Sharks Gameday: Arrested Development

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5:00 PST
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41-26-7, 89 points 46-19-10, 100 points
8th in Western Conference
1st in Western Conference

Television
CSN-CA
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Mile High Hockey

[Update]: Thornton won't play tonight, and he's listed day to day with a lower body injury. Blake will also be out on a "maintenance day", but Demers has been called up and will play. Also, expect McGinn to lace um up after missing a game. The always sexy Thomas Griess will be in nets.

We all saw the injury. We all felt the pain, the disgust, the utter and unescapable despair. Jumbo Joe, crumpled on the ice. A shell of the player he once was. Will he ever play again? I SAY TO YOU GOOD SIR... WILL THE MAN EVER PLAY ANOTHER GAME IN HIS CAREER?!?! 

Turns out, he might play tonight.

Plank and TCY were at the game last night, and were speechless after hearing Joe crunch into the boards 200 feet away. Our dropped jaws had to be extracted off the ketchup stained floor in front of us. But once we watched the replay (admittedly, it was a rough crash), our "Joe's career might be over" hyperbole was diminished. Coupled with the quotes from Todd McLellan and the rest of the players made, the injury seemed less severe than we had initially thought.

We did, however, feel worried enough to examine the state of the Sharks lineup sans-Joe Thornton.

As far as we can see, there are three possible situations: Joe comes back to play before the regular season ends, he comes back to start/during the playoffs, or he's done for the year. 

No matter what the case, we're of the idea that Brad Staubitz mosey his way back to the press box (he's very familiar with boxes so he should be fine in that regard) and Jason Demers find himself entrenched as the six/seven defenseman. If the fourth line is getting a mere four minutes a night anyways, we're all for rolling with eleven forwards and seven defenseman, with Demers running the point on the power play and alleviating some of the pressure on Dan Boyle.

For all of those who try to defend Mr. Staubitz, we'd like to point out he leads the team in penalties drawn per sixty minutes; his 3.4 is triple that of Rob Blake, who draws criticism more often than he draws obstruction penalties. Staubitz's differential between penalties drawn and taken is 2.7, also the most on the team. We like Frazier McLaren in almost every regard, but having Demers on the point on the power play is too good to pass up, especially if Joe is out. We need the offense. Demers also has the benefit of time spent with the team compared to McLaren, playing 45 games with the squad during the season. We'll have more on the Sharks power play and the need to send Staubitz to Mytus VII in the coming days, but it's a point we had to make in order for the following line machinations to make sense.

Let's start with the worst case. If Joe's out to for the season, here's how we think the lines should shake out.

Clowe - Pavelski - Marleau

Heatley - Couture - Setoguchi

McGinn - Malhotra - Mitchell

Nichol - Ortmeyer

For the purposes of this discussion, Pavelski and Couture's lines are 1a and 1b, meaning they should receive equal amounts of even strength playing time.

We need Malhotra on the third line; with the Thornton injury we're severely thin down the middle. For having so many centers, we lack any pure playmakers, and Malhotra allows for more punch on the third. It's irresponsible for Torrey Mitchell to be centering any line, as his faceoff percentage for the season is a team low 43.5% and he hasn't been very effective until after the Olympic break. Over the last few games he's looked better, and he and Malhotra would give the appearance of some secondary scoring, especially when you include McGinn. Mitchell has seemed to be getting his speed back, which is a welcome addition to his game. But, a center has to be defensively responsible and hold back. Mitchell's speed is a greater asset on the wing.

Up until this point in the season, we've really liked the Ma & Pa (Malhotra, Pavelski & Marleau) line. However, now that Thornton is out for an indeterminate amount of time, there are greater gains throughout the lineup losing a little from Malhotra on the first line and replacing him with Clowe. It's possible the line doesn't function as effectively without the speed of Malhotra, but we're just trying to spread the wealth. We also don't want to put Marleau in the pivot spot because he's having another career year on the wing. Plus, it makes you much more top heavy, because there is a greater risk that your two best goal scorers (Heatley and Marleau) could be shut down together. With the setup, there are practically two first lines in terms of scoring talent, while the third line is defensively responsible. Of course, this is a far cry from the three scoring lines that McLellan has trotted out to such success over the three game winning streak. It just has to be done.

