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Sharks’ 3rd Line Problem



Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

ANAHEIM — By one important measure, the San Jose Sharks’ third line of Andrew Cogliano-Nick Bonino-Matt Nieto is the worst in hockey.

That’s an ugly Goals Against Per 60, and that trio gave up two more last night at 5-on-5 in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks. It was the Sharks’ seventh consecutive defeat.

All this makes you scratch your head at what San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner said about Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto about a month ago: “I like that third line’s identity on the road, especially because I’m not afraid to use them in any situation.”

If you dig deeper though, you’ll at least understand where Boughner is coming from, even if you don’t agree.

First, let’s be honest, Boughner doesn’t have a lot of forwards at his disposal who have been proven top-nine forwards recently: Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Logan Couture, Bonino, for sure. You can make an argument for Alexander Barabanov, Rudolfs Balcers, and waiver claim Ryan Dzingel. Jonathan Dahlen and Noah Gregor have shown promise.

I don’t count Nieto and Cogliano, who have been more solid fourth-line citizens recently.

So this is a better, but still-not-deep San Jose Sharks group up front.

Another problem with these aforementioned forwards — there aren’t too many Sharks here who appear ideal for a defense-first role. Basically, if it’s not Bonino handling these minutes, who is?

Second, let’s look at this third line’s usage: Boughner has called them his shutdown line and their deployment reflects it. Per Natural Stat Trick, they average 26.91 Defensive Zone Faceoffs Per 60 at 5-on-5. That’s the toughest among all Sharks lines that have played 75+ minutes.

Line (5v5)OZ Faceoffs/60DZ Faceoffs/60OZ Faceoff %

Interestingly, Rudolfs Balcers-Tomas Hertl-Alexander Barabanov also endured shutdown line-like usage for a spell too.

But besides that exception, it’s the Bonino line that doesn’t get the Offensive Zone Faceoffs to balance things out for themselves, as their team-toughest 34.53 OZ Faceoff % tells us. So not only do they average the most DZ Faceoffs, they average the least OZ faceoffs.

Essentially, the Bonino line handles the most difficult 5v5 minutes on the San Jose Sharks, bar none.

That leads to the third point: The analytics suggest that the Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto hasn’t been as bad at their NHL-worst 5.22 Goals Against Per 60 indicates.

League-wide, there are 64 lines who have played more than 150 minutes at 5v5. According to Evolving Hockey, the Bonino line’s 2.49 Expected Goals Against at 5v5 is a slightly below-average 39th in this group. That’s not a number to brag about, but it suggests they’re doing a better job defensively than the results.

Expected goals is an attempt to measure “shot quality” — or in this case, shot quality against. In short, the Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto line’s slightly below-average xG Against suggests that they’re not surrendering scoring chances at a clip that their actual goals against would have us believe.

Or to put it another way, if you factor in their challenging usage, they’re about average defensively.

All that said — and again, how much you put this on Bob Boughner, we can debate — but by any metric, the Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto line is not good offensively. Eye test, results (50th of 64 lines with 2.4 Goals Per 60), and underlying stats (64th of 64 with 1.67 xG Per 60) speak in unison here.

Sure, they might be adequate defensively against some stiff competition — no small feat — but they don’t offer enough offensively to balance that out.

So what’s a coach to do?

The answer isn’t — sorry — to throw say Jasper Weatherby, Joachim Blichfeld, and Jayden Halbgewachs together. That trio might be slightly better offensively in the NHL than the Bonino group, but they’re not cutting it defensively. They would get barbequed. Try Weatherby, Dahlen, and whoever — I wouldn’t predict much better success.

And therein lies the problem with the San Jose Sharks: Looking over their overall talent, I think there’s an argument that Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto is the third-best line they can muster. Asking them to shoulder the defensive load also gives a Hertl, Barabanov, Meier, Couture, or a Dahlen a better chance to score goals.

They aren’t though, with all due respect, a playoff-caliber third line at this point of their careers. On a better team, they are, and again with all due respect, a really good fourth line.

But when you’re the San Jose Sharks and you don’t have an obviously better third line? Well, they’ll have to do.

If you don’t blame the head coach for this, you might bring it up with general manager Doug Wilson. Bonino was the San Jose Sharks’ biggest UFA signing this past off-season at two years, 4.1 million dollars.

However, considering how cap-strapped the Sharks were then (Wilson’s responsibility, I know) — Bonino was a reasonable hope to solidify that third line. He had a track record — over an 82-game pace, he had averaged 17 goals a season over the last five years. That’s balanced, of course, with the reality of the 33-year-old Bonino’s apparent decline — he was moved from center to fourth-line wing last year in Minnesota.

But a Bonino bounceback really wasn’t a crazy idea. And consider that he started the season with playmaker Kevin Labanc, who’s averaged 0.51 Points Per Game in his career — that sounded like two decent offensive players to build a third line around.

It just hasn’t worked out: Bonino’s best years appear to be behind him, he never found chemistry with Labanc, and Labanc has been on the shelf with a shoulder injury since mid-December anyway.

Ultimately, the buck has to stop with Wilson and the rest of the front office for this “not good enough” third line and roster — but as I noted about Boughner’s reliance on the Cogliano-Bonino-Nieto line — I get it.

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