- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Todd McLellan's toolbox has a piece that fixes everything.
Whether it's to snap out of a slump or, as the case has been over the past month, a way to endure a slew of injuries, the San Jose Sharks head coach knows he can always open his toolbox, take out Joe Pavelski and insert him anywhere he needs in order to get things going.
"He fits anywhere we put him," McLellan told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "That's a sign of an elite player: He makes other players around him better and he's able to adapt.
"I think the fact Pav over the years has played right wing, left wing, center, anywhere from the lines one to three, the point on the power play, the penalty kill, he's experienced everything. He gets a feel for the game from all different perspectives, and I think that makes him better as well.''
In a perfect world, when the Sharks are healthy and have all their weapons at their disposal, McLellan has liked Pavelski as his third-line center, behind Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. It's the kind of 1-2-3 dream depth down the middle that causes matchup nightmares for opponents.
But when Sharks players started dropping like flies this season -- most notably first-line winger Tomas Hertl suffering a serious knee injury Dec. 19 and Couture being lost Jan. 7 to hand surgery -- McLellan brought Pavelski up to play wing with Thornton and Brent Burns on the top line. They've played 15 games together and have absolutely terrorized the opposition. Pavelski has scored 14 goals in that span.
He's up to 27 goals on the season, tied for second in the NHL, heading into Thursday night's home date with Winnipeg. The sizzling hot Pavelski is on pace to easily eclipse his career high of 31 goals.
"It's nice to get moved up to play with Jumbo and Burnsy because they're thinking offense quite a bit,'' Pavelski told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "It's fun to play with that high-level skill. Hopefully we can stay on this, and if we keep winning maybe I'll get that opportunity to stay up there.''
If that line keeps producing the way it is, it will certainly give McLellan pause once (if?) his lineup gets healthy after the Olympic break. Can he afford to drop Pavelski back to third-line center? At this point, McLellan doesn't have an answer for that; he'll deal with it when it comes. But what the coach will say is that watching Pavelski's play this season reminds everyone of what a special player he is.
"If I look at a lot of the players in the league, or guys that I've been around, with what Pav has, he gets the most out of it compared to most players,'' McLellan said of the Team USA star. "He uses all of his tools and gets the most out of himself."
An executive from a rival Western Conference team told ESPN.com on Thursday: "He's been unbelievable. First of all, he's a really good player. On the one hand, he can play with any of their big dogs there, Thornton, [Patrick] Marleau or Couture, he can play with any of them and be really productive. But they become a really dangerous team when he can come underneath as the third-line center.
"You're hard-pressed to find a guy in the three-hole somewhere else in the league that's better. So he can be put in a situation where he exposes others in that case and get a favorable matchup. But he's just so versatile -- he can play on the top line, he can play on the wing or center. And the other thing with him is that he's not a one-dimensional player: He can win faceoffs, kill penalties, play on the power play, 5-on-5, he's good on the shootout. It's hard to find an area of the game where you can say he doesn't excel in.''
What's also interesting is that while most natural centers will tell you they don't much like it when a coach puts them on the wing, Pavelski insists he doesn't mind. He's done so much of both that he's equally comfortable in either position.
"I really don't care," he said. "I really didn't play much wing until I got to the NHL. Something clicked when I did. The nice thing right now is that I still take a lot of strongside faceoffs, so I still have some of that centerman in me. But whatever has triggered it, it's been a pretty smooth transition on a nightly basis, whether I'm on the wing or at center.''
He'll be playing center for Team USA next month at the Sochi Olympics, where he'll be a key figure on that squad. He's hungry to pick up from where the team left off in Vancouver in 2010, when an overtime loss to Canada resulted in a silver medal that was nearly a gold.
"I think our chances are good, obviously as good as anyone, and we'll see when we go over there what kind of chemistry and confidence we can create,'' said Pavelski. "We'll be looking to replicate a similar performance.''
Memo to Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma for Sochi: Get the red-hot Pavelski the puck.
These are heady times for Pavelski, who says it's "so easy'' to play with Thornton and Burns, two big bodies who make space for him in scoring areas, not to mention Thornton's all-world passing ability. You can't blame Pavelski for just wanting this never to end.
"You definitely want to keep it going," he said. "It's been a lot of fun playing with those guys.''
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance