SAN JOSE- For the first two-and-a-half months of the 2013-14 season the San Jose Sharks primarily featured a top line of Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns. Joe Pavelski meanwhile centered San Jose’s third line, a spot where he saw considerable success during both the 2010-11 and 2012-13 stretch runs. With Pavelski in this role to start 2013-14, the Sharks jumped out of the gates to a 10-1-1 start.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, in both last year’s playoffs and this year’s regular season, injuries to top-9 wingers have seemingly forced the Sharks coaching staff to move Pavelski from third line center to top-six wing. Ever since a Dec. 19 injury put Hertl on the mend, the Sharks have primarily used Pavelski in that top line vacancy.
Now even though the majority of Pavelski’s 38 goals have come alongside Thornton, for a number of reasons, it is still hard to argue that Pavelski isn’t best utilized as a third line center.
First and foremost, like Thornton, Pavelski makes players around him better. During the aforementioned stretch run of 2011, Pavelski tallied 31 points in his final 28 games while centering Kyle Wellwood (now retired at just 30-years-old) and Torrey Mitchell (has just 17 points in his last 108 games).
That said, Pavelski must be producing even more when playing alongside Thornton, right?
In truth, Pavelski actually has fewer points (28) in his past 28 games this season while playing primarily with Thornton and Burns than he did during that 2011 stretch run.
What does this mean, you ask? It means that Pavelski is a dominant player in his own right, without super star help. When you consider Thornton is capable of turning a player like Devin Setoguchi into a 30-goal scorer, it’s wisest of the Sharks to fill in Hertl’s absence with a player like James Sheppard or rookie Matt Nieto. Pavelski and Thornton will both put up the same offensive production regardless of whom they play with. Separating them makes the team better as it increases the production of the other less notable players on the roster.
Secondly, for a team like San Jose who relies on puck possession, (and needs to when you consider their older blue-liners have struggled without the puck this year) Pavelski’s face-off prowess is huge at the center position . At 56.5 percent success rate in the circle, Pavelski leads the Sharks and is 9th overall in the NHL. While Pavelski still takes plenty of draws as a wing, he has averaged two fewer draws per game as a wing than as a center. That may not sound like much but you never know when a key face-off can lead to a goal at either end.
Meanwhile, James Sheppard, San Jose’s current third line center, is just 49% in the draw in his last 10 games. And even though Sheppard and linemate Martin Havlat have been producing offense as of late, the Sharks are just 2-3-2 in their last seven games against mostly mediocre opponents. In their lone victory against a playoff opponent in that stretch, where the Sharks beat the Ducks 3-2, Sheppard was just 2 out of 11 in the dot and the entire third line was a minus-1.
Now for those of you who have followed me on twitter all season long (@ViewFromBensch) already know, I’ve been a big fan of Sheppard’s play since the start of the year. However, despite some opportunistic offense, this current Havlat-Sheppard-Tommy Wingels third line will never be capable of consistently dominating the way a Pavelski centered third line would.
And finally, in general, making your team top heavier to compensate for injury doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it. If it were theoretically possible, would you use your right leg to replace a missing left arm? Not a perfect analogy, but I think you see what I’m getting at. Great centers do so much more than wings.
Few teams can match up with the Sharks when they are three deep down the middle. The three headed monster at center makes it incredibly difficult on opposing coaches to figure out how to best deploy their shut down defenders. By spreading the wealth, the Sharks are bound to get a dominant center out against a third pair defense pair from time to time.
At the other end of the ice, the Sharks defense pairs have currently been in flux with injuries and stale play. Recently our friends at fearthefin.com put together a look at the advanced numbers of the various defense pairs utilized by the Sharks this season.
Recently, it seems as if the Sharks are planning on going with Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers as the top pair, Brad Stuart-Justin Braun as the second pair, and Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin as the third pair.
The corsi-for percentage for those three pairs is as follows
While Vlasic and Demers are killing it together at 59.1 corsi-for percentage and +12 goal differential at even strength, the 52.1 corsi-for percentage and -5 goal differential for Boyle and Irwin has me concerned. This pair is solid with the puck but has struggled taking it away while defending in their own zone.
Sure enough the various advanced hockey statistics can be used to argue different sides of the ledger, but the Sharks might want to consider more balanced pairs. Boyle’s older legs and right-handed shot might be better utilized alongside the defensive dominance of the left-handed Vlasic instead of an inconsistent Irwin. Splitting up Vlasic and Demers (two of San Jose’s top 3 defenders this year) is somewhat analogous to splitting up Thornton and Pavelski to make the team better. Demers can then slide back into a pairing with Hannan which was a pretty reliable duo earlier in the year.
Essentially, the top pair in this case (Vlasic-Boyle) is a little less dominant corsi-wise than Vlasic-Demers, but the third pair of Hannan and Demers is a little bit better puck possession wise than Boyle-Irwin.
The top pair percentage falls by 1.5%, second pair remains the same, third pair increases by 2.2%. A counter argument to making these defense pair changes is that the Vlasic-Demers, Boyle-Irwin combinations have combined for a plus-7 goal differential at even strength while Vlasic-Boyle and Demers-Hannan combine for a minus-2.
However, considering the corsi-for percentages for Vlasic-Boyle and Hannan-Demers, one would think the goal differential would be bound to increase for the better given how often they have the puck.
To sum up, you can definitely call me a fan of spreading the wealth throughout the lineup. If I’m the Sharks, I roll with the following lineup when the postseason begins, assuming everyone is healthy minus Hertl.
Matt Nieto—Joe Thornton—Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau—Logan Couture—Martin Havlat
Raffi Torres—Joe Pavelski—Tommy Wingels
James Sheppard—Andrew Desjardins—Tyler Kennedy
Dan Boyle—Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Justin Braun—Brad Stuart
Jason Demers—Scott Hannan