The San Jose Sharks are looking for a fourth-line center, officially. My immediate reaction was anger, maybe even outrage. Fourth-line centers are probably the second-most replaceable role on a team, after fourth-line wingers. These are the types of players you put waiver claims in for (Jussi Jokinen), not the guys you give up players or draft picks to acquire.
Yet, the NHL is changing. Teams are starting to ice three effective, even dangerous forward lines. To get ahead of this trend, it would be prudent for NHL general managers and coaches to assemble an effective fourth-line, as well as the now-typical top-9 group.
The concern about trading for a fourth-line center is singular. Often, fourth-line players receive praise from coaches and GMs for being things like “gritty competitors,” despite offering fairly putrid on-ice results. Coaches will play them even if they don’t help their teams win. Or worse, coaches won’t play them, leaving befuddled fans to wonder why their team traded for or signed the guy in the first place. However, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has been on record as saying that he is interested in a fourth-line center who drives play, a promising suggestion. Whether Doug Wilson and company understand which fourth-line centers out there offer more than gritty competition is another matter.
San Jose waived Ryan Carpenter and has since relegated Danny O’Regan to the AHL, making it very clear neither of those two players fit in the team’s plans at that position. It’s not hard to see why. With O’Regan on the ice, San Jose attempted 12 percent fewer 5v5 shots than his teammates. With Carpenter, that number was closer to team-average. But, with Carpenter on the ice, San Jose allowed the fourth-most expected goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 — not a promising number for a team predicated on good defense. (All numbers from corsica.hockey)
Barclay Goodrow has been better defensively than his two counterparts, but his ability to drive play has dropped recently.
From hockeyviz.com, this chart shows the Sharks’ shot and goal differential with Goodrow on the ice at 5v5. Though he started the season strong, he’s been outshot and outscored regularly since his latest return from injury (red box). He and Melker Karlsson have not meshed. Karlsson is a player the coaching staff trusts, so he isn’t going to see press box time in favor of another forward any time soon. That leaves Goodrow in a bit of a predicament. He’s susceptible to the effects of skating with linemates that don’t have good chemistry with him. That’s part of what defines player’s ability: the more tailored the set of linemates you need to succeed, the farther down the depth chart you typically belong. Goodrow also has one of the worst penalty differentials on the team.
Teams succeed when they have players who are overqualified for the roles they play. Ideally, San Jose trades for a center who is capable of playing third-line minutes, or is somewhere between a fourth- and third-liner (Frankly, the team could just move Hertl back to third-line center and Tierney back to fourth-line center and solve all of their problems down the middle, but it’s damn near blasphemous to even consider that option at this point, so we’ll let sleeping dogs lie or whatever the hell other catchphrase you want to slide out there between zamboni runs).
Luckily(?), there are a handful of depth centers rumored to be on the move. Let us examine which of them might be a potential upgrade over Sir B. Goodrow, esquire.
The 25-year-old center’s on-ice shooting percentage has dipped below average so far this season, bringing his scoring rate down with it. Rather than putting up primary points like a third liner, he’s teetering at the edge of replaceability in that regard this year (information via hockeyviz.com).
Pageau’s on-ice shot differential has been a net negative relative to his teammates. He has never been particularly good at generating offense, and his defense appears to have gotten worse over the years. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact he’s started an increasingly higher proportion of face offs in his own zone compared to the rest of the Senators each of his last few seasons (per corsica.hockey). He’s also generally played with the middle of his team’s roster against opponents’ top forwards.
He offers consistently positive penalty differential. Finally, Pageau is solid at helping his team exit their own zone with possession.
Pageau is an interesting read. He seems miscast as a defensive forward, playing against superior competition in a more traditional checking line. With Goodrow’s usage, Pageau would see more offensive zone starts and play against worse competition. Of course, he’d also receive worse teammates (by time on ice) in San Jose than he skated with in Ottawa. Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to draw penalties while not taking many himself. Pageau would likely benefit from playing against inferior competition. The positive penalty differential is a plus, and overall Pageau feels like an improvement from Goodrow, ability-wise. That Pageau has a $3.1M cap hit through 2020 makes this a more difficult move to stomach.
A player whose fans call him “Test tube” probably isn’t someone you want your team trading for. Letestu is older than Pageau and is used in the defensive zone at a similar rate, though he also gets the benefit of starting a higher percentage of face offs in the offensive zone. Unlike Pageau, it appears Letestu was actually capable defensively... until this season. Despite receiving more favorable zone starts and teammate/competition match ups this season than in either of his previous seasons in Edmonton, Letestu’s contributions on both sides of the puck have declined. After offering about even penalty differential for most of his recent history, he’s totally in the red this season.
