Around the Pacific: Struggling Sharks, Lone ‘Yotes and the Ducks’ kid line

Jason Lewis covers the Pacific for Hockey Prospectus. He also writes forHockeyBuzz. Follow Jason on Twitter @SirJDL

It is time for another installment of Around the Pacific. We have big regular season match-ups, hot lines, and a team looking for answers in this edition. So let’s get right to it!

Searching for Answers

As the Sharks are embroiled in a heated playoff race that currently has them on the outside looking in. While they are not out by much, and they have been on a better run as of late, the fans are still searching for answers as to what put them in this position.

One person that has been on the hot seat since Game 7 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals is coach Todd McLellan. With a team that is fairly similar to the 2013-14 squad it doesn’t take much of a losing streak for people to question his directive from behind the bench. A stretch of 8-10-2 in the last 20 games has yet again brought out the critics for the seventh-year coach.

But is it really McLellan that should take the brunt of things? While many argued that his time with the Sharks should have ceased after the devastating first round bow out last season, Doug Wilson stood pat on bringing him back.

To be fair to McLellan, the Sharks have been deployed in essentially the same manner this season as opposed to past seasons when the team was very good. The team is currently looking at a downturn in both goals for per game and goals against per game compared to last year:

(as of March 13, 2015)

2014-15: G/GP – 2.72 GA/GP – 2.68
2013-14: G/GP – 2.92 GA/GP – 2.35

However, the usage from the forward lines, which has been criticized by fans, looks almost indiscernible from last year.

Take a look at the defensive and offensive zone starts for the Sharks forward lines.

2014-15 D-zone starts

2013-14 D-zone starts

2014-15 O-zone starts

2013-14 O-zone starts

(Numbers provided by stats.Hockeyanalysis.com)

If you look at the actual numbers rather than rank, the only real differences are that McLellan is using Couture and Wingels in a slightly more defensive posture this year versus last. He is also giving Pavelski a few more offensive opportunities. However, it is not a large enough number to really be a factor. His deployment has been standard to last season from his core players and the quality of competition ratings are equally as similar. The dip in numbers can be attributed to many things, but as far as McLellan changing the usage and deployment of his forwards, that does not seem to be the case. Is there a different message being sent in the locker room in terms of defensive play? Maybe, maybe not.

We have talked about the Sharks defense being substandard this season, and that has little to do with McLellan. A coach can only play the players he has and sees fit. He cannot sign, trade, or play the game for them. Should he be getting thrown under the bus or is this more a player and management thing? You decide. They still aren’t out of the playoffs by any stretch, but things are much more uncertain than they would like. If they cannot squeak into the final eight in the West, someone will have to take the fall.

Make or Break Match-up

The Kings took a 4-0 decision over the Vancouver Canucks on March 12 in what was called “The biggest game of the season” for the Los Angeles Kings.

Well, get ready for more, because that was the first of three match-ups the teams have in the final 16 games of the year. As Micah Blake McCurdy pointed out on twitter, it had big playoff implications.

 

The two teams will split the final two games home and away on March 21 in Los Angeles and April 6 in Vancouver. With a total of a 12-point swing being up in the air for two teams deathly close in the standings, these are as close to “must-see” games as you could get. They single handedly could dictate in or out at this point.

Lone Wolf (Coyote)

It is hard to find a lot of positives for the Arizona Coyotes this season. It has been a dreadful year that has them fighting for the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes.

With the movement of Yandle and Michalek, and the crippling injuries of MIkkel Boedker and their most impactful forward Martin Hanzal, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is THE man for the Yotes.

Despite being embroiled in a stretch that has seen him score one goal in his last 14 games, it isn’t for lack of trying. His corsi for at even strength is currently hitting at a season high.

This is all coming in the wake of Dave Tippett backing off OEL’s overall ice time a bit and re-distributing to some lesser known guys.

With this being a lost season, it is already audition time in the desert. Currently, Andrew Campbell, Michael Stone, and John Moore are on the stage. All three are seeing season high ice times, while OEL is logging far more 20-23 minute games than 27-30 like earlier in the season. The year is over for Arizona, and it would be a shame to lose a player like Ekman-Larsson to an injury a la Hanzal or Boedker. The dip in ice time is expected as we head down the stretch. However, OEL is still performing at a very high standard despite his recent slump and dip in time-on-ice. He remains one of the premier play driving defenseman in the league, but unfortunately he is on a team that has been on the wrong side of the standings most of the year. Credit him for keeping his head in it and playing well despite everything that has happened with the Coyotes this season.

The Kid Line

Some Montreal fans were upset by the trade of Jiri Sekac to the Ducks for the rugged forward Devante Smith-Pelly. It was no knock to Smith-Pelly, Habs fans loved the slick and speedy game that Sekac brought to the table.

Ducks fans are quickly seeing why some Habs fans were sad to lose the undrafted Czech. He has fit right on Anaheim’s third line with Emerson Etem and Rickard Rakell. Etem (22), Rakell (21), and Sekac (22), have been one of the most effective lines the Ducks have had over the last stretch of games.

While none of the trio are categorized as physical players, they are pure, unadulterated speed. That alone has been giving opposing defenses fits. In recent games the line has been able to get the better possession against some very tough match-ups. Against the LA Kings the trio out-dueled the red hot Carter-Toffoli-King line, and against the Canadiens they did very well against the Habs top pairing of Subban-Markov.

While much of the focus heading into the postseason is on the health of Getzlaf and Perry, and the coaching of Bruce Boudreau, a pesky third line like this could really help the Ducks go deeper into the postseason. Will they keep it up or is it simply a case of a solid hot streak?

(Graphs provided by war-on-ice.com)

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