San Jose Sharks: Torrey Mitchell on the Top Line Could Push Team over the Top

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIJuly 15, 2011

San Jose Sharks: Torrey Mitchell on the Top Line Could Push Team over the Top

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    The San Jose Sharks have had a very active offseason. Roster retooling and refining has been underway since the Setoguchi-Burns trade on draft day, and the Sharks seem to have a couple more moves up their sleeves.

    Most fans and writers have pointed out two glaring holes on this team. The first is the lack of an offensively gifted winger on the third line, and the second is the lack of a steady veteran to anchor the fourth line.

    Many ideas have been thrown around. Jamie McGinn to the third line. Re-signing Kyle Wellwood. Signing J.P. Dumont and Chris Drury. Many more.

    The Sharks don't have the forwards on their team right now that will make these problems go away, but with some out of the box thinking, the Sharks can vastly improve their depth before making any moves.

    Here are the reasons why moving Torrey Mitchell (who is currently slotted as a third line winger) to the top line could improve this team in a number of ways. Of course, we'll also take a look at the risks involved.

Mitchell to the Top Line Would Give the Sharks Four Dominant Centers

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    During the last two months of last season, the Sharks had one of hockey's best third lines. This was primarily due to Joe Pavelski, a two-way center good enough to play on many team's top lines.

    Pavelski wins a ton of draws, scores big goals, holds on to the puck and most importantly, creates scoring chances for his linemates. This allowed a struggling Torrey Mitchell and a previously NHL-exiled Kyle Wellwood to have tremendous second-halfs.

    The Sharks had Pavelski on the third line because they had seven excellent forwards. After trading Devin Setoguchi for a defenseman, the Sharks reduced their crop of star forwards to six, and in doing so, effectively removed Pavelski from their third line. With Pavelski on line one or two, the Sharks would retain one of the NHL's elite top-six units, but lose their ultra-valuable third scoring line.

    This is where Torrey Mitchell comes in. By moving Mitchell to the top line, where he'd play alongside Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks could then role out a second line of Martin Havlat, Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe. Pavelski would return to center the third line, which would push current third line center Michal Handzus to the fourth.

    The Sharks down the middle: Thornton, Couture, Pavelski, Handzus. All four would be among the game's best for the line they're on. What are the practical benefits of this?

    For one, the third line immediately becomes better. Yes, the Sharks still would need to sign a winger, preferably someone with solid speed and hands. J.P. Dumont and Kyle Wellwood still look like the best options. The other wing would then be filled by Jamie McGinn or Benn Ferriero, probably McGinn to give the line some size while retaining its speed. But whoever ends up here, Pavelski will make a better player, something Handzus wouldn't do.

    On the fourth line, however, Handzus would be invaluable. He would solve the Sharks' otherwise pressing need to go out and add a veteran to anchor the fourth line, and he would instantly make it one of hockey's elite bottom units.

    Handzus is an offensive juggernaut compared to other fourth line centers, but still has the smart, defensive, physical style of play that is required to play on the bottom line. His experience would greatly benefit his linemates, be them Benn Ferriero, Jamie McGinn, Andrew Desjardins or Frazer McLaren.

Thornton and Marleau Can Play with Anyone

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    Of course, Torrey Mitchell is not the dominant top-line winger that the Sharks have rolled out in recent seasons, like Dany Heatley or Devin Setoguchi. Obviously, a top line with Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture would be more dynamic.

    But let's face it, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are essentially the San Jose top line by themselves. While Thornton is a superb passer and can set up anyone on the ice, Marleau is clearly his favorite target. Marleau played seven seasons before scoring 30 goals. Most guys who do that would never reach the milestone. But once Joe Thornton joined his team, he's scored 30 goals in five of six years, averaging 40 a year over the past three.

    The point is, these two have a special chemistry, and will produce as long as they're paired together. The flip side of that, however, is that whoever plays with them always becomes somewhat of a third wheel. Yes, the winger opposite Marleau still helps by being a second option and can impact the game in other facets, but they never serve as the go-to-guy.

