Sharks organizational review: Center position could be big question mark


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.

Mike Ricci opens up about his first month as Sharks assistant coach

Mike Ricci opens up about his first month as Sharks assistant coach

It’s not just a safe assumption. It’s entirely accurate that Mike Ricci, as a hockey player, never thought he’d become a coach.

“Not back then for sure,” Ricci said recently. “Not even maybe two and a half weeks ago.”

The former Sharks forward was caught off guard by being named as an assistant on interim head coach Bob Boughner’s staff in mid-December.

“It was like boom, told to come to a meeting,” Ricci recalled.  

But there was no reservation in accepting the position.

“When a friend asks, and a boss asks, you’ve got to do it,” said Ricci. “Just going in and trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”

All of this is a total change of scenery for Ricci – who after 1,099 NHL games as a player -- still hasn’t acclimated to his brand new perch behind the bench.

“If I’m going to be honest, I really haven’t had time to think about it,” Ricci admitted.  

The move was so fresh, and came with so much transition, Sharks equipment manager Mike Aldrich even had to double check that regular game duties would include a presence behind the players.  To which Ricci responded: “I think so…?”

As if the Sharks' need to turn things around wasn’t pressing enough, there’s also the challenge of Ricci learning the ropes of being an assistant coach for the very first time.

“You’ve got to find what makes everybody click,” Ricci said after less than a month of experiences. “Some guys like to see it. Some guys like to hear it. Some guys like it drawn on a board.”

One thing benefitting Ricci, goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov, and associate coach Roy Sommer is their familiarity and unquestioned dedication to the franchise. Each have been sporting teal for more than a decade, in one capacity or another.

[RELATED: Boughner urges Sharks to 'man up']

Ricci said there’s already a built-in level of trust when the coaching staff has to be critical of players, in trying to reverse the team’s struggles.

“I try to be myself, more than anything. It doesn’t matter how much I know, it matters how much I can get to a player.”

NHL rumors: Doug Wilson won't disrupt Sharks' core at trade deadline


NHL rumors: Doug Wilson won't disrupt Sharks' core at trade deadline

If you're in favor of the Sharks making a splashy move to shake things up ahead of the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline, we've got bad news for you.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this week that Sharks general manager Doug Wilson "has let it be known he is not interested in disrupting his core."

That presumably means players like Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are staying put.

But Friedman notes that there will be interest in Melker Karlsson and Brenden Dillon, who are both unrestricted free agents after this season.

With the playoffs looking less and less likely for San Jose, it would make sense for Wilson to try to get something for Karlsson and Dillon.

The Sharks don't have a first, fourth or sixth-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, so it would be wise for Wilson to recoup some of the assets he traded away in recent years.

After losing in the Western Conference final to the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks have fallen on hard times. They enter Saturday's game against Vancouver with a 21-24-4 record and sit nine points out of a wild-card spot. On Thursday night, they were shutout by the Avalanche in Colorado and interim head coach Bob Boughner urged his players to "man up."

[RELATED: Ricci on first month as coach]

At the moment, the Sharks are close to the upper limit of the NHL salary cap, but they will have roughly $18 million coming off the books this summer, according to Cap Friendly, so as Friedman notes, Wilson will have the flexibility to make moves in the offseason.

The Sharks are in desperate need of a wake-up call. But it sounds like it won't come in February.