It was Marvin Gaye who famously sang, “believe only half of what you see Son, and none of what you hear.”
With the San Jose Sharks second line, I’m seeing and only half-believing. This has been the best line for the San Jose Sharks over recent weeks. The all-lefty line is centered by Logan Couture with Mikkel Boedker and Patrick Marleau on the wings.
Marleau made headlines with a four-goal game (actually a four-goal period!) against Colorado in late January. The statistics in the game for Couture, Boedker and Marleau were nuts. To keep this brilliant but unusual game from skewing the analysis, I will use the the next game as the starting point. Even without the four goal game in the numbers, this line shines. It checks off one box after another.
In the 17 games since the outburst, the combined even strength totals for the trio are impressive: 11 goals, 16 assists and plus-11. One of the 11 goals scored was another headliner, Marleau’s glorious 500th.
Recent results? Check!
It is a line with three players picked in the top ten in their respective draft classes.
Raw talent? Check!
All three players have put up 50+ points in a season more than once.
Capable scorers? Check!
In recent weeks, this line has been very good. It is also the only line coach Peter DeBoer has left unchanged over the past month.
So why my hesitation to believe? Two reasons come up. The first is the less than stellar competition the Sharks have faced. Weaker teams often have depth issues, so one might expect a second line to find its sweet spot against lesser teams. Is this line going to hold up against better teams?
But more important, this line’s players are not noted for chemistry. Couture and Marleau have played together a lot over the years and while the results haven’t been bad, it seems they are better when apart.
Meanwhile Boedker had trouble finding a line to play on for close to 50 games. He was a misfit pretty much everywhere in the Sharks lineup for a large chunk of the season. DeBoer tried Boedker on every line, from first to fourth and even benched him a few times this season. He had just two goals in the 2016 portion of the season. Down on the fourth line in early January, he delivered a hat trick against Edmonton with just 12 minutes of ice time. It has been very up and down ride for Boedker, until recently.
Boedker spent almost all of his NHL career in Arizona. Coyotes’ coach Dave Tippett runs a very different system than most teams, making the transition for Boedker tougher than anticipated. His participation in the World Cup of Hockey pushed back his integration a bit further. Last season, he was sent to Colorado at the trade deadline and came to San Jose as a free agent this season. In 2016, Boedker has played for Arizona, Colorado, Team Denmark and San Jose. No doubt, his packing skills are good.
For the first part of the 2016-17 NHL season, Boedker often looked lost. His play reminded me of an interview with 1982 NBA rookie of the year, Buck Williams. After winning the award, Williams was asked about his meager assist number, “I knew the other guys were out there, I just didn’t know where.”
At this point, though, Boedker seems to have figured out both where he needs to be and where his teammates are. Even on the penalty kill, it is working. Against Winnipeg, Couture broke up a play near the blue line and Boedker, reading the play beautifully, corralled the puck and sped down the ice for the go-ahead goal in the Sharks 3-2 win over Winnipeg.
Boedker and Marleau are both very fast. Couture and Marleau are world-class goal scorers. But this line lacks the sort of player who digs pucks out of corners or pushes their way to the net front for greasy goals. None of these players are known for passing the puck or forcing turnovers from fast, hard forechecks. Of the three, only Couture is known for having a 200-foot game. The Sharks have several ‘chemistry’ players, including Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and rookie Kevin Labanc. Usually a line benefits from having this sort of player. Not in this case.
Lines rely on players complementing each other. For the most part, though, it has been the speed of this line, coupled with some high-end skills, which has created opportunities. This is not a low-cycle grind line, it is a quick burst line. When things happen, they happen fast.
The goal in the video below starts with a terrific keep-in by Paul Martin at the blue line. Couture then wins a puck battle in open ice and fires a brilliant pass to Boedker who rips a one-timer for the goal. As if they’d been doing it for years.
Another example of this line’s quick strike ability comes from a solo play by Boedker, who picks off a pass and goes the length of the ice before firing the puck home.
In the next example, Marleau tips a clearing attempt, Boedker keeps the puck in the offensive zone and attacks. He passes quickly over to Marleau who drops a pass to Couture who delivers the goal. Again, as if they’ve been doing together this for years.
Common factors in all the videos?
1. A turnover.
2. Less than five seconds of puck possession before the goal.
3. These types of goals are rarely given up by top playoff teams.
These attributes also hold true for the two other goals mentioned as well, Marleau’s 500th and the short-handed goal against Winnipeg.
Don’t Stop Believing
The Sharks second line is the most expensive line on the team, commanding nearly $17 million in cap space. All three are skilled players. Yet their ability to play effectively together was anything but a given.
For now, the proof is in the result. Their contributions have been especially important, as the Sharks top line and the special teams have been less than stellar.
The Sharks schedule over the last couple months had few games against top teams. This changed about a week ago. San Jose, including this line, struggled in the recent loss to Minnesota. Up next for the Sharks is a game against Washington, with contests against Minnesota and the New York Rangers later this month. In addition, the Sharks have plenty of upcoming games against potential playoff opponents Anaheim, Calgary and Edmonton.
The upcoming games against playoff-bound teams will be a good test for the Marleau-Couture-Boedker line. It is the line to watch. As the competition steps up, this line will need to step up. If they continue to deliver, I may even become a believer.
Though it was Marvin Gaye who most famously sang ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, another version came from Creedence Clearwater Revival. The first successful release came from Gladys Knight and the Pips. The song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, also known for their work with the Temptations.
As for the subheadings, Bruce Springsteen did Glory Days. The Roller Coaster I had in mind was titled Love Rollercoaster by the Ohio Players. Luke Bryan had a country hit titled Roller Coaster. The best know Travelin’ Man was recorded by Ricky Nelson, though different songs with the same title have been recorded by Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Come Together is from the Beatles. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing’ is a staple in the sports world. It is especially popular with Detroit teams since the city is mentioned in the song. Hearing it at Red Wings game means the home team has won. It hasn’t been heard nearly as often this season.