NHL: How San Jose Sharks' Hodgepodge Top Line Is Dominating the League

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NHL: How San Jose Sharks' Hodgepodge Top Line Is Dominating the League
Don Smith/Getty Images
The Sharks and their top line are off to a red-hot start.

What do you get if you combine an untested rookie, a converted defenseman and a superstar who is supposedly past his prime? If you're the San Jose Sharks, you get the most dominant forward line in the NHL in the first two weeks of the 2013-14 season.

Tomas Hertl, Brent Burns and Joe Thornton are an unlikely trio, but after five games, they are a major reason San Jose is a perfect 5-0-0. The line is also a major reason the Sharks lead the league in goals scored (24) and shots on goal (212). 

The trio has put up impressive early-season numbers. Hertl leads the league with seven goals scored and has eight points. Burns has the best plus/minus rating in the league with a plus-nine while Thornton (plus-eight) and Hertl (plus-seven) are not far behind.

San Jose's top line has combined for 10 goals and 19 points in five games, an average of nearly two goals and four points per contest. They have also been consistent, scoring at least one goal in each of Team Teal's first five games this season.

Few people expected such big results from this line before the season started. In fact, there were questions surrounding each member of the group. 

For example, David Pollock of the San Jose Mercury News noted that the 34-year-old Thornton was one of three Sharks players (along with Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau) whose "productivity has declined (in recent seasons). So has their ice time." That decline was expected by many to continue.

Rich Lam/Getty Images

Thornton is still the Sharks' captain and remains one of the best playmakers in the league. He has shown that he has not lost his ability to set up his teammates for quality scoring chances, and that means opposing defensemen have to be on their guard for a perfect pass any time "Jumbo Joe" has the puck.

In the past, fans got frustrated when Thornton didn't shoot the puck enough. Now, because the top line is being so productive, nobody minds that the big center has only seven shots on goal in five games.

Burns overcame long odds to join the Sharks' top line. It's rare that an NHL player makes the successful transition from defenseman to forward, let alone becomes an impact player at his new position after making the switch. It helps that Burns played some forward while coming up through the Minnesota Wild system.

Don Smith/Getty Images
Brent Burns is big, quick and has the best beard in the NHL.

Burns downplayed the difficulty of making the switch to forward. "I don't think it's that different," he told David Pollock of the San Jose Mercury News. "It's just a different game so you've got to concentrate on a little bit of different things—training for different battles, different ways of shooting, positioning."

The Ajax, Ontario, native has made the transition and then some. He adds imposing size, speed and quick hands to the top line. At 6'5", 220, Burns can intimidate opponents on the forecheck and put fear in opposing defensemen whether or not he has the puck. It doesn't hurt that he has a good shot as well.

Burns is also sporting what is unquestionably the best beard in the NHL right now.

Meanwhile, Hertl has shocked a lot of people by being so productive so quickly. The 19-year-old native of the Czech Republic is getting used to a new country, a new language, a new league and new teammates.

In five short games, Hertl has already garnered attention throughout the hockey world for his four-goal game against the Rangers that included the highlight-reel fourth goal that few players would dare to even try during a shootout.

Hertl's teammates are already impressed. "He's just very crafty and he knows where the net is," Thornton said of his talented young linemate in a postgame interview on CSN Bay Area after the club's fifth straight win. "He just finds the back of the net. He always seems to be in front of the net and he's doing a great job for us."

Don Smith/Getty Images
Hertl's fast start has surprised many.

One person who is not surprised by Hertl's strong start is Sharks' GM Doug Wilson. "We look at Tomas as a three-zone guy who can play with good players," Wilson told Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. "He's with a pretty good guy named Thornton and with Burns. But he has the hockey IQ to play with them.

Tomas, much like [Logan] Couture and [Joe] Pavelski, can play in all three zones. He probably won't score four goals every game, but he can play in all the areas of the rink. He's a big body, he loves to play, he's a hockey rat. Throw that together and that's why we love him."

It's doubtful Hertl will keep up this torrid early pace, but it's clear he can have a big impact on the team in his rookie season.

The top line has helped San Jose address an issue that plagued the team last season when they were near the bottom of the league in goals scored at even strength. This year, in large part due to the hot start by the hodgepodge top line, Team Teal has 19 even-strength goals in its first five games.

The top line is leading the way, but it's hardly the only reason the Sharks are off to a fast start. The entire team is playing well with all four forward lines making contributions, playing strong team defense and goalie Antti Niemi seeming to pick up where he left off last season when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.

"We're just deep, we're really, really deep and we want to come at you every night," Thornton told the Associated Press last week. 

Nobody expects the Sharks to keep up this impressive early-season pace. Every team hits bumps in the road over the course of an 82-game season. But few people expected the Sharks' top line to play this well either, and both the line and the team as a whole have thrived on exceeding people's expectations.

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