The San Jose Sharks' biggest strength coming into the 2013-14 season was supposed to be their unparalleled center depth. And, for a while, it was. Being able to ice three first-line centers—with each of Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski centering separate forward lines—is a luxury no other NHL team can boast and it's one the Sharks took full advantage of for the first two and a half months of the season. In the 32 games this year for which Todd McLellan and the Sharks' coaching staff ran Thornton, Couture and Pavelski down the middle, the team went 20-7-5, a 115-point pace over a full 82-game season that would have likely been good enough to win the Western Conference if sustained.
But a knee injury to Tomas Hertl in mid-December necessitated changes and led to Pavelski being moved from the third-line center slot he'd comfortably occupied at even-strength since the 2013 trade deadline to the top line left wing position left vacant by Hertl. A subsequent injury to Logan Couture muddled the forward lineup even further, leading to a cast of characters ranging from Andrew Desjardins to John McCarthy to Bracken Kearns centering the third line through the February Olympic break. The results were mixed, to put it lightly, until James Sheppard, who had been relegated to the fourth line or press box for much of the season, was tried at third-line center in the team's third game after the break. Sheppard proceeded to stabilize the bottom six, scoring 11 points in his first 15 games as the team's third-line center and spearheading an effective depth scoring line finally capable of filling the void left by a unit built around Pavelski.
Or so the story goes, anyway. In reality, Sheppard has struggled with the defensive responsibilities of playing center, something that's been largely obscured thanks to him and his linemates' fortunate run of putting the puck in the net. Over a full season or more, points (when adjusted for ice time and context) can tell you a lot about a forward's offensive contributions. In the short run, they can be incredibly deceiving. Just as Logan Couture's two-goals-in-twenty-games stretch earlier in the season didn't make him any worse a player, Sheppard's recent hot streak doesn't tell us much about whether he's improved to the point of being a viable third-line center. For that, we need to look a bit deeper at his overall performance since assuming the role and analyze how he and his linemates have been scoring their goals. Here's a look at the Sharks' 5-on-5 performance with and without Sheppard on the ice in the 18 games since March 2nd, when he first centered the third line:
|Since March 2nd||Off. Zone Start%||Corsi For||Corsi Against||Corsi For%||On-Ice SH%||On-Ice SV%||PDO|
|With Sheppard on the ice||58.6||216||214||50.2||10.9||.954||106.3|
|Without Sheppard on the ice||49.0||748||549||57.7||6.8||.916||98.4|
Without Sheppard on the ice over this span, the Sharks have been as dominant as ever in controlling nearly 58% of all shot attempts, a clip which no team has managed to sustain over the course of this season. Meanwhile, that number drops to a hair over 50% when Sheppard jumps over the boards; the Sharks fall from a top possession team in the NHL to a league-average one with him on the ice as a third-line center, a fact made even more frustrating by the vast difference in deployment displayed above. Sheppard has been heavily sheltered by the coaching staff, starting shifts far more often in the offensive zone than his own end and facing weak competition, forcing the team's other lines to pick up the slack in those areas. Despite that, the Sharks have been far more successful at controlling the puck over the past 18 games without Sheppard on the ice. Possession isn't everything, but it's damn near close to it when it comes to postseason hockey. Teams that have the puck more often advance deeper into the playoffs and the Sharks simply haven't had the puck enough with Sheppard on the ice in his new role.
So why has he lasted so long as the team's third-line center? To put it bluntly, the coaching staff has been guilty of chasing results. Since Sheppard's conversion to pivot, the Sharks have outscored their opponents 13-5 with him on the ice in 5-on-5 situations and just 25-24 with him off. That sounds impressive, and it's certainly easier to notice and remember the goals his line has scored than the shifts they've spent hemmed in their own zone, until you realize it has very little to do with their actual play. The rate at which teams convert their shots into goals (and see their opponents do the same) with a particular player on the ice varies wildly, especially in the short term. With Sheppard on the ice as a third-line center, the Sharks have scored on nearly 11% of their shots while Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock have combined to stop over 95% of the shots they've faced behind him.
In short, he's been lucky. Unless you're Sidney Crosby, an on-ice shooting percentage north of 10.5% is utterly unsustainable and, considering Sheppard's on-ice SH% over the first four seasons of his career was just 6.6% (well shy of the league-average 8.2%), there's an argument to be made that if he has any long-term impact on that stat, it's a negative one. The best predictor of Sheppard's future on-ice results as a third-line center lies in his possession numbers; the Sharks are likely to score about as many 5-on-5 goals as they surrender with Sheppard on the ice in that role going forward, which isn't nearly good enough considering his plum assignments.
