him when he says he loved his nine seasons with the Islanders and that he loved playing for New York. I believe him when he says leaving the Islanders to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1 was the toughest decision he’s made in his life. I also believe Islanders fans have a right to be angry, to boo him, to give him the business so to speak. But I don’t think it will or should have any impact on how other star players go about their business when it comes to their decisions regarding their future. They can’t make a decision based on not wanting to get booed once or twice a season. A player has to make the best decision for himself.
Tavares did that. He felt it was best for him, his career and his family to sign with the Maple Leafs. He’s smart enough to know it would anger the fans he was leaving. For two years, he talked about a desire to remain with the Islanders. They feel he lied to them. I don’t believe that was his intention or his goal, certainly not something he planned, but he left, and that’s how they feel, so he heard their anger last week. He will continue to hear it every time he returns to play the Islanders. He has to live with that. It’s a personal, business decision first. Loyalty is important, but it shouldn’t trump what the player feels is in his best interest.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a swamp of injuries. They made some trades to patch together a more physical defense, which has traditionally not been their style. How do you see them faring as they battle for a playoff spot, and what are your thoughts on their current defensive corps? — @GoldenSaucerGuy
For a quick plug, I spent some time chatting with Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford at the NHL general managers meetings Monday. He said he is confident in what the Penguins can accomplish this season, that they’re better than they’ve played and that they should be in a better spot in the standings; they hold the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the Montreal Canadiens and two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It’ll be harder on the Penguins because of the injuries to defensemen Kris Letang (upper body) and Olli Maatta (shoulder). Not many teams would be able to stay in the playoff race after losing three of their top four defensemen. The Penguins are one of the few that can because of their firepower up front. They are fifth in the NHL at 3.45 goals per game and tied for 17th in goals-against (3.06). Acquiring defenseman Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 25 makes them, as you mentioned, more physical on the back end, but he’s much better suited to playing in a bottom-pair role. That’s where he would be if Letang and Maatta were healthy. They don’t have the luxury of that now, but they also can’t ask Gudbranson to play a different style. It’s a matter of adapting, which they’ve done so far.
For me, though, the Penguins’ chances this season revolve more around the consistency they need from their goalies. Matt Murray has to play like a No. 1 down the stretch for Pittsburgh to reach the playoffs. His season, however, has been woefully inconsistent. He had one terrific stretch, going 9-0-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average, a .953 save percentage and two shutouts in nine starts from Dec. 15-Jan. 11. He was 12-10-3 with a 3.37 GAA, .900 save percentage and one shutout in his other 26 starts this season entering Tuesday.
“It doesn’t matter how good your team is, goaltending is the X-factor in every conversation we have,” Rutherford said. “To me, we have one of the top goalies in the League in Matt Murray.”
They’ll get into the playoffs if he plays like it.
Should the Philadelphia Flyers take the interim tag off Scott Gordon and give him the job given the turnaround he’s led since taking over for Dave Hakstol? — @MarkGWhiskyCast
General manager Chuck Fletcher is on record as saying Gordon is a candidate to be the next coach of the Flyers. It wouldn’t be prudent for him to take away the interim tag now and just give it to him without going through the process of gauging interest from other available coaches, and hearing what they have to say about the Flyers and what they might be able to do. There are some good coaches available with more experience than Gordon, including Joel Quenneville, Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault. There’s no reason for Fletcher to act quickly. Gordon has done a solid job with Philadelphia, which has gone 20-11-4 under him, but all that has done is make him a candidate. This is not something Fletcher needs to rush, nor should he. Gordon will be there if the Flyers want him.
What would be the preferred first-round matchup for the Islanders? — @eriic_1995
Any team that makes the playoffs would be a good first-round matchup for the Islanders because it would mean New York is in the playoffs. If they can stay in the top three in the Metropolitan Division, they will avoid having to play the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round (the Islanders entered Tuesday tied in points with the Capitals for first in the division). That’s enough motivation for me. Otherwise, they’re not in a position to be picky.