Fourth-line storylines included in first-round matchup

Obviously, if the Sharks are going to win this first-round matchup against the daunting St. Louis Blues, then they're going to need high-level performances from their star players. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and crew have to show up and put up the points. If they don't, we won't be talking about the fourth-line.

However, a decision that Doug Wilson made during the offseason brings the fourth-line into the spotlight for this series. After a second consecutive Western Conference Finals loss for his team, Wilson did his fair share of house cleaning. Shipping out Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi were the splashy moves, but another fan favorite was given his walking papers as well-- Scott Nichol.

Wilson chose not to retain the scrappy Nichol, who had played two effective seasons with San Jose as their fourth line center. He was an important piece in the face-off game and on the penalty kill, but instead of being retained, Andrew Desjardins was given Wilson's vote of confidence.

Scott Nichol ended up with St. Louis, and here we are.

So now, with the Sharks and Blues set to face off in the first round, it's worth revisiting the decision and seeing if Doug Wilson and his team of usually infallible player personnel executives, coaches and scouts made the right decision.

Looking at the basic stats, it seems like Desjardins has been the more effective offensive player. In four less games, Desjardins has one more goal and eight more assists than Nichol. He took 36 less penalty minutes as well, losing only to Nichol in the face-off dot, 57.6% for Nichol and 53% for Desjardins, neither too shabby. On the surface, it looks like basically a wash, with the edge going slightly to the young Desjardins.

But, this wouldn't be FTF if we didn't bang the advanced statistics drum a bit, would it?

Let's take a look at it from a few different angles. In order to properly figure out if Desjardins is truly better than Nichol for this team, we have to compare him to both this year's Nichol and last year's, when he was still a San Jose Shark.

Desjardins vs. Nichol

2011-2012 Desjardins 76 8.69 3.18 0.5/0.8 49.4%/52.5% +0.27 0.84 +2.61
2010-2011 Nichol 56 7.86 -11.72 1.6/1.2 39.6%/50% +0.07 1.75 +1.66
2011-2012 Nichol 80 7.54 3.28 1.1/0.5 48.9%/48.6% +0.25 1.69 +0.76

Plenty of things jump out to me here, with the first being how much of a resurgence Scott Nichol has had in St. Louis. Thirty-seven year old players don't often rebound once they've had a poor season, especially one rife with with injury like Nichol's was. Kudos to him for that.

But don't miss "rebound" being the operative word there. Because in order to rebound, you have to have an off season, and Nichol very much had that in his last year with San Jose. As you can tell by that -11.72 CORSI, Nichol's season last year could be qualified as quite a bit of a nightmare.

Desjardins' year trumped Nichol's from 2010-2011 easily. This year, however, it's a much closer battle. Piece by piece, I'm still going to give the slight edge to Desjardins. It's a coin flip in most cases, but there are plenty of instances where Desjardins passes the eye test too, and that's plenty for me.

The first case of that comes in the time-on-ice category, where it's clear that Desjardins (and his line) is given more opportunity from his coaching staff. That extra time comes as a result of the way his line has played, and I think most of us can agree that the fourth line has been an effective bunch, especially lately. Another stat that confirms what's seen on the ice is the fact that Desjardins and his linemates have been driving the play from the defensive zone to the offensive zone a good portion of the time.

The one instance where Nichol clearly still has the edge is on the penalty kill, where he played an effective, high number of minutes for the Sharks and continues to do just that for the Blues.

All in, though, it looks like the 25 year old Desjardins is filling in just fine for Nichol, who had a brutal season with San Jose last year and remains an injury risk. It's almost unfair to Desjardins, though, to say that he is replacing Nichol, when Desjardins' emergence has effectively made the Sharks bottom-six a 3A-3B situation instead of the traditional 3-4.

Desjardins got better as the season went on, and will hopefully continue to do so as a member of the Sharks, if not this year, but next. In the now, San Jose is going to need to rely on its forward depth to match that of St. Louis, and Desjardins is going to be a big part of that.