Programming note: Canucks-Sharks coverage kicks off Thursday at 7 p.m with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Ever since Brent Burns was removed from the lineup due to injury, his vacant spot on the right wing of Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl has been a revolving door.
First, it was rookie Freddie Hamilton, who made his NHL debut on Oct. 21 in Detroit when Burns was suddenly unavailable. James Sheppard took over a couple games later, and scored a goal in Ottawa on Oct. 27 in the Sharks’ most recent win.
Tyler Kennedy was given a chance on that line on Saturday against the Coyotes, and started there again on Tuesday vs. Buffalo. Kennedy scored a goal in the 5-4 shootout loss, but only after he switched places with Tommy Wingels.
Now, it looks like Wingels – who scored the game-tying goal on Tuesday and should have been credited with another in overtime – could get a chance in that spot at the start of the Sharks-Vancouver match on Thursday, if you believe Todd McLellan’s line combinations for Wednesday’s practice are what he will go with against the Canucks.
The head coach was asked what he’s looking for in that spot alongside the captain and the hotshot rookie.
“When you look at the team as a whole, we haven’t been as sharp as we were earlier. That affects some of the judgment that we have, as far as who we are going to play there,” McLellan said. “It’s not just about getting one line going, it’s about getting everybody going. Quite frankly, we’re getting enough offensive opportunities.”
McLellan is right in that a lack of offense hasn’t been the culprit in San Jose’s losing streak. The Sharks played well enough to beat Los Angeles last Wednesday in a 4-3 overtime loss, fired 50 shots on goal against Mike Smith and the Coyotes on Saturday in a 3-2 shootout defeat, and tallied four times (and were unfairly denied a fifth) against the Sabres on Tuesday.
While Burns is impossible to replace, Wingels could be the best option among players on the current roster. Like Burns, Wingels plays a bruising game, possesses one of the better mid-range shots on the team, and is right-handed.
He’s also playing the best hockey of his career. Wingels already has 11 points (4g, 7a) in 15 games, tying him for sixth on the team in scoring, and now has a career best four-game point streak. He’s only two off his career high of 13 points, set last season in 42 games.
“I’m playing a confident game right now,” said Wingels, who leads the Sharks with 34 hits. ”I think I can contribute offensively on a shift-by-shift basis. When you play with confidence, your game definitely picks up.”
The 25-year-old suggested that discussions with Joe Pavelski and assistant coach Jay Woodcroft have helped him to improve his on-ice awareness and positioning.
“As a player, your habits bring you to certain spots on the ice, so you have to work hard to get to the other spots. It’s just finding which areas are easier to get to, and making a little more effort.
“So far I’ve had a little bit of success finding those areas this year, and hopefully it will continue going forward.”
McLellan senses Wingels’ swagger.
“He’s very confident right now. He feels good about his game and he’s earned the right to feel confident,” he said.
Burns’ recovery time is still uncertain – he has yet to take part in a full practice with the Sharks – but Thornton seemed excited to line up with Wingels to his right.
“He’s just working extremely hard, and usually when you work that hard good things happen,” Thornton said. “[Tuesday] night he was driving the net, getting second chances and putting some pucks in. It’s going to be fun playing with Tommy.”