(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)
Before last Thursday’s game in San Jose, Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about the difference between playing the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. He said:
They’re a little further north? I think LA is more of a harder team as far as bigger and more physical, where these guys play physcial but they’re a better skating team and have more depth in their scoring. I mean, if they ever get completely healthy and they have Pavelski back on the third line, that’s… that’s pretty deep. They’re as deep as any team in the NHL I think.
That comment echoes a sentiment held by most Sharks observers from the start of the season. The team is still missing Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres, but will they need to move Joe Pavelski back to the third line at all? Or has the Sharks coaching staff finally found a new third line that doesn’t need the team’s second best scorer at its center?
The present third line includes two players who have been used most erratically through the season. Martin Havlat and James Sheppard have spent time on just about every line, including the fifth. Their performance has been accordingly inconsistent– maddeningly so– until now. Seeing them in the lineup and in the same position with some consistency is gratifying. Both players bring skill to the team, and the team will need it on a regular basis.
The budding stability of that line is somewhat dependant on the top six. Asked about the Sharks’ top line on Saturday, Washingon Capitals coach Adam Oates said: “Well first of all, which one’s their top line? They got two…”
If you look at ice time per game, you certainly don’t find a season-long indication of which Sharks make up a top line. The usual suspects are there, the top three forwards being Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, in that order. Yet they do not make up one line. The next three forwards in even strength ice time are Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels. So in terms of time on ice, which points to coaching staff expectations, the top six have been a fluid group all season.
What about points? Same list, though in a slightly different order: Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Couture, Burns and Wingels. But those players are not all playing in the top six now, and the top three on both lists are not the top line, nor are the second three the second line: it has been Thornton centering Burns and Pavelski, while Couture centers Marleau and Matt Neito. The performance of the top six forwards has been so even that they are hard to tell apart in terms of stats.
The Sharks are deeper than they have ever been. This is precisely why, at the start of the season, the general assumption was that the Sharks could afford to not have Joe Pavelski in the top six, that he could center an over-fortified third line. Despite that depth and due to an unprecedented number of injuries for the team, the coaching staff struggled through most of the season to find a third line that worked. The current stretch of five games in a row with the same three players there looks like a record for the 2013-14 Sharks.
The third line of Havlat, Sheppard and Wingels is not the only thing that has been fixed for the last five games. The top six have also been steady, and only one winger on the fourth line continues to rotate. This is surely a function of being in the home stretch- the team needs stability to get ready for playoffs. But it is also a sign that the coaching staff likes these lines. Otherwise, the rotation of players would probably accelerate.
Before Thursday’s game against the Ducks, Sheppard said:
I think our whole team is playing well, that helps. Everyone’s moving the puck and kind of getting into a rhythm so I think all the lines kind of benefit from that. We want to keep it simple with a little bit extra, because I think we can do both: get pucks deep and make sure we don’t turn pucks over at the blues, but at the same time we can make plays like we did in New York.
Though it isn’t the only unit settling in, the third line still jumps out at me as being a “final piece” of this team. Havlat and Sheppard have not had a chance to find their game in such a consistent situation all season. Both have been scratches, both healthy and not quite healthy. Both have played all over the board with every linemate on the the team. Until recently, their play was inconsistent at best. Wingels has done the same marathon line swapping, but he has thrived. It takes all kinds.
Much of the success of this third line can be attributed to Sheppard’s improved play. Where Havlat’s play has consistently been better when he has time with the same linemates, Sheppard’s path to a regular spot in an NHL lineup has been rocky. It was littered with enormous early pressure, an intractable injury, and finally a long road back. For him to perform consistently is not surprising given the original assessment of his skill: he was a first round draft pick and his first NHL coaching staff believed he should and could be ready to play in the NHL at 19 without any time in the AHL. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That looks to be true of James Sheppard.
If Raffi Torres comes back sooner than later (which looks increasingly unlikely), will the lines shift again to move Pavelski to the third line? Will he end up there in the playoffs? If both Torres and Tomas Hertl come back, probably there will be another significant line shuffle, but there is no rush. Tommy Wingels has shown that he can be as versatile as Pavelski, and Havlat and Sheppard are finally finding their game. The line is strong enough to not justify pulling a top scorer out of the top six.