Doug Wilson didn’t go looking for Joe Thornton insurance last summer. The general manager of the San Jose Sharks already had it.
The Sharks didn’t panic when they found out their longtime star had another setback with a series of nagging right knee injuries. They knew what they could count on from captain Joe Pavelski and the rest of the supporting cast.
“We’re very fortunate we have a lot of players that can go up and down in the lineup,” Wilson said. “Our players just look at it as they just move up a role or slip into a different position, and it’s not really that much of an adjustment for them because they’ve done it before.”
All over the NHL, teams are adjusting on the fly to a surprising number of significant injuries early in the season, including a handful of starting goaltenders.
The Kings are calling Jonathan Quick week-to-week with a lower-body injury. The Panthers will be without Roberto Luongo for two to four weeks because of a sprained ligament in his right knee, and the Penguins don’t know when Matt Murray will be back after being diagnosed with yet another concussion.
The Flyers have ruled out high-priced forward James van Riemsdyk for the next five to six weeks, and the Blue Jackets are without top defenseman Seth Jones and center Brandon Dubinsky .
The Sharks in particular seem best prepared to withstand the loss of Thornton because of organizational depth in the form of summer addition Antti Suomela and ready-made NHL forwards like Rourke Chartier, Marcus Sorensen and Dylan Gambrell. They showed that already by drubbing the Flyers 8-2 on Monday night.
The organization hopes doctors caught the infection in Thornton’s knee early enough that he won’t be out too long. Still, Wilson expected to use 28 or 29 players this season and credits the versatility of players on the roster and coaching of Peter DeBoer for having San Jose ready for this scenario.
“When you lose a difference-maker, no team can just plug and play to replace a difference-maker. But then you become the sum of all your parts,” Wilson said. “A lot of our guys are not kids. … When people say they’re new or younger, they’re actually mature players. And most importantly our coaches and our players trust them, and that’s half the battle.”
No GM can go into an offseason making moves on the uncertain scenario that a star will go down. But previous experiences paved the way for Los Angeles, Columbus and Florida to have a plan in place.
Quick missed four months two seasons ago, and Luongo sat out two months with a groin injury last year. Florida has backup James Reimer signed long term as an option already, and Los Angeles traded for former top prospect Jack Campbell and brought back veteran Peter Budaj as depth.
“We’ve experienced it here two years in a row,” Kings GM Rob Blake said. “We lost Quickie for four or five months and Jeff Carter the same last year. (Coach John Stevens’) message is the same: the next guy up, someone’s going to come in and fill that spot. Will he be at the level of Jonathan Quick? Will he be at the level of Jeff Carter or (Anze) Kopitar? Probably not. But they are adequate players, and the rest around have to be better, too.”
The Penguins for now are counting on young goalies Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry to shoulder the load without Murray. Knowing them from his time in Pittsburgh, Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury said: “They’re both very talented goalies. … I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Often, it’s not about one player filling a void. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen doesn’t expect one defenseman to replace Jones or one center to step right into Dubinsky’s role.
“If somebody comes from being the seventh, eighth defenseman to thinking he’s going to play 27 minutes to replace Seth Jones with all his strengths, probably either he shouldn’t be the seventh defenseman or he’s got unrealistic expectations,” Kekalainen said. “Everybody who’s coming into the lineup from outside of the lineup should have their eyes wide open with the opportunity in front of them, but also realizing what their own strengths are and what their role on the team is and how they can be successful.”
That’s the case in Philadelphia, where Jordan Weal gets the first crack at filling in for van Riemsdyk after being a healthy scratch the first two games of the season. Like the Sharks, the Flyers believe they have flexibility among their forwards.
“We have a lot of players that are versatile in terms of being able to play the middle or play the wing,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “In the short term, that’ll challenge us and challenge our depth and challenge somebody else to step in and do a good job.”
After losing just two of their first 10 games last season as an expansion team, the Golden Knights have already lost twice in their first three games. For a Vegas team that didn’t face much adversity in a charmed inaugural season that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a chance for coach Gerard Gallant to emphasize some fundamentals with a tough road schedule early.
“I thought we played loose and were not concentrating enough and were making mental mistakes,” Gallant said. “So, it’s just about getting focused and getting ready to play every game.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
The defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals host a 2019 favorite in the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
LEADERS (THROUGH MONDAY)
Goals: Auston Matthews (Toronto), 7; Assists: Morgan Rielly (Toronto), 8; Points: Matthews and Rielly (10); Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 28:15; Wins: John Gibson (Anaheim), 3; Goals-against average: Andrei Vaslievskiy (Tampa Bay), 0.92; Save percentage: Vasilevskiy, .977.
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