    Given that, it almost seems like a waste to use Pavelski or Couture in that spot. Couture can dominate the game as a center on the second line, and Pavelski can give the Sharks an elite third line. Why waste them as second options?

    Torrey Mitchell, meanwhile, would be affected in the opposite way by joining Thornton and Marleau. Mitchell will see more quality scoring chances than usual because defenses will have their hands full with his superstar linemates. This will allow Torrey, who has offensive potential that he finally began to tap into late last season, to have a breakout year.

    The key to making the Thornton line click is speed on the wings. Setoguchi and Marleau formed a fast, dynamic duo last year, and Torrey Mitchell is the fastest skater on the entire roster. His speed plus his right-handed shot make him a perfect fit for the top line, and his defensive capabilities add another positive.

Mitchell as a Top Six Forward Would Allow Roster Flexibility

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    If the Sharks keep Torrey Mitchell and Michal Handzus on the third line, they absolutely need to bring in two more veteran forwards: one to provide offense on the third line, the other to provide leadership on the fourth. With Joe Pavelski on the third line and Handzus on the fourth, the bottom line leadership is no longer an issue, and a third line winger is the only signing necessary.

    Because of this, the Sharks will save $2 to $3 million in cap space, which will allow them to either bring in a slightly better third line winger, sign players to extensions or simply sit on the cap space until the trading deadline.

    Not only would this move give the Sharks financial flexibility, it would give them a greater ability to tinker with lines throughout the season.

    If the Sharks kept Handzus on the third line, the line would be slower and less explosive. This means that Mitchell would have to stay there all season to provide speed, and the search for third line goals would be a top priority. This would also leave the fourth line as, essentially, a Worcester line.

    Obviously, there will be line tinkering at times this year, and with Pavelski on the third line, the Sharks have more options. Logan Couture and Pavelski could be juggled between the second and third line, providing sparks on both sides if the lines became stagnant.

    If the third line needed help in another way, Handzus could be brought up to play a wing, and the fourth line could survive for a while, especially if Ferriero progresses as the season goes on.

    If the top line was struggling offensively, Mitchell could be swapped with Martin Havlat. This would allow both lines to retain their speed while improving the top line's firepower.

    If the second line was lacking in speed or the top line in physicality, Mitchell could be swapped with Ryane Clowe. A second line with Havlat and Mitchell would certainly be a great-skating one, and a top line with two elite puck-possession power forwards in Clowe and Thornton could dominate games late.

Potential Problems and Conclusion

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    There is no doubt that this move would go against conventional wisdom. And while Todd McLellan has no problem with making a controversial decision, there are always potential consequences.

    For one, Joe Pavelski may simply not want to be on the third line anymore. He played a hero's role last year by surrounding himself with less gifted players and carrying the third line, as well as making key contributions on the PK, PP and in all three zones.

    However, the departure of Setoguchi and Healtey has clearly opened up a spot for Pavs in the top six, and he would not be wrong to expect a return to that group. His numbers would likely benefit from playing alongside all-stars, and he could focus more on scoring and less on facilitating with a move to the top line.

    Likewise, Handzus may not be happy that signing with San Jose meant a reduction in ice time and a move to the bottom line. Sure, he would be the unequivocal leader of the fourth line, have a chance to help young players develop and would still be the man on the PK, but the man has played over 17 minutes his entire career, and would undoubtedly like to contribute to the offense more than centering the fourth line would allow him to.

    Other than an adverse effect on morale levels, this move isn't too risky. Sure, Mitchell may not be able to handle the responsibilities of the top line, and even if the season progresses or he's moved to the second line, he may not get the hang of it. But in that case, he could just be moved back down to the third line, and either our soon-to-be-signed winger would move up, or Pavelski would, and the team would be back to where they are now.

    If a temporarily unhappy player or two is the risk, and four excellent lines is the reward, Torrey Mitchell should be moved to the top line to start the 2011-12 NHL season.