TAMPA, Fla. — Erik Karlsson got scratched right before puck drop, putting the Sharks in an early hole against the NHL’s top-offensive team.
Karlsson left the ice early during warmups prior to Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning after he decided that he couldn’t play through a lower-body injury that he’s been “dealing with” this week. The two-time Norris Trophy winner missed a large chunk of the third period in Tuesday’s win over the Pittsburgh Penguins for “precautionary” reasons and he was seen walking with a limp after Wednesday’s loss in Arizona.
Head coach Pete DeBoer expected Karlsson to suit up Saturday even though he missed practice Friday and skipped Saturday morning’s optional skate.
“He’s been dealing with something for a little while here,” the Sharks coach said. “He felt that he was going to be able to play through it. Just couldn’t.”
Though the Sharks ended the Lightning’s 16-game point streak on Jan. 5 without Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Radim Simek, they committed too many mental errors Saturday to overcome Karlsson’s absence and improve to 2-0 against the NHL’s No. 1 squad.
Here’s what we learned in the Sharks 6-3 loss to the Lightning in Florida:
1. The Sharks might need to shut Karlsson down through the bye week.
Here’s the good news: the Sharks will play just two more games before All Star Weekend. Then, they’ll receive a 10-day break that includes the bye week. If there’s a good time to lose a major player to a nagging injury, it would be now.
Right now, the Sharks don’t know the severity of Karlsson’s setback. He expected to play Saturday and he logged 25:48 of ice time Wednesday, so it can’t tremendously serious. That said, it’s hard to imagine that Karlsson will heal up enough between now and Monday to justify his inclusion in the lineup against the Florida Panthers when the Sharks have to opportunity to give him 16 days to rest up for the stretch run.
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The only entity that will be significantly impacted by this decision would be the NHL, who obviously wants Karlsson to play in the All Star Game being held in San Jose next weekend. If Karlsson returns next week, he’ll likely be forced to play in the All Star Game or receive a one-game suspension for skipping it, like Alex Ovechkin. That’s why it makes sense to hold him out of the last two games. Then, he can skip the festivities and get three extra days of rest.
DeBoer said he’ll make a decision on whether to shut Karlsson down after he talks with the defenseman Sunday and gets a full report on his health.
“We’re not going to risk anything with him, obviously,” he said. “If he can play without risking longterm injury, then we will. But we’re not going to rest him just to rest him.”
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Without Karlsson, the Sharks needed to figure out how to slow down the NHL’s top-scoring offense minus the blue liner who’s been performing Vlasic’s shutdown duties against opponents’ top forwards. Vlasic missed his eighth straight game Saturday with an upper-body injury.
Despite Karlsson’s absence, the Sharks outshot the Lightning 39-26, but the mistakes eventually added up.
“We carried the play, to be honest, for most of the game,” Evander Kane said. “But every mistake we made, or when we took penalties, they capitalized.”
2. Kevin Labanc stumbles in his audition on Logan Couture’s line.
The two biggest mistakes came in the second period after the Sharks erased a two-goal deficit. The miscues came from a player who needed to leave a good impression after receiving another opportunity in the top six.
After the Sharks morning practice, DeBoer said that Labanc, who got promoted to Couture’s line Wednesday, needs to prove that he receive more responsibility without being a “defensive liability.” He failed in acheiving that goal Saturday.
The Lightning broke a 2-2 tie at 7:29 of the second when Labanc got caught being a spectator as Yanni Gourde pounced on a rebound off the end boards and buried it in the Sharks net. Less than three minutes later, he took a senseless cross-checking penalty in the offensive zone that eventually led to a 5-on-3 power play and the Lightning’s fourth goal.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 20, 2019
As a result, DeBoer is back at the drawing board, looking for another wingman to fill out his top three lines.
“For young guys, the margin of error is that small,” DeBoer said. “He did some good things, had a couple good looks in the first. But this is a playoff-type game against teams like that. Unfortunately, one or two mistakes at the wrong time hurt you.”
3. Kane’s stock soars as Timo Meier’s falls.
Kane might be saving Doug Wilson some money.
The power forward scored two more goals Saturday, jumping ahead of Meier in the Sharks goals race, tying Tomas Hertl for second with 19 on the season. The two-goal night also gives Kane 24 points in 21 games.
Planned to use the boards all along 😏 pic.twitter.com/V4zzWiVeQN
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) January 20, 2019
When Meier got off to a scorching start with 18 goals in 30 games, it looked like he could be in for a big pay raise in restricted free agency this summer, especially when he led Kane, who signed a seven-year, $49 million in the offseason, by nine tallies.
But after going 17 games without a goal, Meier’s projected price tag is coming down. Kane makes $7 million per year and Hertl is earning a $5.625 average annual salary. Both players give the Sharks a lot of intangibles beyond goal scoring. It’s going to be tough to convince Wilson that Meier should be making more than both players.
It’s going to be an interesting race to follow as Wilson’s complicated summer looms with Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton entering unrestricted free agency while Meier is due for a new contract. If the current trends continue, it could help Wilson solve a delicate equation.