The San Jose Sharks took to the ice at SAP Center last night for their season opener against their heated rivals, the Los Angeles Kings. While the final score read 2-1, they managed to put away their Southern California counterparts in the same fashion they did in their first-round playoff matchup last April – strong puck possession, tight defense, and a few key saves by Martin Jones, entering his sophomore season as the Sharks’ starting goaltender.
The Sharks iced essentially the same lineup from that series, with additions like speedy winger Mikkel Boedker and mobile defenseman David Schlemko fitting in somewhat seamlessly to the Stanley Cup Final team. However, with the departure of Dainius Zuburis and Nick Spaling in the offseason, it was unclear who would be centering the Sharks’ fourth line. With young players like Timo Meier and Nikolay Goldolbin competing for a roster spot, it was suspected Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer would move Chris Tierney to center the 4th line of Melker Karlsson and Matthew Nieto, while putting Meier or Goldolbin on the top line to let Tomas Hertl center Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward on the 3rd. Instead, Meier got mono, and the rest of the prospects apparently didn’t do enough to impress DeBoer, who wound up doing this to the fourth line instead:
Yes, that’s Sharks winger and founding member of Peter DeBoer’s dog house Tommy Wingels, who many expected wouldn’t be on this team to start the season, centering the team’s fourth line. While Tommy Wingels was originally drafted as a center, he hasn’t spent much time playing there. Right now, the team has several sexier options for a bottom-six center. And there’s no one sexier than Tomas Hertl.
If you’ve been following me on Twitter (@ABoyAndHisTeam), then you’re no stranger to how I feel about this subject. The San Jose Sharks have arguably one of the best collections of centermen in the league at their disposal, and in a league that’s driven by possession stats, San Jose is a vastly better team running four elite centers down the middle instead of shoehorning them as wingers.
It’s infuriating that DeBoer hasn’t given Tomas Hertl more time to center the third line. Bottom-six players like Tommy Wingels, Chris Tierney and Barclay Goodrow all saw their Corsi stats improve by almost 5% when playing with the Czech forward, as pointed out by Fear The Fin earlier last month. The situation gets worse when you look at the faceoff numbers of Hertl, Tierney, and Wingels:
In the 2015-16 season, Tomas Hertl had a Faceoff Win percentage of 56.0%, with Chris Tierney clocking in at 45.7%, and Tommy Wingels posting an abysmal 40.9%. That’s an over fifteen-point difference between Wingels and Hertl in the faceoff circle.
So why would Pete DeBoer choose to instead keep Tomas Hertl on the top line?
For starters, Hertl has benefited from playing alongside Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Despite a significant knee injury courtesy of the human dumpster fire known as Dustin Brown, Hertl’s 46 points last season complimented the Joes nicely, to the tune of a combined 206 regular season points between them (and an additional 55 postseason points), although some of those numbers came from the power play or when they weren’t paired together. That aforementioned knee injury and missed playing time also threw a monkey wrench in Tomas Hertl’s development as a center, and since the organization saw what they were icing worked, they saw no need to make the changes.
That is, until the Sharks met the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs, whose new rookie head coach (and former Shark!) Mike Sullivan began playing the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin as a center on their third line. The Sharks were able to contain the Penguins’ top unit led by Sidney Crosby, but Pittsburgh’s strategy of spreading their out their centers often meant the Sharks’ third line of Joel Ward, Chris Tierney, and Matt Nieto had to pair up against the Penguins’ killer HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel) or their third line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, and Bryan Rust. It didn’t go well, with the HBK line alone ringing up 11 points in the Final.
From an analytical standpoint, Hertl on the 3rd line and Tierney on the 4th makes the most sense. However, some people like Kevin Kurz disagree:
I dislike this argument for a number of reasons, the largest being that it sounds like the Sharks are still pretending that “heart” and “grit” speak more to a player’s character than the numbers they’re analyzed by. Let me be clear: “caring” about the game and analyzing it doesn’t have to be two mutually exclusive practices. It’s entirely possible to play the game with heart and still be smart about it too. But if you’re continually getting 40.9% on your math tests, simply saying “you can’t analyze my skill with a calculator” instead of studying and figuring out the best solution to the problem isn’t going to fare well for you.
The argument that he’s only 22 years old and “keeps getting better” is also lost on me. Between Goldolbin, Sorensen and Meier, this team has plenty of younger players in the pipeline who can play alongside Thornton and produce.
All this isn’t to say that Tierney isn’t a useful addition to this team, just that he could compliment the team’s overall frame better on the fourth line. Wingels on the fourth line sounds fun for a second, but the idea of running the statistically ideal Thornton, Couture, Hertl, and Tierney makes me all kinds of tingly. And teams using advanced analytics to help shape their team have proven to outperform others. Need proof? Look no further than the team that won a Cup last season, who hired a Carnegie-Mellon statistics grad to run their analytics in 2015.
@KKurzCSN A Cup. Because Pittsburgh won it when they put Malkin on the third line.
— Beater of LA (@ABoyAndHisTeam) October 9, 2016
The whole situation sounds eerily similar to how Todd McLellan refused to let Joe Pavelski center the 3rd line full-time, and insisted that he performed better as a scorer on the top unit. To be fair, Joe Pavelski evolved into somewhat of a mythological goal-scoring creature playing on the top line, with a combined 75 goals and 148 points his last two seasons. But it’s a lot easier to put up those kinds of numbers alongside the talents of Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton (see: Devin Setoguchi, Jonathan Cheechoo, Melker Karlsson) instead of centering a third line with Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels, which is where Joe Pavelski would occasionally wind up when Todd McLellan tried shaking up the lines from 2013-15.
But it’s 2016, and Todd McLellan is no longer with, serving as head coach of an Edmonton Oilers team with a superstar center of its own in Connor McDavid, who I would be more than happy to see TMac put on the third line instead of having to drag human trashbag Milan Lucic up and down the ice on the Oilers’ top unit.
Wingels looked to hold his own on the Sharks’ 4th line last night, finishing 4-for-7 on faceoffs for the night. But the Kings are currently icing their worst bottom-six forward group since winning their first Stanley Cup in 2012, and Wingels might be able to hold his own against the likes of Andy Andreoff and Nick Shore, don’t expect him to be able to line up against teams with quality bottom-six centers like Nashville, Dallas or (as we’ve already seen) Pittsburgh. While the Tommy Wingels experiment might work for a game or two, it’s not a long-term solution. Hopefully Timo Meier gets healthy soon and gives the Sharks more flexibility in where they play their centers. Until then:
Joe Hospodor (@ABoyAndHisTeam) is a Bay Area native and has been a Sharks fan since his first game in 1993. He currently lives in Los Angeles because he loves irony.