Over the course of the last two seasons, the Sharks have ran a series of commercials which use the same tagline. "X player is a lousy X." We've found out that Joe Pavelski is a lousy Detective, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a lousy Gardener, among many other vital revelations by the Sharks PR Department.
The tagline in the latest Sharks commercial goes as follows: "Joe Thornton is a lousy babysitter."
We tend to disagree. That may be true when it comes to bratty children, but line mates are an entirely different story.
Throughout Joe Thornton's now fourteen-year NHL career, he's often been asked to "babysit" a player on his line, with the hope that Thornton's skill set would make that player more dangerous. It's worked multiple times before, but the Sharks may now have to depend on lightning striking once again in the 2011-2012 season.
When Brent Burns was acquired by San Jose, the team was instantly improved. However, in order to get Burns in teal, Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson had to give up some great assets, including young sniper Devin Setoguchi. The offensively gifted player had found a home alongside Joe Thornton since blossoming in the 2008-2009 season; Setoguchi scored thirty-goals that year as a member of Thornton's line and has scored more than twenty goals in each season since.
While Setoguchi moved up and down the lineup during the year as a result of injuries, and at times a less than ideal relationship with Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan, he always seemed most comfortable when taking his place alongside Thornton and Marleau on the Sharks top line. Heading into next season, it seemed almost certain that the Sharks would turn back to that combination to start the year.
That's no longer an option. With Setoguchi on his way to Minnesota, there's a pretty obvious hole on the Sharks top line. It's not as apparent as the hole on defense that was filled by Brent Burns as a result of the trade; the Sharks do have internal candidates to move up in the lineup to fill this offensive need. They couldn't fill the need for a top defenseman internally, hence the Burns acquisition.
The most obvious candidate to bring up is Dany Heatley, who scored 39 goals playing most of his time with Joe Thornton two years ago. Without Thornton (and Marleau), Heatley's production took a 41% tumble; Heatley scored just 26 goals this past season playing mostly second line minutes. It's hard to believe that Heatley's production dropped simply because of his distance from Thornton; Heatley has been a perennial forty goal scorer in his league throughout his career with different line mates on different teams. Instead, the reason for Heatley's downfall appears to be the fact that he was injured for the majority of the 2010-2011 campaign. After sustaining a serious groin injury at the beginning of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, Heatley struggled to recover during the offseason and appeared hampered physically last season. Then to add insul... well, injury to injury, Heatley suffered a broken hand with about ten games remaining to play in the regular season.
The hope is that Heatley not only recovers from injury, but also from a career-low shooting percentage to become the scoring threat he has been throughout his career. Still, it's likely in the Sharks best interest to keep Thornton and Heatley separated; the Sharks relied on a depth of scoring to get them to their second straight Western Conference Finals last year.
If Heatley remains on the second line, moving up one of the other options within the Sharks top-six forward group could be a possibility. However, there are problems inherent with any of these moves.
Moving up either Ryane Clowe or Logan Couture separates them from each other, an unwise move considering the chemistry they built together over the course of the last year. Also, Couture had a 30 goal season without the help of Thornton, making him a threat on the second line which opposing teams have to game plan for.
Joe Pavelski is a possibility, but he's best used at the center position instead of at the wing. Pavelski on the third line also creates a matchup issue for opposing coaching staffs, especially if he can continue to build on the success he found playing with Kyle Wellwood (who is a UFA) and Torrey Mitchell.
While it's most likely that the coaches will find Thornton his new line mate from the group of players listed above, there's a chance that first line spot could be given to someone else entirely. These players have each shown that they can succeed on their own; it might be in the team's best interest to promote someone who hasn't necessarily excelled without the benefit of Joe Thornton at their side. It wouldn't be the first time the Sharks tried something like that.
