Home » More & Less Hockey » Flatlining, or where did the fourth go?

Flatlining, or where did the fourth go?

(Originally published at Kukla’s Korner, February 13, 2013)

That’s six. I hate to think what the farmer’s new bride would do to the person who crossed her six times, but I’m sort of relieved that the Sharks got this out of the way. If they were mystified about why they lost again, after doing so many things so much better, well, it could not happen any other way. Once they lost five, the sixth loss was going to will itself into being no matter what.

T.J. Galiardi, Adam Burish, and Martin Havlat… What in the world happened while I was testing out America One Sports? When I said the Sharks should just play their game, just go out there and do what they know how to do, I wasn’t including Todd McLellan in that freestyle instruction. On the other hand, putting that line together touched on something I’ve been wondering about for years now: why have a traditional fourth line?

Why have one line with so few minutes, instead of flattening the minutes for all the lines and keeping everyone fresher? The concept of an “energy” line presupposes that the team has a number of players who cannot contribute in any way but to give the skilled guys a rest. Why doesn’t anyone try to skip that and maintain a serious attack with all four lines? At the very least, it would confuse the NHL teams that are still laboring under a three and a half line system, which is most of them.

Of course even the old fourth line model does demand offensive activity from that energy line. That’s how they are supposed to keep the other team busy while the top three lines get their rest. But if they were considered a real threat, why would you keep their time on ice so low?

What happens when a team breaks from that model? Teams do that, especially when they are playing wildly out of character, or when they have back to back games and need to conserve fuel. But in the second scenario they don’t usually change the line configurations to take advantage of equalized ice time as they might. They didn’t change the lines as much in Columbus as they could have, since the difference in ice time there was the smallest it has been in 2013. Havlat did play with Handzus, which is a demotion from the second line, but not one that makes such a loud thunk as falling to the fourth.

You don’t often see a highly skilled player like Martin Havlat on a Sharks “fourth” line. It might be a stepping stone for a talented rookie but it isn’t something McLellan often does to top veterans. Before Marty’s fans flip out at the unwarranted insult, look at the TOI numbers: he logged a lot of minutes for a “fourth liner.” He has hovered between one and two minutes behind the top ice time per game, and last night he played 2:45 less than Thornton did. That isn’t much of a gap compared to the roughly ten minute average difference between highest and lowest ice time this season.

The ice time for the forwards on all lines was pretty darn close last night, and I don’t think it was because the Sharks stank as a group. They didn’t.

They didn’t score either, but I never expect very much in that department when you jumble the lines up without even a practice between games. At least McLellan left the Sheppard, Handzus, Wingels line alone to start. And putting Clowe back with Couture is always a good idea, especially if you’re putting a brand new guy with them. Clowe and Couture should remember how to play together.

On paper, Havlat with Burish and Galiardi stuck out like a sore thumb. In reality, Havlat had eight seconds less time on the ice playing on the “fourth” line as he had playing on the “third” line. Granted, almost four of those minutes were on the power play, but minutes are minutes if energy is the concern. He had 22 shifts, two more than Clowe and the same number as Couture. In that time, he managed two shots, same as Sheppard, Couture, and Kennedy.

The other part of the equation is that Burish got more ice time than usual: 11:24. He had seven seconds more back on February 2nd, but usually only plays eight to nine minutes. Galiardi, who has bounced around a lot, stayed even with Burish. He got credit for three shots, which was the second highest number on the team. Only Pavelski and Marleau had more with four each. It appears that that line did just fine despite being so hastily assembled and having less ice time than others.

McLellan didn’t flatten the ice times as much as he could have, if he were really kicking the sides out of the old “energy line” box. But he did make the peculiar decision to adjust his lines so that they would have a chance of making good use of the time they had. It’s a terribly small sample size, contaminated by lack of practice. It still makes me hope that McLellan could be toying with the idea of a system that makes more equal demands on all four lines, and in so doing gives their opponent less of a chance to target the “top” line. It seems like a lot of teams have the Shark attack figured out, the way people know to poke a shark in the nose to make it back off.

The Sharks are not big fish. They can change their strategy. I believe they have the depth to do it, they just need to deploy that depth creatively.

============

The call up of Tim Kennedy was a relief. That made sense to me. There were others in Worcester that would have fit this bill too, but Matt Pelech wasn’t one of them. The Sharks need what again? Oh yeah: GOALS. So if you call someone up, why not at least try to pick someone who has been doing the thing you want done?

Maybe they have no intention of sending him back any time soon. Maybe the call up is an absolutely awful indication about Andrew Desjardins’ status. Him being put on IR was a shock,a makes me fret about knee-viruses again. How frustrating for Desi, and how upsetting.

Brent Burns not playing was inconvenient but not entirely surprising. By the team’s own estimates, he came back early. He could have easily aggravated his injury or was just out of gas not being in game shape. I suspect this is the reason behind some of Demers’ odd absences too. They hadn’t played from the start, why overplay them when the team has so many defensemen and they are expected to log so many minutes? I’m glad McLellan hasn’t tried using seven defensemen again. Unless one is going to be put in as a forward, short-shifting d-men has never worked out well.

I tried to save the game for later, but the bleeding score kept popping up in a little box during the Flyers game that I was watching with half an eye. I managed to not look during the third period, but then the Bulls play-by-play announcer started to give me an intermission report that started “the San Jose Sharks are going to a…” I yanked the headphones off before I heard the rest but the damage was done.

You just can’t hide from the spoilers these days. Trying to do so, I never did find out why Mikael Tam, sent down from Worcester Monday, did not play for the Bulls Tuesday. I just wanted to watch the Sharks game with some suspense, but I ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Incidentally, America One works very nicely and finally I understand why the KNBR audio feed for Bulls games is so time-delayed. It’s synced up with the America One video. It’s totally worth it, even though the Bulls lost again. They played well, and the Flyers won. That put me 1-1-1 for the day: a win, a well-fought loss and a loss that I predicted just because the Sharks were due a six-game losing streak.

Hey, it wasn’t a blow-out, and the Preds are more likely to blow a team away than the Blue Jackets are. So maybe that was a win.

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