The issues begin in the faceoff circle, where Sheppard has won just 42.4% of the 2076 draws he's taken over his NHL career. This season alone, that percentage has improved to a slightly-better-but-still-awful 45%; among forwards who have taken at least 200 faceoffs this year, only 25 have been worse. The value of faceoffs is often overstated and Sheppard's deficiencies in that area could be salvageable if he demonstrated defensive positional awareness in the middle or excelled at moving the puck in the right direction. Unfortunately, we haven't really seen either from him thus far in his stint at center. Jordan Nolan's game-opening goal from last Thursday provides a taste of a lot of what has ailed Sheppard at center but has been more or less overlooked due to his production:
The play begins with Sheppard losing a defensive zone draw (one of the few McLellan has entrusted him to take) to Jarret Stoll, then proceeds with him losing Stoll in the defensive zone, first leading to a scoring chance for Stoll from the slot on which he misses the net then a second near-chance where Sheppard is caught in no-man's land at the goal line while Dustin Brown just misses Stoll with a centering pass. Sheppard's shift ends with him failing to tie up Stoll's stick in the high slot, allowing the Kings center to deflect a point shot to Nolan for the goal. This is anecdotal, sure, but it's also emblematic of many of Sheppard's issues since the switch to center ice. The only thing unusual about this play is that it resulted in a goal against, rather than Niemi or Stalock bailing Sheppard out. To their credit, the coaching staff is starting to recognize this. Via Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area:
"That third group with Shep and whoever is playing with him – Tommy Wingels, or Matt Nieto, or whoever else is on that wing – has to elevate their game, and their level of play to make a difference," [head coach Todd] McLellan said. "They don’t have to score every night, they don’t have to carry the team, but their minutes have to be difference-making minutes. I think they can be better in that area."
It's a fine line to toe for the coaching staff since there's likely an expectation that they reward and punish players based on results, and Sheppard has been getting those. Raffi Torres' inability to stay in the lineup due to injury also means they have fewer wingers, and therefore fewer viable line combinations, to work with and it's undoubtedly the case that Sheppard's wingers have been part of the problem. Marty Havlat in particular has been a disaster defensively this season when separated from the two best defensive forwards on the team in Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. At the same time, I'm not convinced Pavelski would struggle to drive play between Havlat and Wingels to the extent that Sheppard has.
As much as it might seem otherwise, this isn't meant to be a hit piece on Sheppard. I defended him quite a bit through the first half of the season and still think he was one of the team's most consistent bottom-six forwards prior to his move to center. Despite this recent outburst, he probably won't ever be a scorer but he's a smart player with good size and skating ability who just hasn't been able to utilize that skillset as well in the middle as he did at left wing. It's possible he could eventually put it all together and center an effective two-way scoring line but this isn't a developing team like the Winnipeg Jets or New York Islanders; the Sharks have neither the need (almost every forward on this roster, save for the converted defenseman, is a converted center) nor the luxury (the playoffs start in a week and they need at least three lines firing on all cylinders) to let him learn on the job. Sheppard is the kind of fourth-line winger you can win a championship with. He pretty clearly isn't the kind of third-line center you can accomplish that with.
Joe Pavelski is. Sure he's in the midst of a career year (which itself has been rather percentage-buoyed...hopefully no one is counting on his 18.3% individual shooting percentage lasting through the playoffs) playing on the top line but that unit has been rather uneven in recent weeks and, the way the Sharks are set up, if they don't get offense out of them on a nightly basis (which is an unfair and unrealistic expectation of almost any forward line) the team tends to fall apart. It's a repeat of the forward depth issues that have plagued the Sharks for much of the Thornton era. Thornton and Marleau are routinely blamed when San Jose fails in the playoffs every spring despite the fact that the problem is almost always a lack of competent secondary scoring capable of picking up the slack when the top players inevitably hit a cold streak. Jonathan Toews scored just three times in 23 playoff games for Chicago last spring but the Blackhawks still won the Cup because they had four lines stocked with skilled forwards who could contribute at both ends of the rink when the team's top guns ran cold or were shut down for a series or two.
The Sharks nearly had that last postseason but an injury to Havlat and a suspension to Torres left their bottom six as impotent as ever in the second round. The emergence of Wingels and Matt Nieto this season, the likely return of Torres for the start of the playoffs and the possible return of Hertl somewhere down the line (which, if it happens, would probably single-handedly fix the Sharks' lineup issues up front) means there's really no excuse for the team to open the postseason with Sheppard centering the third line. They have three terrific forward pairings in Thornton-Burns, Marleau-Couture and Torres-Pavelski at their disposal with Nieto, Wingels, Havlat and even Tyler Kennedy capable of filling in the holes at wing. That's a deep forward lineup that would be a nightmare for anyone, even the powerhouse Kings team the Sharks will likely face in the first round, to match up against.
With Thornton and Marleau both approaching their mid-thirties, it's entirely possible this is the last season of first-line caliber hockey the Sharks get from those two and, therefore, this core's last great chance of winning a Stanley Cup. They can't afford to squander it just because James Sheppard ran hot for a couple of weeks in March.