SAN JOSE- Being the team first guy that he is, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski wouldn’t admit to preferring the center position, but San Jose’s current assist leader with five helpers is one of many Sharks players off to a terrific start.
Pavelski has begun the season centering San Jose’s third line just as he did down the stretch of the 2010-11 season (with Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood on his wings) and towards the end of last season with Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels.
But Pavelski, who scored 30 goals on Joe Thornton’s right side, says it doesn’t matter if he plays center or wing.
“It doesn’t really matter, I’ve enjoyed playing [on the wing] with Jumbo and Patty” noted Pavelski. “We had a good stretch when we were together Wellwood and Mitchell but even [when] I’ve been on the wing I’ve taken some faceoffs so one way or another I still feel like I’ve always been a centerman.”
Through four games, Pavelski has no goals to go along with the five assists but he could just as easily be ahead of star rookie Tomas Hertl in the team scoring race given some better luck.
With Hertl, Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic getting the attention for their hot starts, Pavelski has flown under the radar.
Currently centering Wingels and rookie Matt Nieto, Pavelski gives San Jose a depth of scoring lines that few other teams can match up with.
“I like him as a centerman” chimed Pavelski’s power-play partner Dan Boyle. “He’s capable of playing the wing obviously but I think the strength of this team is when he’s been on the third line, it’s been pretty evident. You don’t have to worry about match-ups, [can] feel comfortable rolling all the lines and I like him in the middle of the ice, it allows him to be a little more creative. It’s a perfect fit for this team and for him.”
“Yeah, I do” confirmed Logan Couture when asked if he likes Pavelski more in the middle. “Pavs is a very smart hockey player and as centerman you have to be. He’s done a great job on that third line. There’s not too many third lines in the league that can match-up with them.”
As you can see, the big thing concerning Pavelski down the middle is matching up with opposing forward lines. Previously, when Pavelski was playing with Thornton and Marleau, that trio was often used against other teams top lines and defense pairs. At that time, those three together left much to be desired with San Jose’s second and third groups.
However, with Brent Burns now moved up to Pavelski’s old spot on Thornton’s right side, and Pavelski back down to third line center, the Sharks have two legit scoring lines that—at least on home ice (last change)—can skate shifts away from the opponents top line. The Marleau, Couture, and Tyler Kennedy trio is currently skating the majority of their shifts against the opponents top group which allows the Thornton and Pavelski lines more time in the offensive zone.
Furthermore, depending on how opposing coaches want to deploy their top shut-down defense pair, on any given night, two of the three top lines for the Sharks will have a significant match-up advantage going out against second and third pairs.
“I like Joe up the middle” confirmed head coach Todd McLellan at practice on Friday. “But sometimes, and it will happen this year, sometimes you have to shuffle your deck a little bit and refresh it. He’s proven he can play both positions. I think he’s a better a centerman than a winger. He has the puck more, he’s involved in the game more but he also makes our team better in that spot.”
In the second round last spring Pavelski was moved up to second line wing with Marleau and Couture when Marty Havlat was injured and Raffi Torres was suspended. While San Jose still managed to play the Kings hard for the rest of that series, it was evident that the scoring depth which had launched the team onto such a big roll down the stretch had all of a sudden evaporated.
But with rookie forwards Hertl and Nieto playing top nine minutes the Sharks have much better forward depth than they did last season. Therefore, one can imagine it will take quite a lot of unforeseen injuries for McLellan to move Pavelski out of that third line center position. For as long as the Sharks feature Thornton, Couture and Pavelski down the middle, they will remain an incredibly tough team to beat.
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