Before the game-winning goal in the Sharks’ 3-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes, I was in a discussion via Twitter with a fan who started becoming disenchanted with Justin Braun this season. While the 27-year-old defenseman reached a career-high 14th assist on the season after pitching in as helper on Brenden Dillon’s goal Tuesday night, he has been at the bad end of goals against San Jose as of late. The shift in his level of play appears to be connected to when the defensive pairs were mixed a little earlier in the season to create more depth, splitting Braun up from Marc-Edouard Vlasic and pairing him with Dillon.
It got me thinking about all the jumbling of the lines — both up front and on the blue line — that have taken place in the first half of this campaign. Sure, some of the mixing has been due to the Sharks’ string of injuries, but Todd McLellan has also done a lot of rearranging of the lines to create more depth and give the Sharks a scoring boost.
Granted, us writers with our laptops have no pull in what lines get put out on the ice each game, but that doesn’t keep us from dissecting and analyzing which combinations work, as well as the ones that aren’t doing the team any favors. So I went back through my notes — because I’m old school and still hand write out lines for each tilt — from the first couple games in the new year to look at which player combos are currently working well for Team Teal as they head into a seven game homestand.
Offense: No surprise with San Jose’s top-heavy offense that their first line continues to be productive, or that Joe Pavelski is a big part of the reason said line is responsible for putting points on the board this season. But the Sharks’ top three has continued to produce even without Joe Thornton as Pavelski’s set-up guy.
During Thornton’s stint on the bench following New Year’s Eve injury against the Anaheim Ducks, rookie Melker Karlsson went on a goal-scoring tear that earned him a top line spot, where he and Pavelski have kept the line rolling. Those two bookending Logan Couture has made for a dangerous combination over the last couple of games, albeit not tallying assists on each other’s goals. Giving these three more time together could pay off for San Jose on this homer.
Through the many different offensive combinations churned out over the past few months, the Sharks’ third line has managed to be productive. James Sheppard has been an anchor at the center of that line with rookies such as Karlsson and Barclay Goodrow rotating on and off his wing. However, my favorite third line combo is one with both Sheppard and Tommy Wingels, particularly because Wingels for the most part makes anyone he’s skating with better, even when he himself is going through a points-scoring skid.
Tomas Hertl, who notched his eighth goal of the season on Tuesday, has been played on Sheppard’s wing over the last couple of games after poor play bumped him from the top line in favor of the score-happy Karlsson. It’s a combo that should stand pat for a couple games if placement on that third line helps boost Hertl’s confidence and starts him on a decent scoring streak.
Defense: In addition to being a team-leading presence, Vlasic is the defensive version of Wingels in that he makes whoever he’s skating with better. This was no more evident than when the D-pairs were mixed to give the Sharks’ blue line more depth, putting Vlasic with Brent Burns and Braun with Dillon. Hopefully registering that game-winner on Tuesday — his third career GWG and first goal in a Sharks’ sweater — was a confidence boost for both Braun and Dillon and can spread to minimizing the mistakes that No. 61 has been making in the Sharks’ zone.
One pairing I was fond of over San Jose’s last road trip was the duo of Matt Irwin and Matt Tennyson. Irwin isn’t consistent in his play, but the couple of games he played along side Tennyson seemed to bring out the best in his game. Tennyson himself has been better during this call-up than in any of his NHL time last season and the season before. Perhaps the one kink in the pair is that neither of them play every night, with either of the Matts scratched while the other plays alongside Scott Hannan. More time together could create better chemistry and, in turn, make for another dependable defensive pairing.
The Sharks seven-game homestand kicks off Thursday night, January 15, as they host the Toronto Maple Leafs.