Should a healthy Martin Havlat draw back into the lineup?

USA TODAY Sports

With the winger's return to full health considered imminent, we examine whether the Sharks should throw a Marty Party.

It's hard to think of a high-profile trade in recent NHL history to go quite so poorly for both teams involved like the Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat swap of July 3rd, 2011. Heatley, who once scored 100 goals over the course of two full seasons, has continued the downward spiral he began in San Jose, been repeatedly displaced on the Minnesota Wild depth chart by younger forwards and currently has as many points on the young season as Antti Niemi. Havlat, who was coming off three straight seasons in which he played at least 70 games prior to the deal, has appeared in just under half the games the Sharks have played since his arrival and has been a far cry from the impact top-liner he once was even when he has been in the lineup.

After a particularly unceremonious postseason in which he started two games in two separate series only to leave both prior to the second period presumably due to re-aggravating a prior groin injury, it was widely assumed Havlat had played his final game in a Sharks sweater. The team was reportedly frustrated with the winger and even removed his locker stall from the dressing room. But Havlat underwent a gruesome offseason surgery, which meant the Sharks could neither use a compliance buyout on him or find a suitor on the trade market, and remained on the roster. The feeling was that he would spend the bulk, if not the entirety, of the season on long-term injured reserve. But he wasn't placed on LTIR to open the year and, all of a sudden, began regularly skating again, started practicing with the rest of the team and is with the Sharks on their current five-game road trip. Havlat's return to the lineup seems imminent, especially considering Doug Wilson's comments on a radio hit with Sportsnet last week:

The thing with Marty is that he's always had a great playoff history. Last year was the first year he'd missed a playoff game. He had been a point-a-game guy in the playoffs. What was frustrating for Marty and for everybody was that he had a double sports hernia situation going on and with that he could play a couple games and then he couldn't. I give him credit: he went and had a bilateral pelvic reconstruction this summer and we all made an agreement that he wouldn't come back until he was 100%. He's worked his butt off and he's really close to coming back and if he comes back 100% he makes us a better team, especially if it's not one of these 'I'm in the lineup, I'm out of the lineup' things, and we look forward to getting him back.

Regardless, there's a seemingly pervasive sentiment that, even if Havlat is declared 100%, he shouldn't necessarily draw back into the lineup. The main arguments against resuming the Marty Party seem to be that the Sharks shouldn't alter a winning lineup and that Havlat isn't an ideal fit for the speed-emphasizing gameplan the team adopted around last season's trade deadline. Although I somewhat understand the thought process there, I can't say I agree with the conclusion.

For starters, the notion that coaches should avoid changing a winning lineup has always struck me as a bit of a fallacy. Regardless of their recent record, no team in this league is truly invincible. The very best teams in the NHL maybe have a 55-58% chance of winning on any given night. The fact that the loaded coin has only come up heads so far shouldn't influence future lineup decisions. It obviously can, and will, turn up tails in the future. All that should matter when considering a lineup change, regardless of a team's record, is whether that change increases the team's odds of victory going forward. If it does, it's a good move. If it doesn't (*clears throat*), it isn't. So the question becomes whether Havlat increases those odds.

Based on his comments above, Doug Wilson clearly believes so but let's look at the numbers. When Havlat was on the ice at even-strength with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture last season, the Sharks scored 70% of the goals and earned 55.2% of the shot attempts while Havlat individually scored at a 2.08 points per 60 minutes clip. Those are all excellent, even if the goal percentage is almost certainly unsustainable in the long run. And considering the bulk of his ice time with those two forwards came following the team's deadline moves and affiliated systemic changes, it's hard to argue he isn't a good fit for the club's current incarnation. If anything, he was probably a poor fit on a line with Couture and Ryane Clowe, who preferred to operate through the cycle game down low. When he's given free reign to create off the rush, and interchange with another speedy forward on his opposite wing in Marleau, Havlat can still be an effective top-six option at evens.

But that still doesn't directly answer the question of whether Havlat makes the team better seeing as Tyler Kennedy has enjoyed a good deal of success on that line so far this season. With Marleau, Couture and Kennedy on the ice together five-on-five, the Sharks have yet to be scored on this season and have generated 57.1% of the shot attempts, although Kennedy himself has only scored at a 1.04 points per 60 rate (a small sample caveat most certainly applies to all of these numbers). Where the value in adding Havlat really lies is in bumping Kennedy, who can clearly hold his own in a top-six role, to third line right wing, a position in which he enjoyed a lot of success during his Pittsburgh days.

That in turn displaces Tommy Wingels, who has had an effective start to the season but is probably the weakest link in the top nine when Brent Burns is in the lineup, to the fourth line, thereby keeping the likes of Mike Brown and Matt Pelech out of game action most nights. A lot of things made the 2013 Blackhawks successful and their skilled fourth line that scored the Cup-winning goal was certainly one of them. Wingels, Andrew Desjardins and James Sheppard aren't exactly Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Dave Bolland but they're certainly capable of tilting the ice in San Jose's favor and outscoring the majority of the league's fourth lines. Regardless of whether you feel Havlat is a clear upgrade over Kennedy (in the long term, he almost certainly is) it's hard to argue he's actively worse, which means re-inserting him into the lineup at least improves two of the Sharks' four forward lines. In all likelihood, it's three, which is a scary thought considering how good this team is already.

Havlat isn't worth the 6-year, $30 million contract the Minnesota Wild gave him in the summer of 2009, his frequent injuries can be frustrating (although I can't really see the sense in blaming him for most of those) and he's never going to be the gritty power forward type fans and media members alike seem to fetishize. But there's nothing the Sharks can do about any of those things now. When Havlat is determined to be healthy, an event that seems closer than anyone could have expected, he deserves to play and will make the Sharks an even better team when he does.

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