I remember quite clearly the message that was being sent to Minnesota Wild fans about James Sheppard following the 2006 Entry Draft.
“He’s going to be the next Joe Thornton.”
“He’s going to be a carbon copy of Ryan Getzlaf.”
“This kid’s going to be good.”
Now hindsight is always 20-20 (and if it’s not, you need to get your hindsight checked), but through 211 games in his NHL career, Sheppard has been none of these things. Call it a mismanagement of assets by Wild management, call it caving under the pressure, call it a bust—call it whatever you want. The fact is that Sheppard has not lived up to his billing.
Last night’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers saw an inspired Sheppard. He forechecked with a purpose, he was stronger on the puck than I ever remember seeing him before and he created opportunities for him and his linemates, and he was rewarded with the most time on the ice he’s seen since the game coming out of the Olympic break.
But with the signing of young Casey Wellman, might this be too little too late?
The truth is that, yes, Sheppard played a great game last night. He was aggressive, he was on the puck, and he was physical. The problem is, the Wild’s other two centers (Kyle Brodziak and Andrew Ebbett) both played better.
Sheppard has been a healthy scratch for more than his fair share of games this season but, with no other options at center after the trade of Eric Belanger, he has been inserted into the lineup regularly as the team’s third or fourth line center (depending on the situation and his play).
He’s responded well, especially over the last handful of games, but has nothing to show for it. Not a single, solitary assist. Not even a plus rating. In fact, in the eight games since the trade deadline, he is a minus-two, with just five shots on goal.
For comparison’s sake, here are the stat lines of the three centers not named Mikko Koivu since the deadline:
James Sheppard: 0 G, 0 A, -2, 4 PIM, 5 SOG
Andrew Ebbett: 3 G, 2 A, E, 2 PIM, 18 SOG
Kyle Brodziak: 1 G, 1 A, E, 2 PIM, 11 SOG
Now, given the decision, which one would you scratch? Take your time. There’s no rush.
Did you say Sheppard?
I thought so.
Now, as hockey fans we all know that goals and assists aren’t always indicative of the quality of their play, which is why I included the shots-on-goal number. For a forward, especially a center, creating plays and creating scoring chances has a lot to do with getting shots on net. The more shots you can get towards the net, the more scoring chances your team is likely to have.
Even though Brodziak and Ebbett aren’t necessarily the biggest offensive powerhouses on the team, they’re getting shots on goal—they’re creating.
Sheppard, on the other hand, is not.
I’ll break it down further for you. Let’s look at their shift breakdown:
James Sheppard: 8 GP, 110 shifts, 10:12 TOI
Andrew Ebbett, 8 GP, 200 shifts, 18:10 TOI
Kyle Brodziak: 8 GP, 178 shifts, 15:05 TOI
Looking at the breakdown, Sheppard is averaging roughly 14 shifts per game, Ebbett is averaging 25 and Brodziak about 22. In other words, Sheppard’s average shift length is about 44 seconds, as is Ebbett’s and Brodziak’s average shift length is about 49 seconds.
To make it simpler, it boils down to this: Ebbett and Brodziak are averaging a shot once every 11 shifts and every 16 shifts respectively, while Sheppard is averaging a shot once every 22 shifts.
Now, this may not seem like a huge disparity, but when you’re averaging just 14 shifts per game, it’s not the best way to endear yourself to anyone involved when you’re supposed to be an offensive threat. It gets even worse when you take the average shift time into account. He’s averaging just one shot every 16:08 of playing time.
Now if he were getting 16 minutes of playing time per game, we might not say boo about it. But he’s not. He’s in a situation where he needs to earn his ice time and, quite frankly, he isn’t.
This long statistical diatribe is leading me to one conclusion and one conclusion only.
James Sheppard’s “inspired” effort last night was not enough to save his season and to save his job. He will get another chance, to be sure. The Wild are too thin at the forward position to think that his good game against Edmonton won’t be rewarded with another shot against Nashville, and he may make good on that reward and build on his performance.
But the bottom line is that Sheppard is a restricted free agent. In order to stay on the Wild, he will require a qualifying offer of 10 percent more than he currently makes (roughly $935K).
He has had all season to prove that he is capable of being the player that the Wild needs him to be and, to me, a handful of games down the stretch with a player behind him breathing down his neck for a chance to do his job better is not worth a second chance at his current pay, let alone with a raise.
This is the exact reason why I believe that James Sheppard will not and should not be wearing a Minnesota Wild sweater when the Wild open up next fall in training camp.