Programming note: Canucks-Sharks coverage starts tonight at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – James Sheppard will return to the third line center role on Thursday night when the Sharks host the Canucks, in place of the reassigned Chris Tierney.
That’s the place Sheppard found the most success in his Sharks career last season, going from a spare part before the February Olympic break to one of the team’s most productive offensive players down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The start to his 2014-15 season was delayed after he required a procedure on his surgically repaired left knee, but lately Todd McLellan likes what he’s seen from the 26-year-old, who scored his first goal against the Islanders on Saturday.
“I think his confidence was at an all-time high with our organization post-playoffs last year,” Todd McLellan said. “Then, he lost a little bit of that by not being able to have training camp. I think he’s improving every night and he should be an important piece to our hockey club.”
Sheppard said: “It was a different start to the season for me, so I think it’s there now and I just want to continue to build and help this team out. I’m excited for this chance tonight.”
Sheppard started as the third line center in two previous games this season, on Oct. 21 vs. Boston and two nights later against Columbus, both losses. Against the Bruins, he was with Hertl and Andrew Desjardins, while Eriah Hayes was slotted on the right wing vs. the Blue Jackets.
[IN THE CREASE: Sharks open season series with Canucks]
On Thursday night, it will be Tyler Kennedy making his season debut on the right and Hertl again on the left.
“They both have great shots and they’re both good down low. Tomas scored last game and I expect him to get back on that train, and TK has been working hard to get back,” Sheppard said. “I think it’s going to be a good line. Obviously we haven’t played together yet, so it will be tough that way, but we’ll jump right into it and get lots of pucks to the net.”
Faceoffs are an ongoing concern with Sheppard, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract extension over the summer. So far this season he’s at 42.9 percent (9-for-21), after posting a 45.1 percent success rating last season.
“It’s always a constant battle,” he said. “It’s as much a mind game as it is physical. We’ve got good faceoff men here so it’s good to watch, but sometimes you’ve just got to clear your mind and start from scratch. Relying on my wingers a lot tonight.”
He prefers playing center, after posting three goals and nine assists during a 16-game stretch last season after his position change. Sheppard went on to tie for second on the Sharks in playoff scoring with six points (2g, 4a) in seven games against the Kings.
“It’s just more natural. You just don’t have to think about where you have to be as much, but even in the game you’re going to be switching around. … I just try to be there at the start, and go from there.”