We're hours away from the puck dropping on the NHL's 2014-15 regular season in Los Angeles and with the Sharks having made final cuts and set their opening-night roster, we have enough of an idea about how the team looks to shake out both tonight and, barring seemingly inevitable trades, over the rest of the season that we can preview their lineup in earnest.
We'll start up front where the Sharks were one of the better teams in the league last season, finishing 6th in overall goals per game in addition to posting a top-ten finish in 5-on-5 scoring rate for the first time since 2009-10. Their Achilles' heel offensively was the power play, where they led the NHL in 5-on-4 shot rate but finished with one of the league's lowest shooting percentages; a bounce-back season there coupled with a continuation of their elite penalty differential and healthier seasons for Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture should hopefully make up for the 5-on-5 offense the team figures to lose due to Brent Burns' move back to defense and a long-term injury to Raffi Torres. Here's how the forward lines stack up to begin the year:
Hertl - Thornton - Pavelski
He's nowhere to be found on the player banners strung up on Santa Clara Boulevard leading into the Shark Tank, he's missing from the team's promotional video shown in the arena prior to every home game, he isn't featured on any of the Sharks' new TV or radio commercials and he wasn't invited to the press conference held last week to commemorate San Jose's upcoming outdoor game. Frankly, it's a miracle Joe Thornton is still a Shark although you wouldn't know he still played for the team based solely on the marketing campaign. Despite being thrown under the bus, then repeatedly run over by said bus, following the Sharks' playoff collapse Thornton refused to waive his no-movement clause and returns for his ninth season in teal, albeit without the captaincy.
Even at 35, Thornton was the Sharks' most valuable player last year and in all likelihood will be their MVP once again this season, assuming he isn't traded. He had the third-most valuable even-strength season by a skater since 2007, leading the league in 5-on-5 assist rate and posting dominant puck possession numbers. He'll be flanked, at least to start the year, by sophomore sensation Tomas Hertl on his left and reigning 41-goal scorer Joe Pavelski on his right. It's hard to believe Hertl has just 37 regular season NHL games under his belt as his rookie year seemed to feature an entire career's worth of dizzying highs, terrifying lows and creamy middles. There was Hertl's remarkable four-goal game, capped off with a tally that angered people who hate fun everywhere, but there was also the devastating knee-on-knee hit dealt to him by Dustin Brown that claimed over half of Hertl's season. Ultimately, Hertl was a revelation when he was in the lineup. Only six forwards who played at least 300 5-on-5 minutes last season scored goals at a higher rate than the teenage rookie. If he can stay healthy and maintain anything close to that pace, that should help the Sharks make up for the 5-on-5 offense they're losing with Brent Burns' move back to defense.
Pavelski is coming off a career season in terms of offensive production but there's little reason to think he can repeat it. Pavelski entered the 2013-14 season with a 10.0% career shooting percentage, then nearly doubled that rate over the course of the campaign, ultimately cashing in on 18.2% of the shots he took last season. Everything went right for the 30-year-old forward last season and it's simply unreasonable to expect that to continue for another year. Pavelski should still be a two-way ace who can excel in strong-side faceoffs, draw from his experience playing center to provide adequate F3 support when Thornton plays deeper in the offensive zone and capably kill penalties. But score 40 goals? Even if he spends the entire season on Thornton's wing, that's just not happening again and given that Pavelski's even-strength shot rate has declined in each of the past four seasons, he might have trouble hitting 30. If he had shot at his prior career rate last season, Pavelski would have scored just 23 goals.
That's where the "but he scored 40 goals playing with Thornton!" argument against moving Pavelski to third-line center (an argument Todd McLellan himself cited in the playoffs last year) falls apart. Pavelski probably isn't going to sniff 41 goals this season whether he's on the first line or the third line, so why not slot him in where he instantly provides the team with forward depth, turning a mediocre third unit into an exceptional one while the Thornton line isn't likely to greatly suffer with someone like Tommy Wingels on right wing in Pavelski's stead? That's a question the coaching staff will have to wrestle with this season depending on how rookie Chris Tierney performs centering the third line. In the meantime, Hertl, Thornton and Pavelski should be a dominant offensive unit even if they might miss Brent Burns' speed and physical presence on the forecheck.
Marleau - Couture - Nieto
Easily the Sharks' best forward line in the seven-game series against L.A., it isn't surprising that Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Matt Nieto will start the season together just as they ended the last one. Over the 766 5-on-5 minutes Marleau and Couture shared the ice for last year, the Sharks controlled 55% of all shot attempts and scored 60% of all goals despite that duo, flanked on the right by a revolving door of wingers, starting more shifts in their own end than the offensive zone and largely facing off against opposing first-liners. They were a dynamic two-way unit regardless of their final linemate but when Nieto finally acclimatized to playing his off wing he fit like a glove alongside Marleau and Couture and may have been the team's single-best forward in the postseason.
