They brought him along on their season-opening Alberta road trip without ever having him skate a shift in game action or even signing him to a contract, but it appears the Sharks will finally announce today that they have inked free agent center Scott Gomez to a one-year, $700,000 deal.
Obviously, I think this is a terrific move. It became abundantly clear partway through the 2011-12 season that the Sharks were in desperate need of an upgrade over Michal Handzus at third-line center. Deadline acquisition Dominic Moore didn't prove to be that player and is now no longer with the team. Gomez, at least on paper, is a perfect fit for what has always needed to be a soft-minutes scoring line that can provide offense in the easy minutes that are opened up by the team's top two lines taking on the toughs. When it became clear the Canadiens were about to buy out the remainder of Gomez's ludicrous contract, I thought the Sharks would be wise to take a flier on him. They have. If you want an in-depth explanation of what Gomez brings to San Jose, you should read that post but here's the CliffsNotes version:
What Gomez is:
- A fantastic playmaker. Last year, in what was certainly the worst season of his NHL career, Gomez's 5v5 primary assist rate (considered the best gauge of a player's playmaking ability) still ranked 31st in the league, ahead of centers like Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar and Eric Staal. He ranked 23rd by that measure in 09-10 and 14th in 08-09. His vision and ability to exploit gaps in coverage are still near-elite and could be a boon to T.J. Galiardi and Tommy Wingels.
- An effective territorial player. Gomez ranked 2nd on the Canadiens in on-ice shot differential in 2011-12, 8th in 10-11 and 2nd in 09-10 after ranking 1st and 3rd in his two years with New York. Montreal was a substantially better outshooting team with Gomez in the lineup than without him last season. Granted, he has mostly played sheltered minutes throughout his recent career but the Sharks should be able to afford him similar situations.
- A capable second-unit power play guy. Among players who averaged at least two minutes per game on the power play, Gomez ranked 35th in scoring in 09-10 and 57th in 10-11 before free-falling to 212th a year ago, largely on the basis of an unlucky on-ice shooting percentage. With Thornton, Marleau, Couture and Pavelski all on the team's top power play unit, the Sharks could certainly use Gomez between Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat on their second man advantage unit. Just like at even-strength, he's an instant upgrade over Handzus in that spot.
What Gomez isn't:
- A goal-scorer. Gomez has posted a 5.7% shooting percentage over his last 1157 shots. That's awful. Throw out his anomalous 2005-06 season and he's averaged 13.6 goals per 82 games over his career. This is why the jokes about his lengthy goal drought, while amusing, never really made much sense. This isn't a player anyone should have ever expected to put the puck in the net with regularity. His strengths lie elsewhere; I'd be surprised if he scores more than three or four goals in a Sharks sweater.
- A defensive center. As mentioned above, Gomez has never been used by his coaches in difficult defensive minutes. Over the past five seasons, he has started 63.8%, 54.0%, 55.6%, 58.7% and 60.9% of his non-neutral 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone. With the exception of the 2009-10 season, those zone start rates have also been coupled with deployment against opposing teams' lesser lights. Again, this shouldn't concern the Sharks; the Thornton line will always be leaned upon to go head-to-head with other clubs' stars. Handzus was woefully miscast in a soft-minutes role; Gomez won't be.
It's hard not to like this move. At a $700,000 cap hit (that pro-rates to a shade under $400,000 in actual salary over a 48-game season), there is literally no risk here. If Gomez should fail in San Jose, the team will still have more than enough cap space to find a better solution at the trade deadline. It's unclear whether he will play tomorrow in the home opener but, when he does, he'll hopefully see time on a third line with Galiardi and Wingels. That bumps Handzus down to a more suitable role centering the team's fourth line, likely between Andrew Desjardins and Adam Burish.
Coming out of the 2009 training camp, Doug Wilson signed Manny Malhotra to a one-year, $700,000 contract to center his team's third line. It was a resounding success. I really think this move has the potential to turn out as well as that one did.