October 15, 2015 By Paul Gackle

Sharks Have The Flexibility Up Front To Absorb Couture’s Loss

The road to the Stanley Cup playoffs is always filled with twists and turns, bumps and ruts, peaks and valleys.

The Sharks received a harsh reminder of this reality on Thursday when forward Logan Couture suffered an injury in practice at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J..

The first three games of the Peter DeBoer era couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly by general manager Doug Wilson himself. The Sharks outscored their opponents 12-1, throwing a perfect 3-0 record up on the board. Goalie Martin Jones looked liked the second-coming of Carey Price, posting a 0.33 goals-against average and a .987 save percentage. Most importantly, the team appeared to be buying into Peter DeBoer’s systems, applying relentless pressure in all three zones, even in third periods with leads.

Now, the Sharks are going to need to find a way to keep the ship on course without one of their most well-rounded players.

According to Curtis Pashelska of the San Jose Mercury News, Couture left the Prudential Center on crutches with his right foot in a protective boot after practice on Thursday, suggesting the 26-year-old forward could be out of the lineup indefinitely.

While the injury certainly puts a damper on the Sharks welcome back party, the team should have the flexibility up front to absorb his loss.

Since the beginning of training camp, DeBoer has continuously said that he wants the Sharks to be a four line team with interchangeable pieces up and down the lineup. With Couture on the sidelines, the first-year head coach is receiving an opportunity to put this theory into practice.

The good news for DeBoer is that he has plenty of options right now. With Tomas Hertl in the third line center spot and Chris Tierney in the middle of the fourth line, Ben Smith has yet to suit up for a game.

Smith can easily slide in between Mike Brown and Barclay Goodrow on the fourth line. The line’s skill would probably decrease a bit, but it would maintain its grit. Meanwhile, Tierney can move up to the third line with Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto, where he finished the season last year, and maintain the line’s edge.

The big question is how to use Hertl in Couture’s absence. Does Hertl move up one line and skate in between Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward? Or does DeBoer make Joe Pavelski his second line center and move Hertl up to the top line to skate on Joe Thornton’s wing?

In the early going, placing Pavelski on the second line might be DeBoer’s best option because the Marleau-Couture-Ward combination was swarming in the first three games and substituting the captain into that group would give the squad its best chance at replicating the dynamic.

While Hertl’s held his own at the center position thus far, he might not be ready to square off against the Anze Kopitar’s, Ryan Getzlaf’s and Jonathan Toews’ of the world on a nightly basis just yet. After a disappointing sophomore campaign last year, Hertl is starting to look comfortable on the ice again. There’s no reason to impede his progress by rushing him into playing a role he’s not ready for yet, hurting his confidence at a time when he’s starting to regain his swagger.

Pavelski, on the other hand, can play that shutdown role that Couture performs so well, stepping in between Marleau and Ward without skipping a beat.

The downside to moving Pavelski to the second line, of course, is that it would break up the chemistry he’s developed with Thornton. While this move would certainly impact the top line’s punch, a lot of players have found the net when playing next to Thornton, and since Hertl is a natural-goal scorer, it might be the perfect time to give him an opportunity to show that he can be a sniper in this league like he was in his first 35 NHL games.

While these combinations would provide a good starting point, DeBoer will likely juggle things around quite a bit in Couture’s absence. DeBoer always says that he isn’t married to any line combination, and with several players who can either play at center or on the wing, he’s fortunate to face this dilemma with a full deck in his hands.

In some ways, Couture is irreplaceable. He can score 30 goals, he blocks shots and he plays a shutdown role against the top forwards in the NHL night in, night out.

But every team is going to get hit with some rain at some point and the Sharks certainly have the pieces to weather the storm.

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