With only a few changes to last year's roster, might the San Jose Sharks want to change up lines and pairs?
On Monday, Mike Keenan warned 590 AM The Fan in Toronto of a possible 2012-13 season lost to the NHL lockout. With reports that the Winter Classic is on the verge of cancellation, the possibility of a lost season becomes increasingly likely.
San Jose Sharks fans are notoriously optimistic. It is a requirement when you follow a team that is one of only two to be in every Stanley Cup playoffs since 2003 (along with the Detroit Red Wings). You need more than one hand to count their losses, as the Sharks have fallen short every time.
But last season, they needed an entire foot to count how many wins they were away from what a team close to the cap should be able to attain. They appeared to be regressing, plus they lost more than they gained in the offseason.
Unless you count the coaching staff. But two defensive-oriented coaches cannot help the dreadful penalty kill while the lockout endures.
Make no mistake about it: the cancellation of the Winter Classic means no games will take place before Christmas.
Why would the league pay the same money for games it will not cash in as much on? And more and more players may commit to European teams, making the gap potentially bigger.
However, the threat of losing these players long-term could, at some point, enter into the head of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He could still realize that the best action is to honour the contracts teams have already handed out to players.
If that happens, it is unlikely teams will sign many additional players. The training camp that follows will be too short for experimentation and the resulting season too short for the usual "feeling-out" process for new players.
That can be good for the Sharks because most of their players are returning. But it also means they won't have time to give new combinations a chance to bring new results.
With that in mind, the following is a list of what the lines will be on whatever day opening night comes. Check out this link to the San Jose Sharks Examiner for a look at the back end.
Joe Thornton and Logan Couture are the two best players on the San Jose Sharks.
Not best centres or best forwards, but best players. That is unlikely to change in 2012-13.
It is quite possible that the young Couture could pass Thornton on both ends of the ice because he is growing better, while Joe's best days are likely behind him. Both are playing well in Switzerland, but Couture is playing better than Thornton. (Going to Switzerland was a return trip for Thornton, who met his wife during the last lockout.)
The Sharks best four forwards are all centres: Joe Pavelski moved ahead of Patrick Marleau, and they have flanked Thornton for over a year. The quicker start to the season dictates they stay that way not only for continuity, but because of the balance of talent they bring to the table.
Lines are best with one skater and one big player, one shooter and one passer, one lefty and one righty and a degree of both experience and youth.
Thornton is physical and passes well, Marleau skates and shoots well and Pavelski provides the line of a right-handed closer that knows where to be. All can defend, allowing this line to cover Marleau's inconsistency in his own end so the trio can be used in all situations.
Putting Couture on the second line gives the Sharks two dangerous lines, but who should play with him?
In 2011-12, Martin Havlat was unreliable and Ryane Clowe had an off year. Logan Couture belongs ahead of Marleau on the depth chart and might be used on that line from time to time, but is needed as an ace centering the second line. All are left-handed and capable of passing and shooting, but Clowe and Havlat lean more to passing and Couture to shooting.
Clowe provides the line with the size that's needed. Havlat's play-making skills are valuable alongside Couture's creative offensive prowess.
The best big player the Sharks have behind Clowe is Michal Handzus, and he is a similar player on both ends. But even though he should play better than last year, he cannot be relied on for second-line minutes.
The best fast player the Sharks have behind Havlat is Tommy Wingels. He is not the creator Havlat is nor the offensive force, but is better close to the net and in his own end and would give the line a right-handed shot.
Wingels is likely to spend time there anyway due to Havlat's occasional injuries, but changing this line would be a mistake. This is not just about continuity, as that was not really established during 2011-12 considering that Clowe or Havlat were hurt for over 60 percent of Sharks' games. It is about distributing assets to maximize results.
The checking line needs players who are more physical than Havlat. Wingels is not only one of the best checkers for San Jose, but plays better in front of the net, something that the second line already has in Clowe.
Michal Handzus is a veteran who was hampered by injury last season. Expectations are higher for him than the second-best remaining on the draw, so he should start the season centering the third line.
He is actually the biggest of these players, but offensively he is much like Joe Thornton—preferring to dish the puck from behind the net to putting it home in net-front traffic. This should work out well, as Adam Burish and Tommy Wingels love battling for that precious real estate.
All three are strong defensively, while Wingels gives the line the speed lost when another converted right-handed centre (Torrey Mitchell) was let go. But with more scoring potential.
Their size and defensive prowess does bring a concentration of assets to one line. However, they do not call the third line the checking line without cause.
The rest of the Sharks' forwards are also good defenders. No line is robbed of someone fitting these roles in the process.
It also allows Andrew Desjardins, who I believe will play better and thus more than Burish, to remain in his natural centre position, in which he has shown much growth.
There is no doubt that Andrew Desjardins and T.J. Galiardi will make the active roster. Both have proven what they can do in the NHL and both should only get better.
Galiardi can skate and be physical. If he can find his game, he will get third-line action. Desjardins can do a little of everything, and plays beyond his years.
That means the entire arrangement of the third and fourth lines comes down to who wins that final (12th) forward spot.
The top two candidates are James Sheppard and Tim Kennedy. If Sheppard beats out Kennedy, he will provide another centre to give the team flexibility on who is moved to the wing.
Sheppard is the greater talent and more accomplished player. He was chosen with the ninth pick of the 2006 NHL draft and has played in hundreds of more games, yet is the same age as Kennedy.
However, he is coming off a severe injury that cost him more than a year. Right now, Kennedy is playing much better at Worcester. In a shortened camp, the hotter player is more likely to make the roster.
For those unfamiliar with inside San Jose Sharks lingo, the "Worcester Shuttle" refers to the players frequently shuttled between San Jose and Worcester, the Sharks' AHL affiliate (located in in Worcester, MA).
However, most of the players to spend some time scratched will likely be sent to Worcester to stay game sharp. Hence, I have broadened this term to include not just those being shuttled to and from the airports, but those in the press box.
The loser of the Tim Kennedy vs. James Sheppard battle would likely spend much of the season in San Jose. But the Sharks have several other players capable of stepping in on occasion.
The team signed John McCarthy to a two-year contract over the summer that will only be two-way this season. They obviously think the senior member of the Shuttle will make the active roster sometime in the next 11 months, so he is bound to see at least some time this year.
Brad Mashinter and Frazer McLaren have played in San Jose. Jon Matsumoto and Bracken Kearns have limited NHL experience. And Sebastian Stalberg heads a list of young players that could be ready to break into the rotation. But none are likely to get into more than a few games.