(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)
The San Jose Sharks started this season with an unprecedented number of injuries, some that occurred before the season and some that happened early in. One of the casualties of those injuries was a reliable third line. The team had trouble generating steady scoring without moving Joe Pavelski up to the top six, though it had been widely presumed he would be most valuable centering the third line. With just 14 games remaining, the Sharks may have finally solved the third line conundrum. The combination of James Sheppard, Martin Havlat and Tommy Wingels could be the line the team has been looking for.
The trade deadline came and went without any moves for the big club, apart from most of the injured players returning to the lineup. Some of those players are still adjusting to game speed, others have been adjusting to new linemates again and again for most of the season. Martin Havlat and James Sheppard fall into that second category. Good games from those two have been a significant factor in the team’s recent winning streak, currently at five in a row.
Tommy Wingels, of course, has balanced the trio perfectly. His consistently effective and smart play is no surprise. Of course he does well there, as he does well anywhere from first to fourth line. He is the perfect compliment to two players who have been all over the map thus far, two players the team needs to get more from.
Havlat returned from the injured list long before the Olympic break, but still sat for many games. He played 28 of a possible 59 before the Olympic break, putting him ahead of Raffi Torres and Adam Burish in playing time, but still behind the ball in terms of catching up with the rest of the team. In all, Havlat has 14 points in 35 games played this season. Since the Olympic Break, he has played seven of nine games, scoring three goals and earning an assist. Just before the break, he earned two points, meaning that six of his season points and four of his seven goals have come since February 1. His game looks to be on the upswing.
James Sheppard, who has been on the third line with Havlat for a couple of games now, has played 53 games, eight of nine since the break. In those last eight, he has seven points, including two two-point games. Like Havlat, he has earned a sizeable chunk of his 15 season points since February 1: nine in his last ten games, to be precise.
Martin Havlat and James Sheppard have had a couple of good games together now. Todd McLellan, a habitual line-juggler on a normal day, has outdone himself where Havlat is concerned, moving him all over the board. Nonetheless, Havlat’s game was lining out even before the break, without the benefit of seeing the same linemates from game to game. Whether it is a function of improved communication or confidence, passes were connecting, shots were coming, he was playing more games. That is not to say McLellan was wrong to move Havlat around, hindsight is not really 20/20. Havlat is playing well now, but that doesn’t mean he would be playing better if he had not moved so much between lines or played more. Perhaps the mad formula worked, perhaps it didn’t. In any case, Havlat’s game is strong now and that is all that matters.
How much of Havlat’s absence from the lineup has been due to health and how much to dissatisfaction with performance is unclear. In any case, McLellan seems to have found a balance he likes in terms of how much to play Havlat. As for where to play him, the jury is still out. Perhaps he has found a spot he likes him in now, but it is too early to tell. It might depend on James Sheppard.
James Sheppard is the surprise of the month. All season, the team’s observers (myself included) have assumed that the Sharks needed Joe Pavelski centering the third line to be at their best. Pavelski’s stellar performance on the top line was something that would do until the team was healthy again and he could be put back where the team really needed him. James Sheppard is the first player to really knock a hole in that assumption. Is he finally the guy to solidify that third line? Can Pavelski stay on the wing?
It is early still, only two games in to the Havlat, Sheppard, Wingels line. Unquestionably, if a line is going to work it will work better with more practice. As the regular season winds down to the playoffs, it would be a good thing for this third line to get more time together. All three have the talent to play in the top six, all three have spent some time on the fourth line. Whatever the reasoning for ever putting them on the fourth line, as a third line they could very well be the key to rolling over future opponents. Considering how long both Havlat and Sheppard have been wearing question marks over their heads, that would be a truly satisfying outcome as plot lines go.
Raffi Torres could be the line buster there. So far, McLellan has used him primarily on the fourth line, presumably to ease him back in to the game. I think it is likely that McLellan is being proactive in avoiding injury, or extra-cautious with his response to any little symptom. Some have called him over-cautious keeping Torres out after just a couple of games with limited minutes. How can you be over-cautious with a player who just returned from a long layoff? The reason people avoid surgery is that it creates more injury on top of the initial problem. It does take longer to recover when you cut the patient up. Before his return, Torres said:
I’ve done enough off the ice, I feel as good as I’m going to feel, I need to play games now I think. Ultimately I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a force out there and to be on my game. But I understand it’s a process and it takes some time and I’m cool with that.
That isn’t the same as saying that he was 100%- it only meant that the next step in his recovery was to start playing. He’s cool with that process. At the rate he has put up points in the few minutes he has played (five points in five games), everyone should be cool with it.
The Sharks would like to catch Anaheim but their spot in the playoffs is secure now. They will need every resource available to them when the post season arrives. Keeping players like Havlat and Torres ready but not tired looks like a solid plan. The time for heroics is yet to come.