SAN JOSE- If you’re looking for another report about the conditioning of players after the lockout, I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding it. But why focus on what every other media entity will have fully covered? How bout instead we get to the real bones of a famous hockey debate? That’s right, line combinations.
More specifically, do you load up the top two lines or do you spread out the power?
It certainly appears for now that with the abbreviated training camp, San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan wants to keep players with familiar faces. That means more than likely starting the season with the top three lines as follows:
Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Martin Havlat
TJ Galiardi-Michal Handzus-Tommy Wingels
The big question is, will that third line group be effective enough for the Sharks to make a run? McLellan thinks they can.
“We have to get the third and fourth lines to be factors. We have to make sure when they’re participating that we’re on the positive side of everything. Is the group that we have capable of doing that? Of course they are.” commented McLellan. “But that is that incremental increase that I’ve talked about. Players on the third line have to be better in their roles. They have to take their game up two or three percent and then collectively we’ll have a better group.”
If the Galiardi, Handzus, and Wingels combination doesn’t get off to a quick start, it should not shock anybody to see Joe Pavelski back centering that line. Pavelski thrived in that spot down the stretch in 2011 and McLellan acknowledged that once again being a possibility.
“There’s potential for that” confirmed the coach. “If we’re looking for players, and you used Shepp’s [James Sheppard] name for example but if we’re looking for somebody that maybe can jump up onto the top two lines if you will and that allows us to put a different player down in that three hole if we want. They’re moving pieces and we’re just trying to find the best way to be using them.”
Sheppard, acquired by the Sharks last summer from Minnesota, was selected ninth overall by the Wild in 2006. Those first round credentials never developed in Minny and a knee injury has sidelined him for over two years. But now being fully healthy, Sheppard is one of only a couple of role playing forwards that could make the jump into San Jose’s top-six. The only other candidate that makes reasonable sense at this point would be second year right-wing Tommy Wingels who filled in adequately on the second line last season when Marty Havlat was out.
One could make a strong case that regardless of who jumps up, it would be the guy jumping “down” of sorts that would be the biggest key. Pavelski is one of, if not the best defensive forward on the Sharks roster and he certainly sounds as if he had no qualms about his time playing third line center two years ago.
“I really enjoyed that season playing with [Torrey] Mitchell and [Kyle] Wellwood” chimed Pavelski. “We got rolling and I still was on the point on the PP, I had a lot of PP time, lot of PK time. I don’t think ice time really diminished, maybe by a minute but there’s some nights that helps if anything. There’s different match-ups down there and we had a lot of success.”
And echoing McLellan, Pavelski noted that the third line and fourth lines need to be better.
“You see the teams that win, they are good.” added Pavelski. “Not just a third line, they have a strong fourth line that contributes that can give good minutes.”
As for how McLellan comes to the decision on whether to spread out the lines or stack them up (he’s previously done a bit of both) the coach was very candid about his thought process:
“Well you look at the roster that you’re dealt. And in this case familiarity is real important. If we had a 21 or 22 day training camp with seven exhibition games I think you’d see our lines a little different. We’d experiment a bit we’d try and find somebody that would blend and match with people. Right now we’re going with familiar people. Pav, Jumbo and Patty for example played together a lot. They have been in power-play situations together, they understand and read off each other well. So we’re looking for a head start, we’re looking for a jump start. We just feel that is the best way to go right now.”
While familiarity may be the way the Sharks will start the season, it doesn’t mean that’s the way they will finish. Even in a shortened season, lines are bound to change and it is rare that you go a full season with lines intact from day one until the end of the season.
In San Jose’s two conference finals runs in 2010 and 2011, they had strong third lines. One was more defensive minded with Manny Malhotra and one was more offensive minded with Pavelski but both were tremendous in all three zones.
However, last season the Sharks’ various third line combinations with Handzus, Galiardi, Wingles, Daniel Winnik and Dominic Moore just never got going.
It is no question that this year the third line will need to be significantly better if the Sharks are to win that ever elusive Stanley Cup.
Will that mean the top-six of Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Clowe, Couture, Havlat all remain on the top two combinations throughout the year and into the playoffs? Perhaps, but there are some other combinations that have worked well in the past and would come with a top-six caliber forward rotating down.
The two most likely scenarios for a more dynamic third line would be the following:
Havlat and Handzus have played together before and feed off each other quite well. They played together in Chicago for a small amount of time and spent time on the same line last year here in San Jose.
If Pavelski drops down, he could end up teaming up with his former college line-mate in first year Shark Adam Burish. Alongside with them could either be Handzus, Galiardi, Desjardins or Wingels.
So while the Sharks will start the way we all thought they would, they certainly have some quality options available if they need to change things up at some point this season.