Sharks Gameday: Is Martin Havlat The Final Piece To The San Jose Sharks Puzzle?

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Martin Havlat's return to the San Jose Sharks lineup is in no way a small occurrence-- as we've mentioned for over half the season now, he is a player that will be counted on to have a huge impact on the team's success in the postseason.

Considering the playoffs have already started for the Sharks, who currently sit outside of the top eight heading into tonight with a pair of games in hand, Havlat's return couldn't have come soon enough.

Havlat was excellent two nights ago in his first game back from a 39 game layoff, finishing first on the team in scoring chance differential and just barely missing scoring a goal in the second period when he was robbed by the immensely impressive physical freak that is Pekka Rinne. Havlat was explosive with the puck, slippery as Bay Area roads this week, and looked like the player San Jose expected he would be when they acquired him last summer. Sure there moments when you could tell the legs weren't quite there just yet, but his performance was one that surpassed even the most optimistic of hopes for a player who hadn't seen ice time for nearly three months.

Ryane Clowe, who played with Havlat and Marleau on the Sharks second line against Nashville and will likely do so again tonight, said as much when he spoke with the media following the 2-1 shootout win.

"He looked really good, it was nice to play with him again. He had the shoulder bops going, the iPod in as we say," Ryane Clowe said with a smile as he referenced Havlat's mobility. "It was nice to have his creativity back there again. He made some pretty good play and had some pretty good chances too. He looked like he had a lot of energy and I'm sure he'll get even better."

Getting better will obviously be the key for Havlat, who has dealt with some unfortunate circumstances throughout the season. After missing the opening two weeks of the year due to a shoulder injury he sustained this summer, Havlat caught fire in his first 4 games with the Sharks, chipping in five assists while playing on the second line.

Troubles would follow soon afterward however, as Havlat would only tally 3 assists in 16 games and bounce back and forth from the Sharks third line to the top six role he is accustomed to. And just when it seemed as if he was beginning to turn it around, a freak injury coming over the boards on December 17th against Edmonton would leave him out of action for the bulk of the year with a left hamstring injury.

In other words, he's dealt with his fair share of adversity.

Heading into Thursday night's action, Havlat had two goals on the season and was shooting a woeful 3.2% from the field despite being amongst the team leaders for shots on goal at that point in the year. We've covered the unsustainable nature of both unusually high and unusually low shooting percentages quite rigorously over the last four years, but the main takeaway from those numbers should be this-- either Havlat forgot how to shoot the puck this summer (the answer to that can be found here) or he has been knocked around by breaks and bounces and hasn't been as limited offensively as one would expect when looking at his counting numbers.

With that said however, Havlat's season to date still has not been impressive. Shortly after his stint on the injured reserve began, scoring chance guru and FTF writer The Neutral looked at the chance differential of the San Jose Sharks forwards at the 34 game mark of the season.

That report card was unkind to Havlat, who was a team worst -6 in the chances department. Furthermore, after adjusting it based off of zone starts, the gap between Havlat and the rest of the team became even more apparent-- Havlat was the only player besides Frazer McLaren to finish in the red, and he did so by a fairly large margin.

As The Neutral said during that report:

And, of course, we have Martin Havlat likely raising eyebrows by ranking dead last here. It's been a tough season for one of the Sharks' prized offseason acquisitions who now occupies the injured reserve list. Unlike Mitchell's clear trend downward, Havlat wasn't markedly improving in his last stretch of games. In his ten games prior to the unfortunate injury, Havlat's SCF% was 48.65%.

>> "Scoring Chance Roundup: Games 1-34", Fear The Fin

So just what can San Jose expect to receive from Havlat going forward in these crucial games down the stretch?

As we covered in our initial analysis of Havlat this offseason, he has been a solid point producer at even strength throughout his career; although that stands in juxtaposition to the numbers that have been compiled on him this year, it does indicate things can turn around for him this year.

His creativity with the puck is phenomenal. No one on the roster can dance, bob, and weave like Havlat, which gives San Jose something they have lacked for a long time in their top six. The playoffs are certainly a north-south game, and the Sharks are built to play that game from top to bottom, but having some of that east-west availability is always a nice card to have in your back pocket. Coupled with his speed (in bursts both short and long) and you have yourself the most dynamic player on the team.

Along with being absolutely hilarious in a hockey player type of way, Clowe's remark about Havlat "having the iPod in" and grooving to the music as he weaves with the puck is probably the best description of his style that anyone has ever come up with.

Havlat's return also bolsters the third line by default. With the addition of Daniel Winnik, Dominic Moore, and TJ Galiardi, San Jose has added a lot of speed to the lower portion of their lineup. Winnik and Moore specifically give them so much defensive responsibility in their own zone, and the emergence of Tommy Wingels as an effective NHL player turns that third line into a very dangerous one on paper. Adding Havlat back into the mix allows the Sharks lineup to fall into much more suitable roles (especially when Wingels returns from injury).

So is Martin Havlat the final piece to the San Jose Sharks puzzle? Yes and no.

I think he gets them into a much better position to do some damage down the stretch and into the postseason provided they make it far. They are clearly a better team with Havlat considering his skill set and talent, along with the fact it gives Head Coach Todd McLellan a roster he hasn't had the opportunity to work with for nearly half the season.

But the rub here is that the Sharks have put themselves in a position where missing the postseason is a possibility. We keep going back to the "they played well but have been snakebit" watering hole every day or so, but as we mentioned on Thursday, that doesn't mean a thing at this stage in the year. What defines these next 12 games are standings points, and no amount of positive Fenwick numbers and scoring chance differentials are going to accrue those standings points if they come gift wrapped with another notch in the loss column.

The early returns on Havlat look good; hell, I might even say they look great, especially when even just a cursory glance at this Sharks team on paper shows that they have the potential to do something really special this season.

But even a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle with some snow capped mountains and deers frolicking in the meadow or whatever doesn't do you any good if it ends up in your grandpa's basement half built for the last last ten years.

Two more jigsaw pieces on the table tonight.

Time to put that puzzle back together.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by Clowe, Braun, and Havlat.

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