Hertl understandably received the bulk of the Sharks rookie headlines last season but Nieto was terrific in his own right and figures to be even better as a sophomore, especially if he sticks on a line with two of San Jose's best forwards. This line brings plenty of speed, an ability to win matchups against the league's best players and, very likely, a bounceback offensive season for Logan Couture after he was hampered by injury and poor shooting luck for much of 2013-14. This might be the Sharks' most fun line to watch, which is a good thing because I suspect it will also be the opening night trio that stays together the longest.
Goodrow - Tierney - Wingels
It seems patently unfair to describe a 20-year-old rookie with zero games of NHL experience as the linchpin of the Sharks' bottom six but with the team having made no moves to replace either Burns or the injured Raffi Torres up front, that's the reality for Chris Tierney. After an offseason spent discussing what was at times termed a rebuild or a youth movement, youth has certainly been served on the Sharks' opening-night roster and nowhere is that more evident than the team's third line. Barclay Goodrow won't suit up against the Kings tonight but when he's healthy McLellan has already confirmed he'll be reunited with fellow ex-OHLer Tierney, both of whom had an impressive showing in the preseason.
If the two kids and Tommy Wingels, fresh off a breakout 16-goal season (14 of which came at even-strength), can comprise an effective third line capable of not only holding their own defensively but chipping in 5-on-5 offense, that might salvage what looks like a gruesome bottom six on paper and justify the coaching staff's decision to keep Pavelski on the top line. If we're comparing Goodrow, Tierney and Wingels to an idealized third line featuring Pavelski they'll come up short. But it's worth noting that due to injuries the Sharks were often forced to have everyone from Bracken Kearns to Andrew Desjardins to James Sheppard center their third line for much of the back half of last season; those are low bars to clear and I suspect these three shouldn't have much trouble doing so.
McGinn - Desjardins - Brown
Tonight's lineup in Los Angeles will feature Adam Burish in Tye McGinn's spot on this line, with McGinn moving up to spell the injured Barclay Goodrow, and it will likely be a disaster. Among the 412 forwards who have played at least 2000 5-on-5 minutes since the 07-08 season, Brown has the eighth-worst on-ice Goals For%, the seventh-worst on-ice Corsi For% and the third-lowest scoring rate. Burish has scored a whopping 3 points (and compiled a putrid 45.9 Corsi For%) in 61 career games with the Sharks over the past two seasons. Desjardins can be a useful fourth-line center with the right linemates but even Joe Thornton probably couldn't carry players as bad as Burish and Brown to success.
Handing contracts to demonstrably sub-replacement level players like Brown and John Scott and failing to use their remaining compliance buyout on Burish's odorous contract were among the more inexplicable decisions of a particularly confusing Sharks offseason. While successful teams like Los Angeles and Chicago feature the likes of Mike Richards and Marcus Kruger on fourth lines that actually contribute to winning, the Sharks have committed to the bizarre and patently false notion that different rules apply (hits count for goals!) when fourth lines are on the ice.
Unless the Sharks wise up and use players like James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy on their fourth line when those are healthy while Scott, Brown and Burish marinate in the press box or waiver wire, they're either going to have to severely overtax their top forwards relative to other teams or they're going to have awful players on the ice for a sixth of every game. The top end of the Sharks' forward lineup is close enough to that of the Kings' and Blackhawks' but the bottom end is so far removed that San Jose will be in tough to keep up with the West's true Cup contenders.
On the bubble & on the mend
Frankly, we've probably given John Scott more digital ink than he deserves this summer but the fact remains that he's an enforcer who can't play hockey in a league where those types of players are rapidly populating the unemployment lines. He isn't real depth, he's a liability and the sooner the Sharks figure that out and either chain him to the press box or place him on waivers, the better. Eriah Hayes remains with the team and was a decent fourth-liner in a stint with the big club last season but it seems likely he'll head to Worcester as soon as Goodrow is available to play.
The real intrigue in this section comes from the Sharks' trio of injured forwards. Exacerbating the Sharks' depth issues up front is the fact that Raffi Torres, James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy, none of whom would look out of place on a decent third line, are all starting the season on injured reserve. Torres is the only one out long term and that hurts, not merely due to Torres' physical presence but due to the fact that he's a sneaky good offensive weapon. In 28 games with the Sharks, Torres has scored at a 23-goals-per-82-games pace which is particularly impressive because he hasn't seen a lick of power play time and received limited even-strength minutes.
Sheppard enjoyed some success, at least in terms of goal-based results, as a third-line center late last season but is ultimately better suited for the wing where he can drive play in a third or fourth-line role. Kennedy is the wild card here; there's no question his 2013-14 season was a disappointment but the coaching staff may have been guilty of overreacting a bit when they scratched him for every single playoff game in favor of guys like Mike Brown. Kennedy is a very effective neutral zone player and would be a perfect fourth liner for the Sharks if McLellan was willing to use him there instead of the facepunchers.