After a season in which they battled through injuries and disappointing play, Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat will need to be effective and stay in the lineup on either side of Logan Couture to ensure the Sharks' second line is a success this time around.
2013 Cap Hit: $3,625,000
Expected Role: Power forward, board warrior, 2nd unit power play
Depth Chart Position: No. 2 left wing
Clowe's 2011-12 season was perhaps the worst of his NHL career. In a lot of ways, he was the poster boy for a year in which many of the team's formerly dependable veterans underwhelmed. A facial fracture and concussion certainly contributed to slowing Clowe down as the Sharks' pugnacious winger just didn't provide the unmatched board play, on-ice vision and space-clearing physicality we've become accustomed to expecting out of him. After largely carrying the team on his back for the first half of the 2010-11 season, Clowe was a liability more than an asset on far too many nights last year. He finished the season with his worst points-per-game rate and lowest goal total since becoming an NHL regular as well as some fairly concerning underlying numbers despite protected deployment. Perhaps most alarming was the fact that Clowe was one of the team's very worst forwards whenever he was separated from Logan Couture: the Sharks surrendered an average of 6.5 more shot attempts than they generated for every 60 minutes of even-strength hockey Clowe was on the ice for without Couture.
It seems premature to suggest that age has caught up with Clowe, especially since he's still just 30. But after years of playing a physically engaged brand of hockey, it's possible that 2011-12 was just the beginning of the end. On the other hand, like seemingly every other Shark, Clowe finished his chances at an absurdly low rate last year. His 9.4% shooting percentage was the worst of his career. The Sharks also shot just 7.2% when Clowe was on the ice at even-strength and 11% during his power play shifts last year, also the harshest shooting luck he's ever had to suffer through. I'd expect those numbers to rebound and, if combined with Clowe staying healthy and playing like it's a contract year (which it is), I'm fairly optimistic he can be one of the better second-liners in the league again in 2013.
2013 Cap Hit: $2,875,000
Expected Role: Two-way scorer, 1st unit power play
Depth Chart Position: No. 2 center
Logan Couture came into last season with the weight of sky-high expectations on his shoulders but it didn't seem to faze him. Despite having his effectiveness down the stretch compromised by an injury, Couture once again scored 30 goals and upped his overall production from his rookie season by almost ten points. He continued to be an elite driver of play at even-strength in 2011-12 but with one of his linemates in Martin Havlat injured for most of the year and the other, Clowe, suffering through both injuries and on-ice disappointment, most of the damage Couture did to the scoresheet came via the power play. In the entire NHL, only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored power play points at a higher rate than Couture, who notched 7.15 per 60 minutes 5v4. And while Nugent-Hopkins benefited from a ridiculous 20.3% on-ice shooting percentage, Couture's was a far more sustainable 13.7%. As long as he retains his spot on the team's top unit with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle, expect Couture's power play production to continue. Where he might actually improve, given a regression in percentages and healthy seasons from Clowe and Havlat, is at even-strength.
It will be interesting to monitor how Todd McLellan uses Couture and his linemates this season. In 2011-12, he trotted them out for far more offensive zone faceoffs than draws in their own end but still had them facing top-drawer opponents. Potentially, a third line featuring Adam Burish could be used to soak up some of the d-zone faceoffs and tough minutes Couture and Clowe were tasked with a year ago, allowing those two and Havlat to focus almost entirely on offense. For a team that had trouble scoring last year, giving a trio with lethal offensive chops even more time to operate in the other team's end could be a boon. But even if absolutely nothing changes about Couture's game in 2013, it's clear the Sharks have an extremely talented young player on their hands who might be close to staking a claim as one of the twenty best at his position in the NHL.
2013 Cap Hit: $5,000,000
Expected Role: Playmaking winger, speed threat, 2nd unit power play
Depth Chart Position: No. 2 right wing
We all know how Martin Havlat's debut season in teal went as he validated every sarcastic quip directed at his fragility in the aftermath of his trade from Minnesota. Despite having appeared in 70 or more games each of his three seasons before being dealt to the Sharks, Havlat played less than half the season in 2011-12, missing the first few weeks while recovering from offseason surgery then sustaining a bizarre injury during a line change in December. When Havlat was in the lineup, however, the Sharks were nearly unstoppable, compiling a 25-11-3 record. While some of that likely had to do with Havlat's impact on the team and the mere fact that the Sharks were icing six top-six forwards instead of five, Havlat also benefited from some very favorable percentages that likely wouldn't have kept up over a larger sample size. Thankfully, his shot rate and possession numbers were also uncharacteristically low relative to the rest of his career, so it's possible Havlat's overall value to San Jose won't be all that much lower than it was in 2011-12.
Seeing as the injury that kept him out for the longest stretch is one that's going to be impossible to replicate the circumstances of, I wouldn't be surprised if Havlat is able to stay healthy for a greater percentage of this shortened season. He'll likely need to get into game shape quickly, though, as he elected not to play overseas during the lockout. In addition to his offensive role on the second line, where I'd like to see Havlat given more minutes is the penalty kill. If Todd McLellan's discussions with the media are any indication, the PK under Larry Robinson should be more aggressive in attacking the points and generating turnovers high, something Havlat's incredible wheels would let him excel at.