With the Sharks having dropped consecutive games in regulation for the first time this season, it was reasonable to expect some changes. The first one, according to the AHL transactions page, involves recalling winger Matt Nieto, who scored 6 points in 19 games with the big club this season before being sent to Worcester a little under two weeks ago, and Freddie Hamilton, who skated in 4 games for San Jose earlier in the year as well. It’s hard to know the exact reasoning behind the decision but I’m guessing the fact that the Sharks turned in an embarrassing performance in Carolina last night at the same time Nieto was scoring twice and adding three assists in a Worcester rout of Portland had something to do with it.
But the larger reason for this move likely stems from the extent to which the Sharks’ third line has struggled in Nieto’s absence. In their eight games as a line combination, the Sharks have earned just 48.2% of the even-strength shot attempts with Marty Havlat/Joe Pavelski/Tyler Kennedy on the ice compared to 57.5% when they haven’t been on the ice together over that span, despite them being deployed in easy minutes. Todd McLellan hasn’t been pleased with those results and dismantled the line during the third period of each of the last two games. My hope is that we’ll see line combinations that look something like this in Minnesota:
Hertl – Thornton – Burns
Marleau – Couture – Havlat
Nieto – Pavelski – Wingels
Sheppard – Desjardins – Kennedy
We know what Tom, Dick & Hairy is capable of together and the American Express Line of Nieto, Pavelski and Wingels was immensely successful earlier in the season, with Nieto averaging 12.0 shots on goal and 2.22 points per 60 five-on-five minutes when he was sharing the ice with those linemates. Kennedy is undoubtedly an upgrade over John McCarthy or Mike Brown and should make that fourth line the best the Sharks have had during the McLellan era. The lone question mark, albeit a significant one, is whether Marty Havlat can handle the tough defensive minutes he’ll need to play alongside Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture. As we’ve discussed before, he was great in that role down the stretch last season but he hasn’t been anywhere near as effective since returning from offseason pelvic surgery in this campaign. I think it’s worth a shot just because it’s clear he doesn’t work anywhere else in the lineup but it could be a short-lived experiment.
On the other hand, perhaps the fact that Hamilton was recalled along with Nieto means the coaching staff is looking to send a message by making one of their veterans a healthy scratch. It’s doubtful Hamilton would be recalled only to be the 14th forward. Havlat would seem to be the most likely candidate to sit if that’s the case, given that he’s watched a game from the press box already this season and has been as much a reason for the third line’s struggles as anyone else. If that’s their plan, Kennedy reclaiming his spot alongside Marleau and Couture and Hamilton skating with James Sheppard and Andrew Desjardins on the fourth line would probably be the way to go. Regardless, I’m on record as having been skeptical about the decision to ever send Nieto down so I certainly think recalling him is the right move, especially given the third line’s struggles, as long as he’s put in a position to succeed. And that position is on the left wing with Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels.
(h/t to reader milanahalek)