If there's an area of the Sharks' roster that presents a reason to be concerned about the team heading into the 2013 season, it's their third line.
After taking a look at the Sharks' fourth line yesterday, we're going to move on up the team's depth chart by examining what is perhaps the weakest link of the San Jose roster heading into the 2013 regular season: a third line that includes T.J. Galiardi, Michal Handzus and Adam Burish.
2013 Cap Hit: $950,000
Expected Role: Pest, depth scorer
Depth Chart Position: No. 3 left wing
For better or worse, as the only remaining asset the Sharks acquired in the Jamie McGinn deal, T.J. Galiardi will probably have his performance compared to McGinn's for the forseeable future. Or at least until the curtain comes down and it becomes glaringly obvious Ginner's success with the Avalanche last year wasn't much more than a shooting percentage-fueled hot streak. At any rate, Galiardi's first stint in teal after coming over from Colorado was largely nondescript. He missed six games with various injuries and ailments and ended up only dressing for 17 total contests, just three of which came in the postseason.
Galiardi has struggled with injuries throughout his young career, appearing in just over 100 games in the two years since his 2009-10 rookie season. He's a terrific skater who plays on the edge and attempts to goad opponents into taking penalties, an undervalued but essential skill. Basically, he's Corey Perry without the offense. Well, that's not entirely true. He did score 2.02 5v5 points per 60 minutes during that 09-10 campaign, which ranked 83rd among forwards in the entire NHL. Unfortunately, that was mostly courtesy a Crosby-esque 10.7% on-ice shooting percentage he has since been unable to replicate and he also gave most of his offense back at the other end with some porous defensive play.
As I mentioned in his season review, it's hard to know exactly what the Sharks have in Galiardi. He could be a poor man's Brad Marchand, using his speed to create chances, getting under opponents' skin to put the Sharks on the power play and chipping in eight or nine goals in a shortened season. Or he could be an undisciplined defensive liability who isn't even able to lift a sub-par third line into mediocrity, let alone competence. We should have a better read on what Galiardi provides to San Jose at the end of these 48 games and whether or not that's worth retaining long-term. Unless he gets injured again.
2013 Cap Hit: $2,500,000
Expected Role: Defensive forward, 2nd unit penalty kill,
Depth Chart Position: No. 3 center
Signing Michal Handzus (let alone to a two-year contract embedded with a no-trade clause) during the 2011 offseason never made much sense. Todd McLellan's bench management history in San Jose had already firmly established that he had little use for a defensive center in a third line role. Just as his mentor Mike Babcock does in Detroit, McLellan prefers to deploy strength against strength, using the Joe Thornton and Logan Couture lines against their first- and second-liner counterparts during even-strength play. So adding Handzus to the mix was a bit like the old adage of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, assuming said square peg can't skate and has very little in the way of defensive awareness or possession ability (a fair assumption seeing as pegs are inanimate objects).
Where the Sharks could have attempted to construct a soft-minutes scoring line, like the incredibly successful Torrey Mitchell/Joe Pavelski/Kyle Wellwood unit they iced down the stretch during the 2010-11 season or the Couture/Manny Malhotra/Mitchell line who filled that role the playoffs prior, they instead cast a shutdown center in a non-shutdown role. Which really wouldn't have even been all that egregious if Handzus had managed to shut anyone down. Instead, every single Shark posted a worse on-ice shot differential with Handzus than without him and only eight forwards in the league posted a worse Relative Corsi rate than he did.
We (okay, I) dump on Handzus a lot on this site and it's clear that the Sharks' issues last season extended far beyond him but apart from squeezing a modicum of optimism out of things like the fact that he was a point-per-game scorer in Slovakia during the lockout, it's tough to argue he will improve this season. Yes, Handzus suffered through a hip injury for most of last year but the only saving grace of his years in Los Angeles was that he was dominated territorially by good players rather than crappy ones. The Lokomotiv tragedy that claimed one of his closest friends in Pavol Demitra almost certainly had an impact on Handzus' play, but when he was only marginally better at driving possession as a King, how much of a rebound are we really expecting? Maybe 'Zus surprises everyone by becoming a player he hasn't been in years and I'd be more than happy to eat my words if that's the case. But I just don't see that as likely and the Sharks' number one priority should be to find any sort of upgrade on him that they can.
2013 Cap Hit: $1,850,000
Expected Role: Defensive forward, 2nd unit penalty kill
Depth Chart Position: No. 3/4 right wing
If Handzus was Doug Wilson's questionable free agent signing of 2011, Burish might have been the 2012 iteration. Inking anyone with as replaceable a skillset as Burish to a four-year contract seems like a regrettable decision but, since this isn't a post previewing the Sharks' future cap headaches, what will Burish add to the club in 2013? Well, he's one of the few forwards in the league we can identify as having a tangible effect on reducing opposing shooting percentage. It's still no guarantee he'll be able to sustain that but, if he can, it should at the very least blunt some of the damage caused by Handzus keeping San Jose trapped in their own zone for extended stretches.
After the signing, Wilson identified Burish as "the type of guy you hate to play against" which, apart from being a hockey cliche, seems to be largely true. He's a versatile forward who injects energy into the lineup every night, he can capably take faceoffs although he figures to be used more as a winger in San Jose's system and, most importantly for the Sharks, was an important contributor to the penalty kill in Dallas albeit one that wasn't always effective. As Defending Big D described him following the 2010-11 season, "Burish did his best to anchor a struggling penalty kill. His selflessness in front of the net is something that inspires teammates and his willingness to get in front of any and all shots -- and to do so effectively -- is a lost art in today's NHL."
Although I'd really prefer to see a scoring forward in this role in order to exploit soft minutes, Burish is far from a useless player. He's not going to be able to provide anything in the way of offense, but he's a smart and selfless battler in his own zone who might be part of the solution shorthanded. If McLellan tweaks his deployment strategy and uses his third line against second-tier competition while freeing up the Couture unit to easier minutes, the Cup winner could really come in handy. Ideally, Burish would line up on a fourth line next to Handzus and Andrew Desjardins with Tommy Wingels and a free-agent signing or trade acquisition filling in on the third but, in lieu of that happening, he can still be an important player for the Sharks if used in the proper context.