Patrick Sharp: 3rd line winger.
That probably looks weird to read, right?
Sharp, a four-time 30-goal scorer and three-time Stanley Cup champion, is a dynamic offensive player that could contribute on the first line of most, if not all, of the 30 teams in the NHL. Heck, he has even spent most of this season thus far on the top line of his current team, the Dallas Stars, playing alongside two of hockey’s best players in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, with whom he scored most of his 22 points.
And yet, Sharp has spent the majority of his even-strength ice time recently on the Stars’ 3rd line, and that’s been a good thing for the team. It’s not because Sharp has been struggling, as that certainly isn’t the case, but rather because the Stars have enough forward depth at the moment to effectively roll four lines.
The Stars are currently 1st in the NHL with a record of 22-6-2, good enough for 46 points. While the team’s big guns of Benn and Seguin have done the most damage up front, the supporting cast behind them has also played a pivotal role. Beyond Sharp, the Stars also can utilize Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Cody Eakin, a young freight-train-on-skates in Valeri Nichushkin, and surprise rookie Mattias Janmark.
With so many capable players to choose from among their forward ranks, the Stars have the luxury of spreading that talent throughout their four forward lines, making them a harder team to match up against. While Sharp on the third line is the most eyebrow-raising decision, head coach Lindy Ruff has also been using Hemsky on his fourth line as of late, giving his bottom trio a look that most NHL teams don’t normally get to see on their fourth lines. Though unconventional at first glance, Ruff recently mentioned that he likes having a good possession player on every line, which certainly makes sense.
Taking Sharp’s place lately on Dallas’ top line has been Nichushkin, who has responded with the his best hockey of the season, scoring five points in his last five games (although, you could probably stick anyone with Benn and Seguin and they’d still find success). Spezza centers a second line with Janmark and Patrick Eaves. With those two lines requiring stout defensive attention from the opposition, the Stars’ third line of Sharp, Eakin and Antoine Roussel is given more room to operate.
While still early in it’s deployment, this layout has already achieved some success, as evidenced by Sharp’s game-winning goal on December 3rd against the Vancouver Canucks:
Even more important than the offensive possibilities, however, are the defensive ones. Keeping the puck out of their own net has been the biggest concern for Dallas over the past few seasons. The easiest way to play defense is to have the puck all the time, and having skilled puck-possession players on each line, as Ruff alluded to, seems like a good way to that.
After all, it worked last year for the Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, who had a third line that featured…oh yeah, Sharp.