SAN JOSE — Tommy Wingels has never started an NHL season as a center. Tonight, he will do just that, centering the San Jose Sharks’ fourth line in their season opener against the Los Angeles Kings. He said he is confident that he can make the adjustment.
“I think the game well enough to play up the middle,” Wingels said. “Are there going to be some tough moments out there? Probably. When you play against guys who have been playing [center] your whole life, and guys who are the best players in the world at it, you may have a bad shift or two, but it’s about stringing good ones together, being confident out there, and playing as much as you can with the puck.”
In making the transition, Wingels said he’s “learning on the fly.” He said he’s been active in off-ice sessions, asking questions and watching a lot of film. Playing center requires a different set of responsibilities than the wing, where he’s played the entirety of his NHL career.
“It’s fun. It’s a more competitive position, I think,” Wingels said. “Individually, you’re matched up against maybe some better players, and you have one-on-one matchups a little more in your own zone.”
Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer said he had not given much thought to playing Wingels at center prior to the preseason. But Wingels, who played the position at Miami of Ohio, “ran with it” this preseason, according to DeBoer.
Wingels also seemed to have found chemistry playing alongside Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto. He posted a 62.07 CF% in 37:19 this preseason with the former, and a 70.73 CF% in 24:46 with the latter. Wingels played intermittently with the two last season, but the trio never lined up together in 2015-16. That will change to start the year, DeBoer said.
“The three of those guys I thought were very effective,” DeBoer said. “They all play similar games. They buzz around. If they can carry that into the season, they can be an effective line for us.”
His line and position are different, but tonight’s opponent is not. In four of their last five postseasons, the Sharks have faced off against the division rival Kings. Last spring, the Sharks eliminated the Kings in five games in the first round, two years after the Kings came back from a 3-0 deficit en route to a Stanley Cup in the Sharks’ previous postseason berth.
“It brings out the best in us. I think when you know you have to show up and compete, you can leave the speeches in the dressing room,” DeBoer said. “The guys know they’ll have to play a heavy, hard game in order to have a chance. I think it’s appropriate to start the season like that.”
After two-and-a-half weeks of training camp and six preseason games, opening against their biggest rival is “the easiest way to get everyone back involved,” according to Wingels.
“I think the players like [the rivalry]. I think the fans like it. I think the league likes it. For numerous reasons, it’s easy to get right into it.”