You do not win the President’s Trophy and finish back-to-back seasons first or second in your conference in the NHL (or any other league for that matter) by accident.
Knowing this, I will stop short of joining the “elite” fraternity of “experts” questioning San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan’s hockey smarts.
Still, a recent move by the Shark’s skipper has left me scratching my head.
Sharks top line center and alternate captain, Joe Thornton, recently missed about a week of action (three games) with a lower body injury.
This marked the first time since 2005—when Joe Thornton joined the Sharks via trade from Boston—that he had missed a game at the NHL level.
I was relieved to see Jumbo back in the lineup for Sunday’s game in Colorado. As for seeing who he was skating with, that was another story.
Jumbo Joe’s return marked the reunion of the Sharks’ “Big Line” of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley skating together as the top group of forwards.
The temptation to use this line is logical, as the argument can easily be made that it is the best possible combination of talent on a single forward line in the NHL this year (maybe in several years).
They are also unquestionably productive, as Heatley and Marleau both stand to finish the regular season with more than 40 goals.
But as talented as the “Big Line” is, they are equally predictable. They are consistently guilty of relying on skill above effort, failing to break out of their respective comfort zones to make the opposition think about what they will do in the offensive zone.
Heatley camps just beyond in the edge of the crease, Marleau prowls the perimeter looking for a one-time or setup chance and Jumbo camps behind the net looking to make the perfect pass.
They go to these roles because these are their strengths and they are good enough to make things work a fair amount of the time.
However, opposing defenses are getting wise to these tactics and more and more often are able to shut this line down.
Use of this line affects the rest of the team as well.
In addition to contributing to a seeming sense of complacency up and down the bench when these three hit the ice first, concentrating the three best forwards on the team on one line allows opposing teams to key in on one line and focus most of their energy on stopping them.
It guarantees opponents the ability to have their best players out against the Sharks’ three best forwards, increasing the odds for the defense.
Distributing the three throughout the top three lines would not only complicate defensive game-planning for opposing teams, but would allow for much more balanced offensive San Jose attack, as all lines (one through four) would immediately becoming substantially bigger threats to score.
Putting Thornton, Marleau and Heatley on the same line also drastically limits the ability for teammates to defend them, opening the door for opposing teams to take liberties with questionable checks and hits.
I am not suggesting any of the three are too soft to stand up for one another, but they know their roles and they are all too valuable to risk a major penalty responding to a big hit on a linemate.
With these three skating the vast majority of the game together, opportunities for such responses are limited. Opposing coaches can continue to shift the offending player against the “Big Line”, thus protecting him for a potential response.
While the “Big Line” plays well together, other match-ups have proven productive too.
Joe Thornton was instrumental in helping Devin Setoguchi to a break-out year last season, consistently contributing assists throughout his 31-goal campaign. Patrick Marleau’s speed is better complimented by a Torrey Mitchell, allowing more dynamic attacks off the rush.
It is no coincidence that the Sharks worked themselves into a rut playing night in and night out behind the “Big Line”, as effort and focus seemed to wane starting late last calendar year, ultimately resulting in the Sharks dismal six-game losing streak.
It is also no coincidence that the Sharks broke out of the skid by breaking up the “Big Line.” The general level of play instantly picked up and the goals, saves and wins quickly followed.
Furthermore, the Sharks started scoring the type of gritty, ugly goals you need in the playoffs, the kind you almost never see the “Big Line” scoring.
Why then did Todd McLellan no sooner break-up the “Big Line” than he started looking for an opportunity to reunite it? It makes little sense to me.
The Sharks need a lot of things to happen if Lord Stanley is to come calling on Santa Clara St. in San Jose.
They need Nabokov to be stellar. They need Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley to perform like the stars they are. They need stellar defense. They need to stop turning the puck over. They need to get fair officiating.
Even if the Sharks get all of those things, frequent to constant use of the “Big Line” could still be a key factor in helping write another frustrating chapter in San Jose playoff lore (a growing tome beginning to resemble Tales from the Crypt ).
Leave the “Big Line” to the power play. If the team is trailing with less than a minute to go, take your chances. But all signs point to the Sharks being better served by breaking up the best line in hockey.