Nothing sets off a certain portion of the Sharks blogosphere, twitterverse, or whatever other new media term you prefer than when the team ices a fourth line of perceived tough guys ahead of players with more offensive playmaking ability.
My advice? Relax. Your ire is misguided.
The latest uproar came when Sharks coach Pete DeBoer opted to dress Micheal Haley ahead of Chris Tierney. A trio of Haley, Mike Brown and Dainius Zubrus was set to round out the Sharks’ forward group for Friday’s game in Anaheim.
Is that a line that’s going to strike fear into the opposing goaltender? No, of course not. But is it a line that could have some usefulness against the Ducks, routinely one of the Sharks more physical opponents? Absolutely.
I mean, have you watched recent Sharks-Ducks games over the past 14 months? They are typically some of the meanest and most intense games on the schedule. In the most recent meeting on Nov. 7, the Ducks’ Chris Wagner hammered Matt Nieto along the boards, sparking a pair of fights between Haley and Clayton Stoner, and Wagner and Brenden Dillon.
Last season, there were nine fighting majors and eight game misconducts at Honda Center on Oct. 26, after a Tim Jackman hit on Marc-Edouard Vlasic sparked that maliciousness. On Dec. 22, Andrew Desjardins ran into Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, and later John Scott earned a two-game suspension for knocking Jackman out cold with the butt end of his stick.
And let’s not forget the preseason game two months ago on Oct. 3, another nasty affair that was marred by Raffi Torres hitting Jakob Silfverberg with a shoulder to the head, earning the Sharks forward a historically long 41-game suspension.
The days of NHL teams dressing players solely for the purpose of fighting are essentially over, but toughness still matters, especially in these types of games. If you think it doesn’t, you’ve probably never spent time in an NHL dressing room or spoken with a former player or coach (or you’re simply not listening).
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On the day he was hired, DeBoer said, unsurprisingly, that he’d like to be able to roll four lines for the duration of a game. It’s surely not his preference to have one-dimensional players, especially considering he’s been limiting the minutes of guys like Haley and Brown late in close games.
So why not ice a fourth line of Tierney, Barclay Goodrow and Nikolay Goldobin? A couple reasons.
For one, all of those players look like they need more time in the minor leagues. Tierney is struggling mightily in his second season with just six points (and just two goals, both of which are empty-netters), a -6 rating and bad possession stats. Goldobin hasn’t learned how to play yet in the defensive zone.
Goodrow still has to work out just what his identity is supposed to be at the NHL level. Is he a scorer? A playmaker? A pest that’s difficult to play against? In his year-plus with the Sharks, he wasn’t any of those things. He was a body in the lineup due to injuries and poor organizational depth.
There’s also the matter of earning your way onto an NHL roster, something the Sharks organization used to be better at with their players but have struggled with in recent years.
Tierney thrived in the AHL under Roy Sommer for about two months last season, so he gets a pass. The other two don’t.
According to one source, some of the Sharks’ veterans aren't all that thrilled with the way that Goldobin handles himself when he's called up. There’s no doubt that the 20-year-old is a confident, borderline cocky kid. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he could probably tone it down a notch or two until he’s actually accomplished something at the professional level.
Goodrow still hasn’t done anything to show he deserves to be on an NHL roster. I thought it was telling that the day after the Sharks replaced Goodrow with Haley, Joe Thornton was a little extra complimentary of Haley’s game on Nov. 5 after a fight against the bigger Shawn Thornton of the Florida Panthers seemed to wake up the Sharks in a 5-2 win.
“We’ve been kind of flopping around those lines, but I thought he did unbelievable tonight," Thornton said after the game. "He stepped up for us, and I know our line fed off of the fight with Shawn over there. Really, that energy he brought early on kind of gave us all a kick in the butt to go, and we really responded off of that. He started that all himself. ... He just brought so much energy, I thought all night he did a great job. Hopefully he's found a home now."
One translation of that could be that the Thornton and the Sharks would rather have a teammate that has been through the battles and is willing to sell out for his teammates, like the 29-year-old Haley, rather than someone who may have gotten a little too comfortable in an NHL dressing room when he really shouldn’t have been in Goodrow.
The Sharks will get some bodies back soon. Logan Couture will push someone down the lineup, like Joonas Donskoi or Matt Nieto. Ben Smith continues to skate, and he could be healthy again shortly. There will be more choices for DeBoer to put together a fourth line that is a little more dangerous offensively, and he’ll probably do it.
But when the decision is whether to dress a fourth line that brings toughness rather than a fourth line that does next to nothing, the choice is an easy one.