It goes without saying that Couture has been playing well, especially considering that he's been playing with Heatley and Setoguchi to measured success. However, imagine the shape that the team would be in if Couture was not playing above expectations. We have him penciled in the top six without Thornton, on arguably the team's most potent offensive line. We don't think that's exactly the role McLellan envisioned for the 20 year old forward when he was called up two weeks ago. It's a blessing that he's playing so well, we don't think he'll ever see another AHL game for the rest of his career.

One of the many problems that come with the potential loss of Thornton for a playoff run is the lack of a true shutdown line. Going into tonight, Marleau-Pavelski-Malhotra served that role, and they were able to play heavy minutes against all competition. Under this current alignment, the third line probably contains your best defensive forwards when taken as a whole, and this allows opposing coaches to dictate the amount of ice time the top two lines will see on a given night. McLellan will be unable to hard match line three against top units, due to the fact that it would result in an inordinate amount of ice time for them, and therefore the "shutdown" slack will have to be picked up by Pavelski's line. For a team that is now primarily built on two lines that can consistently score (as opposed to three with Thornton in the lineup), it poses a production issue that McLellan will have to carefully manage.

This applies whether Thornton in injured or not, but the Couture line has the possibility to sneak up on opposing teams. Coaches will hone in on Heatley, but Couture remains a relative unknown around the league, giving San Jose the benefit of drawing weaker competition on away ice.

Star-divide

The other two scenarios are very similar to each other in how we would approach the line combinations. If the coaching staff is aware that Joe Thornton will be back in the regular season or in the playoffs, we'd suspect that they'd keep the line combinations almost static and take some lumps in the production column in favor of continued chemistry. Couture needs to gel with his line mates considering he's practically a deadline acquisition; although he's flourished with Heatley and Setoguchi thus far, they need more time to get comfortable with one another.

If Thornton is returning (and word from WTC and McLellan indicate it's likely he will be, although it might not be tonight), this is how we think the lines should shake out.

Malhotra - Pavelski - Marleau

Heatley - Couture - Setoguchi

Clowe - Mitchell - McGinn

Nichol - Ortmeyer

It's come to our attention that McLellan does not share out views on the benefit of McGinn playing over four minutes a night. Regardless, we always place McGinn firmly on the third line, due to the fact that we believe he has the potential to impregnate half the female population of the greater Bay Area. Impregnation c apabilities aside, he has the speed, the grit, and the hands to succeed at the NHL level in more than a fourth line cleanup role. Once Thornton returns, McGinn would obviously be bumped down to the fourth line, but even still, we think he should be playing in excess of four minutes a game.

Provided he isn't scratched, of course.

In our experience with the man, he was a gentleman and a scholar. What he did to get into McLellan's dog house remains one of the greater mysteries of the decade. Dan Brown is currently pursuing the story for the concept of his latest novel, "The Doghouse Debacle", which is expected to be released in the offseason.

What these lines achieve is continued chemistry. We don't like Mitchell centering the third line for the reasons we stated in the doomsday scenario that Thornton is out for the remainder of the season. We'll take the hit over the next two weeks or so to keep the keep the chemistry of the scoring lines intact.

This exercise may well be moot once 2:00 PM rolls around this afternoon. If so, we'd still be happy that we wasted three hours on a Saturday night where we could have instead found ourselves nestled in the comforting Arms of Britannia in Downtown San Jose. At the very least, it piques our intellectual curiosity and provides a blueprint for a situation in which Jumbo Joe won't dress for this years playoffs. And the next time a troll comes knocking on the FTF boards with wild delusions of sending Joe Thornton to the Stockton Thunder, you can link this article, lean back in your chair, and watch them attempt to explain how a team is better off without their best player.

Prediction: Sharks win 5-1.  Goals by Thornton (x4) and McGinn. Joe uses a prosthesis which pops off at puck drop while the crowd looks on in horror. After embellishing the gruesome scene, Joe skates off the ice to Brody Brazil and roars into the microphone: "And that's why you don't take away an ironman streak." George Bluth would be so proud.


Go Sharks.

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