Two years ago, when Devin Setoguchi suffered a lower body injury that kept him out of the lineup, diminutive forward Ryan Vesce got the nod to replace him. The 5'8", 170lb Vesce, who had a mostly pedestrian AHL career up to that point, scored four points in four games (including three goals) alongside Joe Thornton. Vesce would be knocked off the top line after those games, and went on to notch just one assist the remainder of the season.
This instance, along with Thornton's affect on other players throughout his career, suggests that the top-line role can be filled by a player without a significant NHL pedigree. As such, players like Torrey Mitchell, Jamie McGinn or Benn Ferriero could be looking at increased minutes going forward.
Torrey Mitchell has had an up and down NHL career plagued with injuries and inconsistency. Still, his speed and defensive acumen could come in handy on the top line. Thornton and Marleau like to play the cycle game, and Mitchell's skating ability and above average hands would fit into that game plan. Also, Mitchell's NHL experience gives him a leg up on his competition for the spot, while his defensive ability makes Mitchell a safety net for the offensively minded scoring group. However, his lack of size and propensity for being knocked off the puck are things that make him less than ideal for the role. In addition, increased minutes for Mitchell may be a problem as he'll likely be asked to make up some of the shorthanded minutes that Scott Nichol took with him.
Benn Ferriero is a similar player to Torrey Mitchell, especially when considering size and stature (Ferriero - 5'11", 195lb, Mitchell 5'11", 190lb). However, Ferriero brings more to the table from an offensive standpoint; he displayed his scoring touch on a line with Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture this past season, potting five goals in 33 games. However, Ferriero can be quite streaky and also tends to be bodied around. Still, his offensive abilities can't be overlooked; in the AHL, Ferriero scored 50 points in 58 games his rookie year and 33 points in 43 games last year.
Perhaps the most interesting possibility for the spot is Jamie McGinn. McGinn, who first appeared in the San Jose lineup three seasons ago, has seen his prospect star grow somewhat tarnished. In 143 NHL games over three seasons, McGinn has registered just 15 goals and a total of 25 points, less than what has been expected of one of the most promising young talents in the pipeline.
Still, McGinn has the size (6'1", 205lb) to play with Thornton and Marleau. And, at just 22 years old, still has time to regain some of the promise that he lost through a less than impressive 2010-2011 season. One goal and five assists won't cut it for a player with McGinn's tools, and even though he played with some less than offensively gifted line mates (mostly Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers), McGinn needs to show more of the player who scored ten goals for San Jose his sophomore year, lest he be sent down to Worcester again.
In my opinion, McGinn can do that, and more. Of the three players mentioned, his size, skill and physicality make him the best in-house candidate outside of the current top-six to solve the puzzle created by Setoguchi's absence. McGinn also gained a good number of supporters in the dressing room with his high compete level against Vancouver, something that could go a long way in building his confidence.
Playing alongside Thornton, it's my assumption that McGinn could score anywhere from 15-25 goals. The high-end of that projection is definitely on the optimistic side, but not out of the realm of possibility. In doing that, McGinn could help not only his own development but also the strength of the team in general. Heatley on the second line and Pavelski on the third line makes San Jose a much deeper and more dangerous team.
It's likely that McGinn doesn't stick with Thornton all season; if his line struggles at all the Sharks coaching staff won't hesitate to mix up the line combinations. However, it's worth a shot.
Perhaps San Jose goes out and signs an offensive forward with some of the money they have available and this discussion becomes moot. According to The Fourth Period, San Jose could be a suitor for Jussi Jokinen, who would obviously fit into the Sharks top six nicely. Still, as Jason Plank pointed out yesterday, the Sharks are better off using their cap space to sign a defensive forward who can improve the Sharks extremely mediocre shorthanded unit from last year that has to deal with losing a key piece (Nichol). It's unlikely they can do both.
It's looking more and more like Joe Thornton will be a babysitter once again. So break out the cheesy puffs, the Olympic gold medal, and the sweet, sweet passes. Someone will be the beneficiary.