Listening to pundits around the hockey world, it's eye-rollingly lovely -- and I suppose in a twisted way, comforting -- that the stereotypical statements about the San Jose Sharks are coming out, particularly about Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Never mind playoff stats or Olympic golds or any other little measures of truth; that narrative is always the easiest to fall back on.
However, I'm not worried about those two. Nor Dan Boyle, who finally seems to be hitting his stride after his nasty concussion, or other big-paycheck players like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Those guys will do their job, and on a Todd McLellan coached team, that usually means playing well in nullifying a strength vs. strength situation.
That means the tipping point for any series, but particularly one against the Sutter-ized Los Angeles Kings, are the depth lines. Injuries have ravaged the Sharks this season, so much so that we didn't actually get a complete look at the lineup during the entire year. We've never seen the capabilities of a fully armed and operational Sharks roster, which means that there's an air of uncertainty heading into the first round. In my book, this series will be won or lost in the battle of the third and fourth lines, and because of that, three players that have missed substantial time will be the keys to both beating the Kings and a deep playoff drive.
Raffi Torres: The Sharks play different when Raffi Torres is in the lineup. Maybe not across all 60 minutes, but Torres' use of straight-line speed for punishing hits is something that this team desperately needs when it gets in a lull. It works, too. Just look at the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example. During the second period, the Sharks looked effectively asleep against one of the league's top teams. In one shift, Torres crashed into several Penguins, and others soon followed suit. This wake-up call soon powered the Sharks into an impressive comeback win over an Eastern Conference beast.
It's not just about the hitting and speed, though. Torres is an effective depth scorer as well, and while his point-per-game pace isn't to be expected over a long period of time, his skills can be placed in nearly any situation. This opens up line combinations to all sorts of different configurations in all situations. Against a defensively stingy team like the Kings, this isn't just a good idea -- it's a necessity.
Tomas Hertl: The legend of Tomas Hertl has grown to a point that it seems like all he does is score, smile, and speak endearingly broken English. The truth is, before he got hurt, Hertl hit the expected rookie tail off and we'll never know if/when he would have picked it back up this season.
However, in our brief glimpse back on his return, we've seen that Hertl is still able to his all of his tools to craft scoring chances. The long break before the first game against the Kings is probably the best thing for the staff to evaluate Hertl's knee and conditioning, but even if he's not 100% (and to be fair, it's likely he won't be until next season), his offensive instincts are a natural weapon. He won't be counted on for two-way work, but if he can find a groove with his old slot alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, that creates many options for a balanced scoring third line. In addition, it gives a boost to a hit and miss second power play unit, something that will have to produce in order to get past Los Angeles.
Marty Havlat: At his best, Martin "Marty" Havlat is fast, dynamic, and creative in a way that no one else on the Sharks roster can replicate. He's also flighty and passive at times, despite his dashing ginger beard. Havlat responded to a late-season benching with a hat trick (though one was an empty net). When he's not playing a spark under his butt, Havlat is generally invisible: he'll jump on, skate around a little bit, and jump off. There's also some question about how his disgusting long-term injury from last season affected his timing, condition, and general performance. Consider that he played 28 games between October and February with a whopping total of 10 points while March/April saw 12 points in 18 games -- not stellar, but certainly an improvement.
How can you get that spark the whole time? That's a good question, and I don't know if Todd McLellan has the answer to that other than "bench him for a game." However, a hard-working Havlat provides two key things for the Sharks. First, there's the fact that he's probably the most offensively creative player on the team (and there's a difference between creative and effective); when he's on his game, he's able to generate scoring chances differently than Logan Couture or Joe Thornton. Second, his presence as a scoring threat creates flexibility among the top nine and power play units, and against the Jennings-winning Kings squad, depth is everything.