SAN JOSE- For those of you reading me for the first time, I want to make a couple of reminders before getting into the content of this column. First being that San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan is very cordial with the media and second, between McLellan, associate coach Larry Robinson, and assistant coach Jim Johnson, you will be hard pressed to find a better coaching staff in the league.
However, the Sharks have now dropped three games in a row after their 7-0 start to the season and there is no longer the excuse of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” when it comes to lineup decisions.
And as a hockey analyst there is one particular lineup decision in San Jose’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday that has me befuddled.
That being why McLellan elected to scratch defenseman Jason Demers instead of Douglas Murray. Last season Murray struggled all year while battling various injuries and he very much looked like he had lost a step. Not being very fleet of foot to begin with, the bruising defenseman hasn’t looked much better so far through 10 games this season.
Demers on the other hand, despite his own struggles a year ago, has good speed and is a puck moving defenseman. When you consider the Sharks played the previous night in Anaheim, and that the Blackhawks feature one of the fastest skating teams in the league, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to let Murray rest and keep Demers—who has played in just two games this season—in the lineup.
Murray struggles keeping up with fast skating forwards and Demers would have been a better fit in my eyes and for more than just overall team speed.
Playing Demers instead of Murray (who hasn’t sat out all season) makes sense for a number of other reasons.
First and foremost, rookie defenseman Matt Irwin has played much better (at both ends) than Murray has and therefore he deserves to stay in the lineup when Demers plays. McLellan however has instead opted to flop Demers and Irwin rather than Demers and Murray.
Secondly, getting Demers into the lineup against Chicago would have allowed the Sharks to feature a more natural set of six defenseman with three puck movers in Demers, Justin Braun, and Dan Boyle, and three “stay at home” type guys in Irwin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brad Stuart.
Defense pairings are much more natural when a puck mover is paired up with a more defensive defenseman. As our pals at fearthefin.com have pointed out, the pairing of lineup mainstays Vlasic and Stuart hasn’t correlated to great breakouts.
Thirdly, Demers has historically played quite well against Chicago over his career. Not only did he score a big goal against the Blackhawks in the 2010 Western Conference finals, but in a series that the Sharks were swept, Demers ended up with a plus-1 rating. Furthermore, in 10 career regular season games, Demers has scored three goals and added four assists against Chicago.
There is no denying the many great performances that Murray has given the Sharks over the years but at this point in his career his lineup spot should be anything but a guarantee. The NHL keeps getting younger and faster, and Murray is only getting older and noticeably slower.
Can he still be effective? Yes, he has been great on the penalty kill and has done some good things for the Sharks this season but is he clearly amongst San Jose’s top-6 defenseman right now? Not sure how anyone, even McLellan could answer that with a confident yes.
When asked about Murray’s play this season after the loss to Chicago, McLellan had the following to say:
“Cranky has been up and down a little bit. He’s been a huge part of the penalty kill. When we look at his game tonight, he’d love to have that play back. [He was] slow, got stripped it’s in our net but I’m just talking about one moment. He’s a big part of our team and he will continue to be.”
The play McLellan referenced was a crucial mistake. Murray was to slow to get rid of the puck when Jonathan Toews stripped him of the biscuit and immediately set up Patrick Kane for what ended up being the game winning goal.
Murray has been a fan favorite for years and clearly a coaches favorite but keeping him in the lineup is a coaching decision that I don’t believe is giving San Jose the best possible chance to win.