The San Jose Sharks have their work cut out for them this offseason—especially to find a third-line center who can consistently contribute offensively. The Sharks have captain Logan Couture and alternate captain Tomas Hertl filling that role on the top two lines, but that’s it. Couture has had a difficult time staying healthy, and Hertl cannot do everything on his own. It is imperative that management addresses this issue before next season.
The following is a list of functioning centermen in the Sharks’ system, but, so far, they are all low-impact players who may be best suited for the fourth line in the NHL. Though some of these prospects have the potential to grow in the future, they are not quick fixes, and that is precisely what the club needs in 2021-22, and here’s why.
There’s still a big question mark as to what kind of player Noah Gregor will turn out to be. Over the last two seasons, Gregor has played in 58 games with 11 total points. At the same time, he also played a number of games for the Barracuda, with 28 points in 35 games. He is still straddling the fence between the NHL and AHL.
With the Sharks in 2020-21, Gregor was a minus-16. Though that’s not entirely his fault, it shows that he is not ready to pull his weight on the third line. General manager Doug Wilson and head coach Bob Boughner may be considering a fourth-line position for him, but the young talent is not a long-term solution to the problems the club is facing.
Steve Kournianos of the Draft Analyst suggested in 2016 that “Gregor is a three-zone roadrunner who screams sleeper, as he bounced back from an injury-plagued rookie season to distinguish himself among Moose Jaw’s forest of elite forwards. He is easily at or near the top of a very talented group of draft-eligible penalty killers, but what makes him worthy of a significant leap-frog are his speed and versatility.”
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This optimistic prediction for Gregor hasn’t manifested itself in the NHL. Yes, maybe he needs more time to develop, but that time is running out, and the Sharks can’t afford to wait on him much longer. As the 111th overall pick in the 2016 Draft, I don’t see him becoming much more of a player than he already is. That’s not to say the club should move on from Gregor, but that he is what he is, which is likely a fourth-line center – if that.
Alexander True is not a name that comes up often. An undrafted talent who signed an entry-level contract with San Jose in 2018, he has yet to establish himself as a staple in the Sharks’ lineup. However, as an alternate captain for the Barracuda, True has proven that he’s capable of top-tier play in the AHL. In the 2018-2019 season, he had 24 goals and 31 assists in 68 games. The following season, he registered 25 points in 40 games. With numbers like this, it looked like True would become a mainstay on the Sharks’ roster, but his dominant form in the AHL simply hasn’t translated well to the NHL.
In the 2019-20 season, True had four assists in 12 games with the Sharks, and he only played seven games with the club in 2020-21, registering just a single assist. He may not be getting the time necessary to establish himself as a reliable NHL center, but we have to wonder why the Sharks brass hasn’t allowed him more ice time given his AHL numbers.
I wouldn’t count True out just yet.
Drafted 52nd overall in 2014, Maxim Letunov has played just three games for the Sharks. Most of his time has been spent with the Barracuda, where he’s put up quality numbers. In the 2019-20 season, Letunov scored 12 goals and 28 assists in 50 games. The 2018-2019 season was similar, with 28 points in 57 games.
Letunov can play the game at a high level, but, again, it hasn’t translated to the NHL. It’s unclear if this is because, like True, he hasn’t been given enough time in the big leagues, or if what he brings to the table is simply not good enough.
Alexander Chmelevski also hasn’t seen a ton of NHL minutes. He played in just five games in the 2020-21 season, registering two assists. He’s worth keeping an eye on, but not a player I expect to fill a long-term roster position next season.
I’m not sure I’d call Ryan Donato a prospect, but he has shown a ton of promise in his time with the club. In 50 games with the Sharks, he has six goals and 14 assists, and he’s played the most games of all young centers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in that fourth-line center role next season, and he will add depth to a team that desperately needs it.
Then there’s Dylan Gambrell. Like Donato, it’s hard to say if he’s still a prospect, but he’s also not a guarantee on the roster. He’s another middle-of-the-road talent who’s still trying to find his spot in the NHL. With 12 points in 49 games, he hasn’t made much of an argument for any position other than that fourth-line spot on the team. And he’ll be fighting Donato for that spot.
Finding a Solution
The Sharks have a great opportunity to draft a top-rated centerman with their seventh-overall pick in the 2021 Draft, but whoever they choose will likely not be ready to hit NHL ice at the start of next season. It’s more likely that the organization will hit the market to find a cost-effective, veteran center to hold them over until their prospects develop into NHL-viable talent.