Sharks Gameday: The Line Blender



7:30 PST
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Heading into San Jose's 2011-2012 campaign it's doubtful Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan ever figured he would be splitting up Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton for an extended period of time.

McLellan has always been a fan of the line blender when things aren't going well for his team, tinkering with the parts under the hood much like a mechanic. He isn't afraid to make a switch in the middle of a game, usually in the second period if San Jose is off to a slow start, but that really has never applied to the duo of Thornton and Marleau. For the most part McLellan has swapped the right-winger on that side of the ice, keeping his power unit of Marleau-Thornton on the ice together at both even strength and the power play.

Marleau has put up the best numbers of his career playing alongside Thornton on the Sharks top line-- 125 goals over the last three plus seasons, the best in the NHL during that time frame besides Alex Ovechkin (145) and Steven Stamkos (130). That's elite company, and while it might not all be due to Thornton's buttery hands and eagle-like vision, a lot of it is related to how well Thornton can open up defenses from behind the net and slip the puck to his teammates like a silent assassin. Hard to imagine how a mammoth can be so graceful but we aren't one to question things.

So when McLellan put Marleau at center earlier this season, a position Marleau played for most of his career but hadn't done regularly under McLellan, there was some trepidation over how it would turn out. The center position is one that requires much more engagement on a shift by shift basis. You have more responsibility, less ability to use your speed to stretch defenses on the breakout, and are counted on to provide a much more aggressive defensive presence low in your own zone. For one of San Jose's main speed threats this had the potential to limit his effectiveness, decreasing his overall scoring numbers in the process.

As it turns out, Marleau has fared much better than expected.

During the 2011-2012 season Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton have played together at even strength for a total of 135:40, which averages out to roughly nine games based on their ES TOI per game totals. During that time Marleau posted one goal and four assists, the majority of those due to playing with a red-hot Joe Pavelski, and finished a +2 in the plus/minus category. He totaled 17 shots on net, and was a +19 in the shots for minus shots against category.

Marleau has played 96:21, about six games, without Thornton this season. During that time frame he's been much more effective at putting the puck in the net-- three goals on 17 shots at even strength will attest to that, even if it comes without any assists. Where Marleau has seen some minor problems is in the defensive end of the ice.

By all visual accounts he's been more engaged in the play (which could have something to do with the number of touches centers see compared to wingers), and a respectable +1 over that time span shows he isn't getting buried out there defensively. However, a -9 in the shots for minus shots against category does show what playing without Thornton can do to your underlying performance. Thornton is so good at driving the play and retaining possession that when you leave his wing you're bound to see some more time in the defensive zone.

For those who are intimidated by big walls of text, here's a table of what I just said:

Patrick Marleau's Even Strength Statistics (2011-2012)

Situation GP
Goals Assists GFON GAON Shots ShotsOn
Shots Off Shots Dif.
with Thornton
1 4 7 5 17 79 60 +19
w/out Thornton
3 0 5 4 17 49 58 -9

The big question is whether or not splitting up Thornton and Marleau is in the long term plans of the team. Judging by their success together over the last three seasons, and the wealth of centers San Jose has on the roster, it's difficult to think that they'll stay apart for the entire year. With Marleau in the midst of one of his infamous scoring binges right now however, and receiving rave reviews for his tenacity on the puck, McLellan won't want to tinker too much with his center position as long as he's receiving results.

Until the next disappointing first period strikes again of course. Because when that happens, the line blender makes everything moot.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by Marleau, Pavelski, and Burns. Detroit's historical dominance over San Jose continues to erode, as McLellan extends his overall record against the Red Wings to 16-9-1. I waste even more time over at Hockey CSSI this weekend, sending site administrator (and Winging It In Motown lead author) JJ in Kansas creepy love letters throughout the season.