There is a large contingent of San Jose Sharks fans still infatuated with Head Coach Pete DeBoer.
Sure enough he took the team to the Stanley Cup final in his first season behind the bench.
And it’s not like you can blame him for last year’s first round exit.
Had Joe Thornton and Logan Couture been 100-percent healthy, they probably beat the Oilers.
From there on out, who knows what could have happened.
However, DeBoer, like many NHL head coaches over values veteran experience.
If you talk to New Jersey Devils fans, this was one of the biggest complaints towards the end of his tenure.
In San Jose, that hasn’t changed.
Despite claiming to be a big Dylan Demelo fan at the start of this year’s training camp, DeBoer has actually always hindered Demelo’s development. During the middle months of 2015-16, a then rookie Demelo was developing tremendous chemistry with his partner Brenden Dillon. Ask any Sharks fan at the time, and Demelo was getting better and better each game and the Dillon-Demelo third pair was becoming fun to watch. But then GM Doug Wilson traded for veteran Roman Polak towards the trade deadline and Demelo never regularly played again. It was Polak’s inability to lead a simple breakout that hurt the Sharks big time against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup final. Demelo’s puck skills would have certainly helped in that series.
Last season was no different even with Polak back to Toronto. DeBoer didn’t get Demelo into a game until Nov. 23rd and only then because of an injury to David Schlemko. As a younger seventh defenseman on a team with an older core, DeBoer could have easily gotten Demelo into a game (or games) earlier in the season. A night off for Paul Martin would have been valuable, and neither Dillon nor Schlemko are world beaters who need to play every night. With the inconsistent playing time, Demelo got off to a rusty start in 2016-17. A few weeks later and a wrist injury sidelined him for months, effectively killing any hopes of a strong season of development.
Demelo’s usage isn’t the only deployment issue with DeBoer. Last season Aaron Dell was stellar all season long between the pipes, but DeBoer continued to overuse Martin Jones because of the trust factor in his “proven” player. There are other examples too where DeBoer needs to show a bit more faith in his younger talent, but I want to get to the focus of this story. That is, DeBoer’s unwillingness to think outside the box. This lack of creativity, combined with a lack of faith in younger players leads to not exploring all of the possible ways to make the team better. Look at Pittsburgh for example, their recent success has seen young guys like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary play big time roles. In order for Sharks young guys to succeed though, they have to be put in ideal opportunities to succeed. One way for DeBoer to do that, which he never will, is to mix up his lines in the following fashion:
Timo Meier---Joe Thornton---Danny O’Regan
Tomas Hertl---Logan Couture---Joonas Donskoi
Jannik Hansen---Joe Pavelski---Melker Karlsson
While the Sharks can certainly absorb the loss of Patrick Marleau as a winger, the fact remains losing him does take away some versatility. It is very possible the Sharks younger players step up and not only replace, but rather improve upon Marleau’s 27 goals. But to do that, spreading the wealth down the middle might be warranted. As Marleau aged, he was certainly best on the wing, but he was still a capable third-line center. Without him, the Sharks’ center depth has taken a hit. Ideally Hertl will cement himself this season as the third-line center. However, he has yet to play a full season as a pivot due to injuries and better scoring success on the wing.
If the Sharks get off to a slow start and DeBoer decides to move Hertl to the wing, the first and best option won’t be to move Chris Tierney up to third-line center, it will be to drop Pavelski “down” to third-line center.
In this case moving “down” is in quotation marks because Pavelski’s total ice time would hardly decrease at all. As for even strength play, my above suggested lines with Pavelski at center are essentially lines 1A, 1B, 1C, rather than lines 1, 2, and 3. And that’s the point. We have seen the Sharks be extremely successful in the past with the Thornton, Couture, Pavelski down-the-middle strategy. For whatever reason though, former Head Coach Todd McLellan never liked keeping Pavelski away from Thornton despite the success they had away from each other. And since DeBoer has taken over, Thornton and Pavelski have been completely attached at the hip.
Let’s take a look at just how well these lines could (in theory) work, despite the fact DeBoer is unwilling to breakup the Joes.
What better way to make Thornton feel young again than playing him with two talented youngsters? When the Sharks had that long run in 2011 to the WCF, Thornton was playing on a line with Marleau and Devin Setoguchi. Stylistically, Meier and O’Regan aren’t all that different.
Meier certainly isn’t as fast as Marleau, but both are left-handed shooters with skill who love to fire the puck on net. O’Regan meanwhile, is a fast right-handed shooter with skill, just like Setoguchi. However, as a natural center, O’Regan actually brings a more responsible two-way game to the table, and like Pavelski, can take right-side draws on this line. Thornton’s passing in theory should help both these youngsters gain confidence in their games by seeing some nice point totals add up.
A second line in this case would have the potential to be one of the most dynamic second lines out there. We already have seen the chemistry between Couture and Donskoi in the run to the Cup in 2015-16. They have shown the ability to have success with a number of different wingers on the opposite side. During the 2016 playoffs it was mostly either Marleau or Joel Ward. Putting a shooter like Hertl in that spot should likewise make for an excellent line.
The third line in this case, would once again be very similar to the 2011 version. That season Pavelski famously centered two wingers who were fellow right-handed natural centers: Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell.
Wellwood was a very cerebral player, someone who yours truly would often refer to as a poor man’s Pavel Datsyuk. Certainly he was never anywhere near Datsyuk’s hall-of-fame level caliber, but for a role player, he had that similar level of confidence and timing to make creative plays with the puck. Mitchell on the other hand, was a super fast player who couldn’t shoot worth beans, but he could stick handle relatively well and would come up with a crazy goal every few months. While Hansen and Karlsson aren’t carbon copies of Wellwood and Mitchell, there are some similarities. While they don’t have the same experience playing center, they are also right-handed shooters with similar point production to Wellwood and Mitchell. Karlsson is probably most similar to Mitchell in that they are both tenacious forecheckers and are unafraid to crash the net despite their lack of size.
Contrary to popular belief, Pavelski doesn’t need Thornton to have success. Thornton has made him a better scorer in recent years, but Pavelski is talented enough in his own right to obliterate opposing third line forwards and defense pairs even with average wingers at his side. If the Sharks were to roll out these three lines, it would give opposing coaches fits on how to matchup their top two defense pairs and checking lines. If only DeBoer had a creative bone in his body to try these combinations out. Of course, that would require faith in young guys like Meier and O’Regan to both play with Thornton, something he hasn’t shown either.