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Back Where They Belong: Unchange the Sharks

(Originally published at SportsRadioService.com)

At the first intermission during the Sharks game Saturday, Jamie Baker said the Sharks seem to be missing something, possibly their mojo. If the Sharks have lost their mojo, it might be buried in Todd McLellan’s higgledy-piggledy line adjustments. It could be time to unchange all those lines.

Or maybe they found their mojo Saturday, in the process of being outshot 46-39 by the Dallas Stars, who average 31.6 shots a game. Maybe the Sharks found their mojo and that is how they survived going down by two goals, made it to a shootout and won 3-2. They won. That is important. But if a 4-2 victory in Toronto foretold of a losing streak to come, it isn’t likely that the Sharks will rest on those Dallas shootout laurels.

The Sharks started the season outstandingly well. To get back to that could be impossible, but to get back to winning more than losing is a reasonable goal. The key is to put the pieces back where they belong and leave them there for at least as long as they have been out of place. That would be nine games or so.

The Sharks’ coaching staff spent a lot of time thinking up forward lines during the off-season and training camp. The lines they started with might have some merit, even if you account for the insertion of players who came and went due to injury. During the ten game experiment the team just completed, only the Hertl-Thornton-Burns and Couture-Marleau connections lasted.

Those were dismantled Saturday against Dallas, beyond replacing the injured Hertl. John McCarthy took Pavelski’s spot as third line center, Pavelski moved to a new line with Thornton and Marleau, and Burns to Couture’s line with Havlat.

Putting McCarthy at center is not wrong per se. He played there in college and also in the AHL. But he’s been in San Jose for most of this season, playing wing. Maybe tossing him back to the middle isn’t the best way to stabilize the team.

When the Sharks started this rough patch after Toronto, San Jose started making line adjustments. Eventually, they made every line adjustment there was to make, until finally Martin Havlat was skating on a fourth line with Andrew Desjardins. The experiment may have provided some as yet unseen benefit to the team, but it certainly didn’t generate many wins.

Obviously, the inquiry into whether or not a pass can connect between Havlat and Desjardins was answered with an unequivocal “no.” But what about all those other adjustments? What about moving Pavelski to the wing? Pavelski is a perfectly capable winger, but moving him away from center punched a hole in one of the team’s most coveted qualities: daunting depth through center.

The decision to sit Tyler Kennedy for a game, then put him back in on the fourth line looked a lot like the path Havlat followed back to the second line. It’s all well and good to make a player watch a game to sort things out, then have him come back in with limited ice time.

Except it really isn’t well and good. Using the fourth line as a gateway back into the game can thoroughly handicap the fourth line if said player is not accustomed to fourth line duty. It’s hard enough for the energy line to do its job with limited ice time and the continuous changing of their membership.

When the rotation included McCarthy, Sheppard and Brown as wingers for Desjardins, at least it was just those four. They could get a feel for each other. Tossing Havlat and Kennedy in there didn’t do them any favors. They have to work fast and hard, they’re not a rehab service for top niners.

It wasn’t ideal for the top niners either. Martin Havlat, before Thursday’s game, was preparing to skate on a line with Couture and Marleau, the third line he’d played on in as many games. Despite playing all over the lineup, did Havlat think his game was becoming more consistent or not?

Not, but like you said, I’ve been all over the place. So we’ll see. I played with these guys half of the year last year at the end and it was great. So we’ll see how it is.

It went pretty well, better than other lines that night. It was the only line to score a goal and finish without a minus by their names. Tyler Kennedy was the only other skater without a minus.

Whether he sees it or not, Havlat’s game has been getting stronger. It may be taking longer than it would if he’d been left consistently with the same line-mates. While his game has suffered along with the team’s, he has at least maintained some defensive equilibrium. McLellan commented on that after the win in St. Louis last Tuesday:

When we look at Marty, I think since he’s been back in the lineup, he’s only been a minus player three nights. That’s pretty darn good. There’s not a lot of other guys that are in that situation. Would we like more offense from him? I think it’s coming.

Havlat isn’t the only player who might profit from a consistent line configuration. Kennedy did better than Havlat on the fourth line. He even got an assist in his second game there. Maybe all he needed was a little more time with his new linemates, a second game?

In Los Angeles, it looked like McLellan was ready to put the old bands back together, with Havlat and Marleau flanking Couture, and Pavelski back at center with Wingels and Sheppard. When Hertl went down, emergency changes had to be made, but otherwise the team was taking a familiar shape again.

Those lines did not win that game, but wins have been scarce for the kaleidoscope of line formations before and since. Those won three of eight games. Perhaps if McLellan gives the old lines a chance to find their footing again the team can reverse this losing trend.

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