Over the next several days leading up to the Sharks' next game on Feb. 27, we'll count down eight questions facing the team as it gets set to start the stretch run.
Question 8 - What will the Sharks forward lines look like?
The Sharks forward lines will be drastically different when the season resumes than they were just a few days before the break. For a team that scored just nine goals in its last seven games, that’s a good thing.
Forward Adam Burish already worked his way back into the active lineup for the final two games, after missing the season with a back injury. Raffi Torres is scheduled to make his season debut, returning from a torn right ACL. Logan Couture, still arguably the team’s best player, missed the previous 16 games with a right hand injury, while Tyler Kennedy, a first-year Shark who has struggled to find his role, should also be back after missing five games with a lower body injury.
The task for Todd McLellan and his staff is to figure out how to put things together when the season resumes, although they surely have an idea. Here’s my best guess as to how the Sharks will look when they take the ice at the Wells Fargo Center in 10 days:
Matt Nieto – Joe Thornton – Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau – Logan Couture – Tommy Wingels
Raffi Torres – Joe Pavelski – Tyler Kennedy
Adam Burish – Andrew Desjardins – Mike Brown
In a recent conversation just prior to the break, general manager Doug Wilson suggested that, for him, the Sharks’ line structure doesn’t start from the top. Rather, he pointed to that fourth line, now that Burish has returned and Brown seems to have found his role.
“[Feb. 5 vs. Dallas] was really the first time I’ve seen our fourth line that we envisioned together,” Wilson said, the day after Burish made his season debut in a 2-1 overtime win over the Stars. “[Desjardins], [Burish] and Brownie, to me, are the type of fourth line you want – energy, bite, [penalty kill], some speed. Now, you take a look at the other lines.”
Working our way up, the third line showcases the team’s depth, something that will be necessary if the Sharks want to match up against teams like the Blackhawks, Ducks, Kings and Blues. The Sharks were able to collect some points going into the break with some wins against some lesser teams while Pavelski played in a top-six role, but they won’t be able to get away with that come playoff time. Scoring throughout the lineup will be necessary, and if Kennedy improves and Torres returns at full speed, that's a line that should generate offense.
The second line is a fairly obvious one. Couture and Marleau were together all season long when Couture was healthy, and the result was Marleau having a career year before Couture’s hand injury. Wingels adds a physical element, and is the guy that can create space for Marleau and Couture and who can shoot the puck and clean up some garbage in front of the net.
Finally, the Thornton line. Tomas Hertl’s absence here is still being felt, although Matt Nieto had some effective games there just before the break, including a two-goal effort on Feb. 3 vs. Philadelphia. Assuming Nieto is fine after a foot injury forced him to miss the pre-break finale, he’s the best bet to skate on that left wing with Burns and the captain. If he isn’t productive, perhaps Wilson can search for someone via the trade market to fill that role.
Regardless, the Sharks’ next game should generate plenty of excitement for the stretch run, if only for Torres’ season debut. The agitating forward went from one of the most hated players in franchise history to a fan favorite quickly after the team acquired him from Phoenix.
Wilson said: “It comes down to knowing where all these guys are going to be. Raffi is the bite to our team, especially out West. When you have a fourth line built like that and you have Raffi back in, it changes the whole personality of your team.
“We want a tough team. We want to go after people.”
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The two notable absences from this prognostication are Marty Havlat and James Sheppard.
I’ve seen some speculation that Havlat could play on the Marleau-Couture line, but if this team is fully healthy, that’s just not going to happen. Yes, Havlat had some nice games just before the break, and could be a decent fill-in if the Sharks suffer further injuries, but he’s not in this team’s plans at present or in the future unless absolutely necessary.
As for Sheppard, I could see him filling in on the fourth line in place of Burish or Brown. His puck skills are better than those two players, and depending on the nightly matchup, he could still see regular playing time.