First off, a little background. For, I don’t know, the past decade, give or take a year, the San Jose Sharks have lacked a legitimately serviceable third line. Based on the third lines iced by teams that have won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout, that’s a problem.
Check this out:
The 2005-2006 Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup with a third line made up of Doug Weight, who finished the year with 47 points, Matt Cullen, who scored 25 goals, and surefire Hall of Famer Mark Recchi, who ended the year with over 60 points and contributed 16 more in 25 playoff games en route to his second of three championships. Wow.
The 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks put together a third line of Sami Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Todd Marchant, who were widely considered the best shut-down line in the NHL and still combined for 25 points in 21 playoff games.
The 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings were a more fluid team in terms of shifting players around into different roles, but their third line was made up of several combinations that included Valteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Dan Cleary, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson and Kris Draper, who managed 61 points in 22 playoff games.
And how about Pittsburgh in 2008-09? Both goals in their 2-1 game seven victory over the Detroit Red Wings were scored by third-liner Max Talbot, who operated on a unit with Jordan Stall (22 regular season goals) and Tyler Kennedy (15 goals, 35 points).
Chicago’s cup-winning team in 2010 took things to a whole new level with a line of Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd – good enough to be the top unit on quite a few NHL teams. Byfuglien has gone on to become an all-star defenseman, Ladd is captaining the Winnipeg Jets, and Bolland had as many points in 22 playoff games (16) as he did in 39 regular season contests.
The 2011 Boston Bruins followed suit with a third line as good as anyone’s second line that included Rich Peverly, Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin. The trio combined for 32 points during Boston’s run to the Cup. And last year’s Kings squad got 22 points in 20 games from its surprisingly competent third line.
Last year, the Sharks got a grand total of 28 goals (and zero in the playoffs) from Michal Handzus, Jamie McGinn, and Torrey Mitchell, who formed the team’s third line to start the season. By the end of the year, one was traded, one was a healthy scratch, and one was allowed to walk via free agency. It was a problem that general manager Doug Wilson did essentially nothing to address during the offseason, aside from hope that guys like Tommy Wingels and T.J. Galiardi would blossom into legitimate top-nine forwards, while Michal Handzus had a renaissance year.
It hasn’t quite happened that way. The Sharks went out almost immediately and signed Montreal buy-out and offensively gifted center Scott Gomez to bolster the bottom lines. But rather than give him a third line role, which seemed most logical, they plugged him in on the fourth line with, well, plugs – Adam Burish and Andrew Desjardins, who have a combined 30 goals in nearly 400 NHL games.
As a result, San Jose’s bottom six has predictably struggled, scoring just twice through 13 games. When Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton , Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture were absolutely lighting it up through the team’s first five contests, that wasn’t an issue. But since winning five straight to start the year, the Sharks have failed to win a game in regulation. So Todd McLellan began his annual line juggling, which is understandable in theory, but beyond fucked in application.
Forget the fact that “spreading the offense out” has literally never worked for the Sharks during McLellan’s tenure, despite his insistence on doing it throughout essentially the entire 2011-12 campaign. His bottom six forwards still didn’t score, and guys like Joe Thornton, Ryane Clowe, and Patrick Marleau saw their numbers regress from past years as a result of skating with scrubby fourth liners and inexperienced call-ups. Quite simply, the Sharks don’t have the personnel or depth for distributing the talent throughout three or four lines to work
Forget the fact that through five games, the Marleau-Thornton-Pavelski line was scoring at a record setting pace. It took exactly three games for McLellan to begin tinkering aggressively. And his tinkering, as usual, has made little-to-no sense.
For example, Ryane Clowe, who has not scored a goal this season, took Marleau’s place on the top line. This would be semi-understandable if it was a one-for-one swap, because one could assume that McLellan wanted to put his struggling forward and his best playmaker on the same line to get the former going. But that’s not what happened.
As of last night, McLellan had also shuffled second-liner Marty Havlat to the FOURTH line, where he played with Adam Burish and T.J. Galiardi. Is he trying to send a message to Havlat about his quality of play? Perhaps. But how does that jive with sticking a goalless slowpoke on the top line as a result of his substandard play? Hint: It doesn’t.
In addition to shuffling the line combinations, McLellan has also made some very questionable choices about his overall lineup following disappointing games. The Sharks took Phoenix to a shootout tied 0-0 – obviously, defense is not the problem – and yet, the following game, McLellan removed puck moving defenseman Jason Demers from the lineup and replaced him with Douglas Murray. Up front, McLellan inserted a minor league call-up known for his fisticuffs more than his three career NHL points, rather than the speedy T.J. Galiardi, who, despite his struggles offensively, has been a 30+ point man in his career.
Not surprisingly (okay, it was a little surprising), the Sharks coughed up SIX (yes, six) goals to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They looked disjointed, slow, and above all, confused. Presumably, all of the line juggling is done with an emphasis on improving offensive production, but its impact on defensive zone chemistry was not been good. Assignments were missed, passes were off, communication was lacking. The result was a San Jose net oh-so-very full of pucks.
So last night, McLellan reunited the Marleau-Thornton-Pavelski unit. He reunited the Clowe-Couture combination that’s faired pretty well over the past two-plus seasons. He didn’t fuck with a third line that’s been pretty decent over the last handful of games. Still, inexplicably, a minor league call-up occupied Couture’s other wing, while Marty Havlat languished on the fourth line. And again, the Sharks didn’t score.
What’s incomprehensible, given the amount of shifting and tweaking he’s willing to do, is McLellan’s refusal to take the path of least resistance. Keep the top unit together, they’re good, and they will score more often than they don’t. Make sure that the other top-six forwards are playing with each other, because ultimately their talent and familiarity will win out. Then, if balanced and secondary scoring is the issue, identify the three most talented bottom six guys and, for ONCE, create a permanent third line.
What the hell is Scott Gomez doing on the fourth line? What the even more hell is Martin Havlat doing there? Why is a minor-league, pugilistic grocery stick tapped for the duty against a bottom-feeding Columbus team over a quick, more experienced, and infinitely more talented forward?
It seems that the only thing McLellan hasn’t tried is to dress the best possible lineup in the most logical formation. That doesn’t just defy reason, it punches it straight in the dick, fucks its mom, and laughs in its face.