Sharks Need to Find a Third-Line Center in Free Agency

In the San Jose Sharks’ dominant 2018-19 regular season performance, the team’s offense soared. Between Brent Burns’ point-per-game scoring as a blueliner, both Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski hitting the 35 goal mark, and offensive depth showing on the score-sheet nightly, San Jose was a powerhouse.

A large part of this success came from the team’s center depth allowing Pete DeBoer to use future Hall of Fame player Joe Thornton on the third line. This created huge mismatches for the bearded legend and youngster Kevin Labanc as they enjoyed nice seasons, comfortably scoring above a half-point per game.

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton, former San Jose Shark (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fast-forwarding a couple of seasons, the Sharks have missed that depth scoring up the middle. Last year, the most prominent third center, Dylan Gambrell, was mainly used in defensive roles and had just 12 points in 49 games.

While Gambrell will return on a $1.1-million deal, Doug Wilson has made it clear that this free agency, the Sharks, will pursue a quality third center. The team’s center depth under Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture lacks scoring. Entering free agency tomorrow, the Sharks will have a variety of options, each with many pros and cons.

Financial Situation and Internal Options

The Sharks’ last day to buy out Jones before free agency is today, and the expectation is the team will go through with that. Estimating a $2-3 million contract for Adin Hill and allocating funds for depth forwards, the team will expect roughly $8-million in cap space to sign a second goalie and third-line center.

As mentioned, Gambrell will enter camp as the presumptive fourth center and be flexed up the lineup for defensive zone starts in place of forwards Boughner does not trust defensively. If the Sharks decided to use an offensive-minded option currently under contract, they would have three odd options.

Dylan Gambrell San Jose Sharks
Dylan Gambrell, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Noah Gregor, just given a qualifying offer, began last season as the Sharks’ third center but lost the role somewhat early. The speedy forward is about to turn 23 and split time between the NHL and AHL the last two seasons. He recorded five goals and an assist in 30 games this year. Recently qualified by San Jose, he will return next year, likely just as a depth piece.

Sasha Chmelevski has fallen from grace as one of the team’s top prospects. After a poor 2019-20 AHL season, he struggled early in the AHL but finished with 20 points in 27 games. The San Jose Barracuda forward was also called up for five games and had two assists. However, Chmelevski’s stellar conclusion to last AHL season came after moving to the wing on the team’s top line. He likely stays as a winger next season.

And, while I think the idea makes little sense, I feel the need to mention William Eklund. San Jose projects the seventh-overall pick as a center in the NHL and mentioned after his selection he could potentially slot into the NHL out of the gate. He had a stellar first half of his SHL season, but his production dwindled after COVID-19 issues with the team. He plans to return to Sweden next year, but his skill may be too tempting not to keep in the NHL.

Riskier Candidates

After the Chicago Blackhawks did not send a qualifying offer to Pius Suter, he likely emerged as a top realistic choice for San Jose. Jumping from Switzerland to the NHL for the 2020-21 season, Suter produced 14 goals and 27 points in his only 55 games.

Suter ranked only under Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat, and Patrick Kane on Chicago in Relative xGoals%, clearly showing he meant a lot to the team in controlling of expected goals. He scored .84 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, ahead of current Sharks such as Timo Meier, Rudolfs Balcers, Ryan Donato, and Gambrell. He enjoyed pretty average impacts on controlling of shots, despite benefitting from a decent amount of offensive zone starts.

Another fun, offensive-oriented talent would be Alexander Wennberg. A former first-round pick, he stayed one season with the Florida Panthers and tallied 17 goals and 29 points in 56 games. At 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes, he averaged 1.47, which would slot him just under Couture’s 1.55 on the Sharks.

Alex Wennberg Florida Panthers
Alex Wennberg, Florida Panthers (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

However, he had a negative impact on Florida’s controlling of expected goals. This is especially alarming when he enjoyed a very low share of his shifts beginning in the defensive zone. However, I would not worry too much for him as a potential Shark, given the team likely will continue using Couture for a lot of defensive deployment and have Nieto and Gambrell on the fourth line as a very defensive and checking line.

While I anticipate the other candidates costing comfortably over $3-million per year, a potential buy-low candidate could be Erik Haula. A few years older than Suter and Wennberg as a 30-year-old, Haula notched nine goals and 21 points in 51 games last season. Likely leaving the Nashville Predators, his fourth team in as many years, I would not expect him to make much more than $2-million on a short-term deal.

That expected less money, however, comes with a lesser even-strength producer. He scored 1.16 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes, which is under players like Nieto on the Sharks. His team produced expected goals better without him than with and he had a negative impact on controlling shot attempts, however likely impacted by a decently high share of his zones start in the defensive zone.

Erik Haula Nashville Predators
Erik Haula, Nashville Predators (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

These types of players are personally who I believe the Sharks should pursue. They have higher ceilings offensively, and the Sharks already largely commit Couture and Gambrell’s lines to defensive-oriented roles. Hertl, while having the best defensive results per nearly every model, is set for offensive roles. I believe signing an offensively gifted third center would be best for San Jose, as it would greatly help their large stable of wingers.

Veteran Options

Tyler Bozak is also set to become a free agent. With the St. Louis Blues this season, the 35-year-old produced at a higher rate than usual for himself, with five goals and 17 points in 31 games. His even-strength scoring was pretty high as well, averaging 1.51 points per 60 minutes.

However, he’s obviously older and that is a bit of a gamble. Wilson would also need to take his scoring this season with a grain of salt, as he only produced 29 points in 67 games last season. He would not be a quality third center with that production in San Jose.

Tyler Bozak St. Louis Blues
Tyler Bozak, St. Louis Blues (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Nick Bonino, the not-so-popular figure in San Jose after his hand in the Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup, is set to become a free agent from the Minnesota Wild. The 33-year-old has enjoyed a resurgence to near half-point per game scoring the last two seasons, with 10 goals and 26 points in 55 games in 2020-21.

At 5-on-5, his rate is the highest of any candidate, with 1.96 points per 60-minutes. That would rank nearly tied for third in San Jose with Labanc. Bonino also had the highest share of defensive zone starts on the Blues, and while his impact on shot attempts on the ice was poor, he managed a positive impact on overall expected goals.

However, Bonino will be exiting a contract with a $4.1-million salary. With quality even-strength numbers, he could warrant a similar salary and narrowly be outside the Sharks’ price range.

Nick Bonino Minnesota Wild Philipp Grubauer Colorado Avalanche
Nick Bonino, Minnesota Wild, and Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Other options could include the lesser scoring Casey Cizikas. The 30-year-old had just seven goals and 14 points in 56 games for the New York Islanders. While Nashville mainly deployed him as a winger, Mikael Granlund could also be an option.

My Prediction

If I had to choose one, I think Bozak makes the most sense for where the Sharks are. Doug Wilson has alluded that he wants to bring veteran forwards onto the team, and at 35 years old, he fits that mold. His scoring rate is pretty average among the candidates.

I think if the Sharks decide on gambling on a lesser-proven player, I would envision Wennberg as a likely option. In this scenario, Wilson would be focusing on capturing the offensive talent of the former first-round pick and resigning the hope of a defensive-minded player. He likely costs a bit less than Suter, perhaps slightly above $3-million on a two or three-year deal.

Regardless, the Sharks will be bringing in a player that will outright be given the third center spot. Wilson believes this team has really reshaped their prospect pool the last two seasons and wants a more competitive and highly talented training camp in 2021 to set the team up for success in the upcoming season.

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