Sharks

Sharks organizational review: Center position could be big question mark

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USATSI

Sharks organizational review: Center position could be big question mark

SAN JOSE -- The center position was an ever-evolving area of the Sharks' game during the 2018-19 season, with its highs, lows and changes in personnel. 

The team had added depth this past season with Joe Thornton moving to third-line center and with Tomas Hertl's successful transition to the pivot partway through the season. But San Jose also had difficulty finding a regular winning combination for its fourth line, and at the end of the regular season, it was ranked 15th in the NHL with a 50.3 faceoff win percentage -- and its four best skaters in the faceoff circle all spent the majority of their seasons playing on the wing.

Given the Sharks had some serious questions to answer involving the center position after Chris Tierney was sent to the Senators in the Erik Karlsson trade before the season started, San Jose ended the season with decent depth down the middle. Looking ahead to next season, however, there is room to grow -- and a couple more questions that need to be answered.

The Sharks' top lines are pretty much set, with Hertl and Logan Couture centering them. Couture has been a staple down the middle for San Jose for some time now, and his work over the past season with Timo Meier on his wing gave the Sharks an opportunity to score goals on a nightly basis.

Hertl's arrival as a key center for the team was more of a surprise, as he continued to build his game as a power forward after coach Peter DeBoer put him at the pivot before the turn of the new year. Hertl continued to grow in the position as the Sharks made a 20-game playoff run, taking over responsibilities with captain Joe Pavelski out of the lineup. Hertl went 56.2 percent in the faceoff circle during the playoffs, and played with a broken pinkie finger. Just imagine how much he can improve now that his finger is fixed.

San Jose's bottom lines are a bit of a different story, though, especially if Thornton doesn't return next season. Either way, there still will be an unofficial tryout to see who will best fill in that center role.

While Barclay Goodrow spent a chunk of the past season in that position, it seems very likely Dylan Gambrell will get a good look after spending last season bouncing between the AHL Barracuda and the NHL club. Of course, that's dependent on the Sharks signing the restricted free agent this summer, although that seems like a strong possibility.

If fellow center and RFA Antti Suomela still is around next season, he also could get a look, much like he did on the third line at the start of this past season. Another RFA on San Jose's long free agent list is Rourke Chartier, who began the season centering the fourth line while Thornton was dealing with complications involving his surgically repaired knee. However, injuries hampered Chartier's playing time at the AHL level this past season, and his future with the team remains a mystery. 

One player we didn't see up at the NHL level over the 2018-19 season was Alexander True. The young Danish center is coming off a team-leading 55-point campaign with the Barracuda, and he could get a look with the big club when training camp gets underway.

[RELATED: Couture could finish as top goal scorer in Cup playoffs]

Again, the Sharks might look to add another center to the mix if Thornton doesn't return next season -- and even more so if Pavelski goes to a different team. Even if San Jose makes a deal to keep gritty forward Micheal Haley, that still leaves the Sharks with a lack of skill down the center of their lineup.

In addition to centers from the Barracuda receiving a look, there's a chance the Sharks could make a trade for a more skilled player to help fill that void. San Jose also could add a center or two in this year's draft, although that likely wouldn't have an impact on the big club until after this next season.

Ex-Shark Patrick Marleau, Penguins eliminated in NHL qualifying round

Ex-Shark Patrick Marleau, Penguins eliminated in NHL qualifying round

Sharks legend Patrick Marleau might have had his last decent chance to win a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL restart. Hopefully he gets another opportunity, because it ain't happening this year.

The fifth-seeded Penguins were stunned and upset by the 12-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round after the Habs advanced to the playoffs with a 3-1 series victory on Friday. Pittsburgh lost Game 1 and was never able to recover, thanks in large part to Montreal goalie Carey Price.

The Penguins scored just eight goals in the series, none of which were deposited by Marleau. In fact, the long-time Shark didn't record a single point across the four games. The Penguins acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for what is now confirmed to be a 2021 third-round draft pick, as San Jose wanted to give him an opportunity to check that last box on his career résumé.

Marleau now will become an unrestricted free agent. It has been widely presumed that if he indeed returns for a 23rd NHL season, it might come in a third go-around with the Sharks. San Jose finished dead last in the Western Conference this season, but the Sharks' record was largely impacted by injuries and they certainly could return to the playoffs next year.

Really, it would only be fitting if Marleau ended his career in teal.

As for the Sharks, the qualifying round has gone nearly as well as they could have hoped for. Of the four Pacific Division teams that were involved, only the Edmonton Oilers failed to advance.

Due to the wacky 2020 NHL draft lottery, each team eliminated in the qualifying round has a 12.5 percent chance to land the No. 1 overall pick. Whichever team lands it is widely expected to use it on consensus top prospect Alexis Lafreniere.

[RELATED: Sharks' Hertl 'finally back' on ice after tearing ACL, MCL]

So, there's an 87.5 percent chance -- barring trades -- that Lafreniere won't immediately end up in the Sharks' division.

Given the season they had, they'll take any win they can get.

Sharks' Tomas Hertl 'finally back' on ice after January knee injury

Sharks' Tomas Hertl 'finally back' on ice after January knee injury

It's not clear when the Sharks will play next.

One star took a big step towards rejoining them when they do.

Tomas Hertl posted a video Wednesday on his Instagram of him skating in his native Czech Republic, writing that he was "[f]inally back" on the ice.

View this post on Instagram

Finally back 🏒 @filipchlapik @hertlik89

A post shared by Tomas Hertl (@hertlik48) on

Hertl, 26, tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in January and missed the final 18 games of the Sharks' season before it was suspended -- and, ultimately, ended -- due to the coronavirus pandemic. The center injured his knee on Jan. 29 against the Vancouver Canucks, just four days after playing in his first All-Star Game. 

The 2012 first-round pick was one of the lone bright spots in the Sharks' otherwise dreary season, scoring 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 48 games. San Jose generated 56.76 percent of the expected goals and 54.38 percent of the high-danger chances with Hertl on the ice at full strength, according to Natural Stat Trick, and Hertl himself accounted for his highest rate of 5-on-5 expected goals (0.95 per hour) of any season other than his rookie year.

Hertl said in May that he expected to be ready to start the 2020-21 season, no matter when that is.

"I want to be there for my team, and that’s why I have been working every day for four months even with the season so far away," Hertl said at the time. "My next goal is getting back and being better than before. I know I can do it. I have to give it everything I can to get back.”

[RELATED: Thornton reportedly could play in Switzerland before NHL season]

Hertl's return to the ice marks an offseason milestone for the forward, who's signed through 2022.

He and his wife, Aneta, announced last month that they're expecting a baby in November.