With Thornton at 3C, where does Antti Suomela fit?

Following a healthy scratch in the Sharks’ 4-3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers, Antti Suomela rejoined the Sharks’ lineup in Tuesday’s regulation win against Minnesota. However, when he returned, he was centring San Jose’s fourth line— a demotion to make room for Joe Thornton’s official debut as the third line centre. Suomela spent the game flanked by Rourke Chartier and Melker Karlsson, to which my reaction was one of gritted teeth.

In the 13 games leading up to his scratch, Suomela dipped below 50% Corsi For at 5 on 5 just four times. He thrived in the third line centre role, where he saw primarily offensive deployment and competent linemates. So, lets take a look at Suomela’s pre-scratch numbers where he played as the third line centre. One of the three games I’ll be looking at, is him on an ‘off night’ against New York, just so you know I’m not cherry picking.

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In the 13 games leading up to the scratch, Suomela had netted 1 goal and 3 assists. He came back and potted another goal against the Wild on a fourth line that was having a tough night. He currently places seventh in CF% on a team that is being hampered by goaltending and luck.

His game against Columbus was dominant, but when the team as a whole are playing disjointed and not functioning well as units, he can be swept up in the chaos and his game can suffer. Yet, he routinely comes out on top with regards to possession, hitting well above 50% CF a number of times in his short NHL career. His solid Fenwick For numbers also show that very few of his shot attempts are blocked, furthering the narrative that it really is just poor luck that will undoubtedly pick up as the season wears on.

Now, take into account his numbers in Tuesday’s game against the Wild, where he played on the fourth line for the first time in his, admittedly short, NHL career.  He had a CF% of 33.33%, a Fenwick For that was not much better, and an abysmal -17.22 Corsi Relative. Essentially, they got caved by former Shark Eric Fehr, Minnesota’s fourth line.

Linemates are something important to consider here— Melker Karlsson is not an NHL forward, making the lineup regularly entirely based on the trust that Pete DeBoer has in him as a penalty killer. (For reference, the Sharks have killed 23 of their last 24 penalties. However, that still leaves 10 minutes a night, give or take, where the lesser Karlsson is floundering around at even strength.

DeBoer cited a lack of offense from Suomela as one of the primary reasons for his healthy scratch. His first game back, he played with two wingers (M. Karlsson and Goodrow) who have less points combined than Suomela has alone. You can’t fix bad luck by refusing to let a kid play.

Edmonton Oilers v San Jose Sharks
Image credit: CBS

To Consider:

San Jose’s on ice shooting percentage with Suomela on the ice has been 4.3% over 14 games. Their on ice save percentage has been 97%. What this shows, is that when Antti Suomela is on the ice, San Jose may not be scoring much, but they’re not getting heavily scored on, either. In fact, Suomela has the highest on ice save percentage of any player currently on the team, but ranks fifteenth in on ice shooting percentage.

Some of this may be attributed to the fact that, when Suomela’s third line was on, it was on, meaning they dominated possession metrics and often had the best CF% on the team. Luck simply hasn’t being going Suomela’s way, and there have been plenty of scoring chances in game that just somehow haven’t gone in. He’s at a shooting percentage of 7.1%, after that Minnesota game, just below the league average. This is his first season in the NHL, and learning from the press box is not a good way to get the best out of your rookies.

The problem now for San Jose is that, with Pavelski centring the top line and ‘Jumbo’ centring the third, they have four centres who could (and should) realistically be playing in the top three C’s on the depth chart. Suomela flourishes with primarily offensive zone starts, which he is unlikely to get playing 4C.

If Thornton can get back in top gear, and play a full game on the top line without struggling after two periods, he’ll likely be put on the top line once more. As much as I want both Thornton and Suomela in the lineup, no one should be punished by being shackled to Melker Karlsson, and neither centres are really built for the kind of fourth line that he plays on.

And as a final note? For those who were arguing that the Sharks were still a ‘void’ at the 3C position (before Thornton stepped in, of course), Antti Suomela has a small sample size, but his season CF% is 58.5%, almost 10 points higher than Chris Tierney last season, who ended the season at 49.2%. Suomela is an upgrade on Tierney. No doubts about it.

Feature image credit: NBC, stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick and hockey-reference

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