SAN JOSE -- The most critical decision facing Todd McLellan as the playoffs loom is where to play Joe Pavelski -- and James Sheppard might help the Sharks coach find the answer.
On the drawing board, Pavelski was penciled in as San Jose's third-line center, giving the Sharks the potential for scoring depth most teams dream about. On the ice, however, he was moved to left wing on a line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns after the December injury to Tomas Hertl. There, Pavelski has nailed a career-high 34 goals, tying him for third best in the NHL.
No coach wants to break that up, but McLellan remains committed to his belief that his team has its best chance to win with three lines generating offense. And barring the return of Hertl this season -- something the team hasn't ruled out -- that might mean re-examining Pavelski's role.
For the past two seasons, Sheppard has been someone to plug in as a third- or fourth-line wing when injuries required it or his play warranted it. These days, his play at center between Tommy Wingels and either Raffi Torres or Marty Havlat warrants it.
"That slot is important," McLellan said this week. "We're trying Shep there, and maybe the answer has been in our locker room and we just haven't tried it before. He seems to be playing with a little more authority, more involved in the game, which is a good thing for him and a good thing for us."
Sheppard, who has five points in his six games since the Olympic break, recognizes the opportunity he has in an inconsistent season in which he has been a healthy scratch 12 times.
"Yeah, I'd like to be established," the 25-year-old Nova Scotia native said. "Being in that role is definitely an honor."
Sheppard entered the NHL with much promise when the Minnesota Wild made him the ninth player taken overall in the 2006 draft. But after a knee injury and falling out with the front office, he was traded to San Jose for a third-round draft pick in August 2011.
His knee kept him on the sidelines for another year, but Sheppard played 32 games with the Sharks last season and 51 in this one. If he wanted to play more, McLellan has indicated in the past, Sheppard needed to raise his own expectations.
With the Sharks deep at center, Sheppard has not played many games there until now. But that was his junior hockey position and where he thinks he may be a better fit.
"I find I can recognize plays better when I'm playing there," Sheppard said. "Sometimes there's just different situations on the ice where I can read better."
Faceoffs were a concern for McLellan when he shifted Sheppard to center a week ago, as he had lost three-fourths of his 32 draws this season.
"Right now we're not as apt to pull him out of that situation," McLellan said before Tuesday night's game. "We're forcing him to take them and feel that pressure a little bit. He's working on them in practice. But he'll get better."
Against Toronto, Sheppard justified McLellan's faith by winning 11 of 15 faceoffs. Over the past three games, he has a 57 percent success rate.
But Sheppard's most impressive numbers as of late are in the scoring columns. Of his 13 points this season, he needed 43 games to get the first six and only eight to get the next seven.
That spark is what could make Sheppard the answer on a third line that needs to both chip in offensively and be tough to play against. While Torres and Wingels often provide the big hits, Sheppard has the size at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds to play physically as well.
Sheppard likes the versatility he sees in a third line that has him between Wingels and Torres, who sat out the Toronto game with what McLellan described as general soreness.
"Raf's such an interesting and unique player that he can kind of do it all," Sheppard said. "Tommy's the exact same way. Hopefully I can carry the puck through the middle, dish off to those guys and get some plays off that."
Sharks (42-17-7) at Columbus (34-26-5), 4 p.m. CSNCA