Depth at the center position has always been one of the strengths of the Sharks system, but with the majority of the Sharks high round picks being used on defensive prospects in the past few years and the team’s top center prospects graduating to the NHL recently, the depth of the pivot position in the lower levels has slightly deteriorated. In fact, with much of the possible center talent moving to the wing position (McGinn, Ferriero, and possibly even Couture), the cupboard appears to be much more bare than it has in recent years.
However, the top of the Sharks depth chart in terms of talent is very strong, with three players capable of playing top-six minutes at the NHL level. Joe Thornton remains one of the game’s elite playmakers, third in points/game during the regular season since the NHL lockout during 2005-- only Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have produced at a higher clip than Thornton, and with a strong postseason run under his belt during 2010, it's hard to envision a situation where he wouldn't continue to set the table during 2010-2011. The fact that Thornton is headed into a contract year should also provide enough motivation to stay in the top five of point producing centers, especially when one considers he will be playing alongside Dany Heatley.
2011 San Jose Sharks Depth Chart: Center
Joe Pavelski had a breakout postseason during 2010, posting a point per game pace and showing up on nearly every early Conn Smythe Watch list available on the internet. No individual was better during the Sharks series' against Colorado and Detroit as Pavelski essentially put the team on his back and carried them with three game winners, and a game tying goal in game two against the Avalanche during the final seconds of the third period. He has matured into a solid two way center, with the aforementioned postseason heroics making him a guaranteed RFA signing and a vital member of the organization's future. Many expect the contract to come at a cap hit of anywhere from $3.5 M – $4.5M, which is well deserved and should be the first priority for Doug Wilson this summer.
Sitting third on our depth chart is Logan Couture, the top prospect in the Sharks system. After a short stint in San Jose earlier in the season, Couture racked up points in the AHL and continued to do so in his subsequent call up to the NHL club. He possesses dynamic hands, a solid net presence with an ability to deflect shots from the point, great vision, and a tireless work ethic in the corners. Couture showed late in the season and into the playoffs why he is such a highly touted prospect, and has effectively played his final game in the AHL. He is a lock to make the team out of camp next year, and has made the case that top-six minutes (possibly on the wing considering the great players San Jose possesses at the top of the center depth chart) are in his immediate future.
All three of these players are similar in terms of playing style, with both of them billed primarily as past first players. However, both Couture and Pavelski have shaken that label somewhat as their careers have progressed. Couture and Pavelski are also both capable two way players, and it’s entirely likely that Couture will be leaned upon to play at least a minute per game shorthanded as he becomes more comfortable at the NHL level.
The problem with the Sharks top-end depth is that it forces them to waste talent if the three aforementioned players all play their natural position. It would relegate Couture to third line duties, and although Couture showed that he was capable in that role, it’s not the best situation for a player with his offensive gifts. His talent is too significant to let toil on the third line during the majority of next year if he continues to progress as we expect the young 21 year old to do. As line combinations shifted in the Chicago series Couture found himself next to Joe Thornton, scoring the first goal in game four and continuing to drive the play in the right direction. It is a nice problem to have however, and allows Wilson more flexibility when examining the strengths and weaknesses of his current lineup.
By moving Couture to the wing (which is a possibility considering Patrick Marleau's impending free agency), the Sharks could look to Torrey Mitchell to serve as the third line pivot. Although Mitchell did improve as the year wore on, his troubles in the faceoff circle and lack of size make him a less than ideal candidate to take over the role full time. In addition, Mitchell played much of his time on the wing this year, and moving him back to center is something Fear The Fin would frown upon at this juncture.
The talent pool gets thinner from there-- both Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol are UFA’s, and Malhotra will likely require more than the $700,000 he was paid this season to return to the team. Our estimates peg him around the $2.0 M he was offered on the open market last season by Atlanta, a deal he proved he deserved with a strong regular season. Considering the fact that he has just turned 30 years old, Malhotra wlll likely be looking for a multi-year deal and one last big payday before losing effectiveness due to an increasing age.
Steven Zalewski is next on our depth chart for potential San Jose Sharks. The 23 year old was second on the Worcester Sharks in points in 2009-2010, but his lack of size and experience indicates that he may not be a perfect fit in a full time role. Although he boasts solid two way instincts, Zalewski would benefit from another year in the minor leagues– he looked out of place while at the NHL level during his three game stint, and with the Sharks gearing up for another season filled with high expectations, it's likely his services will not be needed during opening day.
As far as upcoming draft strategy is concerned, the Sharks won’t be able to fill any immediate holes with their pick this year (it’s unlikely that they’d be able to do so with any positional need, considering their low draft position in the first round). Although San Jose does lack a premier player in the lower levels who is a surefire top-six candidate in the future, the long term draft strategy will likely be the same-- both the 25 year old Pavelski and the 21 year old Couture are capable of playing the position for years to come, and individuals such as Tommy Wingels, Justin Daniels, and Marek Viedensky have shown promise alongside the aforementioned Ferriero and Zalewski.