Thearon W. Henderson
There are still decisions that need to be made during training camp about the Sharks' fourth line but we preview the most likely candidates for those spots.
Training camp opens in less than a week so we continue our in-depth preview of the 2013 San Jose Sharks roster with a look at the three players most likely to comprise the team's fourth line: James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels.
2013 Cap Hit: RFA
Expected Role: Soft-minutes scorer
Depth Chart Position: No. 4 left wing
"Who the fuck is James Sheppard?" has been a refrain commonly heard over the past year and a half and not always facetiously. Acquired by the Sharks for a third-round pick in a rare deal with the Minnesota Wild during the summer of 2011, Sheppard hasn't played an NHL game since injuring his kneecap in an ATV accident prior to the 2010-11 season. Even when he was a mainstay in the Wild lineup, he was largely reduced to the butt of jokes by the Minnesota fanbase. That's understandable as Sheppard, in a lot of ways, was the poster boy for a woefully inept developmental system and philosophy in the State of Hockey. As Kent Wilson discussed at the time of the trade, Sheppard's early career is a case study in how not to develop an NHL prospect.
Drafted 9th overall in the 2006 entry draft, Sheppard made the big club out of training camp during the 2007-08 season and had a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign before being thrown to the wolves by head coach Jacques Lemaire the following year. Sheppard went from getting the type of protected minutes you'd expect a non-phenom teenager to receive to being used as a full-on, tough-situations defensive forward. Lemaire started Sheppard in his own end for over 60% of his non-neutral shifts in 08-09 and played him against top-six competition so it isn't surprising that his production and possession numbers fell off a cliff. Apparently unconcerned with the impact on Sheppard's development (or the club's fortunes at large, for that matter), Lemaire did it again the following year as Sheppard struggled even further. No wonder Wild GM Chuck Fletcher described the 22-year-old as having "lost his confidence" following the 09-10 season. The ATV accident rendered Sheppard out of commission that offseason and he hasn't skated a shift in the big leagues since.
Thankfully, the Sharks won't need to lean on Sheppard, who was a high draft pick due to his offensive production in the QMJHL, for any sort of defensive role. He should be deployed in much the same way he was as a rookie—even zone starts against other teams' worst players—when he ranked among the top nine even-strength scorers on Minnesota. Sheppard is currently second in scoring on Worcester this season and has managed that without being buoyed by an inflated shooting percentage like the one Tim Kennedy has benefited from. Once the Sharks ink him to a contract (his deal is AHL-exclusive at the moment), he should be the favorite to play left wing on the team's fourth line although stiff competition is expected from the likes of Kennedy and John McCarthy.
2013 Cap Hit: $640,000
Expected Role: Grinder, faceoff specialist
Depth Chart Position: No. 4 center
Desjardins had a brief cup of coffee with the Sharks during the 2010-11 season but about the only thing he was remembered for was choosing sweater number 69. The former ECHLer was viewed as a career minor-leaguer with little chance of securing a regular job at the NHL level. But after the Sharks decided not to retain Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers the following offseason (a wise move considering their results), spots opened up on their fourth line and Desjardins was able to claim one out of training camp. Desjardins' first game of the 2011-12 season was a memorable one as he scored twice in a rout of the Phoenix Coyotes but it wasn't exactly a sign of things to come in terms of offensive production as Desjardins would score just twice more over the entire remainder of the year.
What Desjardins did provide was just about everything you'd want out of a fourth-line center. He was strong on faceoffs, drew penalties and was a positive possession player despite what proved to be a revolving door of mediocre linemates until the trade deadline rolled around. He's not going to wow you with his skillset but his skating ability allows Desjardins to play a host of roles for the team even in limited minutes. He was also a fairly successful penalty killer despite limited usage in that game state last year. If there's one aspect of their bottom six the Sharks won't have to worry about, it's their fourth-line pivot.
2013 Cap Hit: $775,000
Expected Role: Soft-minutes scorer, forechecker, potential 2nd unit power play
Depth Chart Position: No. 3/4 right wing
In addition to being an awesome human being, Tommy Wingels was an incredibly useful forward for the Sharks last season both as an injury fill-in for Martin Havlat and a regular member of the lineup down the stretch and into the playoffs. Only Joe Thornton posted a higher on-ice shot differential at even-strength than Wingels and that's no coincidence; Wingels' hockey sense and effectiveness in pursuing the puck-carrier make him a legitimate possession demon. He was just as impressive at driving play in his time with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe as he was with Daniel Winnik and Desjardins, a unit that McLellan dubbed his "real" third line at one point. The only reason Wingels didn't hit the scoresheet more often was awful shooting luck: he and his linemates combined to score on just 4.6% of their shots at evens, well below the league average of around 8.1%. It's unlikely that number remains so low through another season.
Wingels is almost certainly a more talented player than presumptive third-line right wing Adam Burish but I doubt the Sharks signed Burish to a long-term deal with a $1.85 million cap hit just to give him fourth-line minutes. Despite that, the drop-off in linemate talent from the Sharks' third line to their fourth isn't all that significant (which is one of the team's bigger problems) so Wingels should still have the opportunity to make an impact playing on Desjardins' right side. Unless the Sharks wade into the free agent pool for center help, it's also entirely possible Wingels resumes his role as center of the team's second unit power play. Speaking of playing center, it's also a possibility Wingels, a natural center, surpasses Michal Handzus for a job as third-line pivot at some point over these 48 games. I'm probably president of the Wingels Fan Club but even when trying to be as objective as possible about his prospects for this shortened campaign, I really think the pride of Evanston, IL is ready to cement himself as the best player in the team's bottom six.