Letestu does appear to be a positive contributor, at least this season, in the transition game. Still, we’ve got a 32-year-old who is clearly continuing his decline. He offers little chance of performing like a third-line guy, even with more favorable deployment. He isn’t likely to provide an upgrade over Goodrow, let alone the same level of play Goodrow’s been offering. Hard pass.
Nelson’s name hasn’t been bandied about as much as some of the other candidates on this list, but he did surface in December. Nelson’s ability to impact shot and expected goal differential has dipped as he’s played with arguably inferior teammates each of the past three seasons. His primary scoring has fallen off a bit this season, despite enjoying fairly consistent on-ice shooting percentages. He remains a good goal-scorer, as his goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time has held steady at a first/second-line level.
Nelson looks to be a decent neutral zone player, though it appears most of his shot contributions are his own. If he continues scoring at the rate he has for the past few seasons, there likely won’t be much wrong with that. If Nelson slots into Goodrow’s deployment, he’ll see an uptick in defensive zone starts, a similar quality of teammate and a slightly worse quality of competition. Nelson typically draws more penalties than he takes, a clear positive. Goodrow doesn’t produce on an individual level as well as Nelson does, but it does appear as though Goodrow is better at generating offense for his teammates. It’s unclear if Nelson would be able to drive play given Goodrow’s deployment and teammates, but he would likely score more. Nelson seems like a candidate who may be a bit overvalued because of his scoring ability, but he does not seem like he’d be a disaster, either.
Shaw is only a topic of discussion because his name appears on numerous “trade bait” lists as the Montreal Canadiens go into full swirling-the-drain and fire sale mode. Shaw is a homophobe and not a good person and, as a result, someone no team should trade for. He’s likely off the table anyway because of his injury and ridiculous contract (four years remaining after this season at $3.9M per year.) What follows is a brief due diligence in the event Doug Wilson does lose his marbles.
Shaw has scored at the rate of a fourth liner the past few seasons, though he does appear to help drive play. He tends to help his teams generate more shots than league average and prevent shots at a higher-than-average rate. He’s decent through the neutral zone and, unfortunately, would be an upgrade over Goodrow as the Sharks’ fourth center. Shaw contributes positively on the ice despite having played with worse teammates than the competition he’s faced.
Smith’s $3.25 million cap hit through 2021 should be prohibitive, even for GMs of contenders. His shot- and expected-goal based numbers reek of someone who peaked the last two seasons while playing alongside guys like Mark Stone, Derek Brassard, and Kyle Turris, and who is now entering the twilight of his career. Still, he looks like someone who has had an above-fourth-line impact on his team’s shot differential, at least through the end of last season.
Smith seems like someone who would survive a more defensive role given his penchant for exiting his own zone successfully. He both takes and draws a fair amount of penalties but the net effect is about even. While moving away from some of the team’s best wingers to inferior teammates is partially responsible for the depressed number, Smith’s 4% on-ice shooting percentage will pop back up at some point. Smith seems like a slightly better, albeit older, version of Pageau. Perhaps an improvement over Goodrow, ability-wise, but at too expensive a cost.
Father Time comes for us all. He’s coming for Plekanec, if he hasn’t already been here the past few seasons. Thirty-five years old and carrying a $6M cap hit, Plekanec makes sense only for the rich and desperate. With Joe Thornton’s recent injury and mountains of cap space, San Jose might just fall into the neat little sliver of venn diagram where Plekanec resides.
He contributes to his team’s shots, but he is darn near useless in the neutral zone. Even his defensive game — his supposed strongest suit — has fallen off this season. Though his shot-differential impact appears to be a net positive, there are signs that he is being carried along by his younger teammates this season. Another sign of serious age-related decline: Plekanec is taking penalties at nearly double the rate of the three seasons before this. Trading for Plekanec would be downright silly.
The options at center (not name John Tavares) who are rumored to be available via trade are uninspiring. While Barclay Goodrow’s play of late has also left something to be desired, he has generally helped keep the Sharks’ fourth line afloat this season. Part of the reason this exercise is difficult is because there is so little information on Goodrow available, and almost no information on him as a center. With the information we do have of Goodrow, we can feel fairly confident none of the listed options would offer a massive upgrade over the young forward as far as his ability to drive play. The players who do offer an upgrade come at too high a cost for a fourth-line center.
If one of these gentlemen had to come back in a trade, Brock Nelson would likely be the best bet, given his scoring ability. San Jose would just have to hope they could give him the linemates he needs to positively impact shot, chance, and expected goal differential. Really, though, trading for a fourth-line center remains a fruitless exercise, and San Jose should instead figure out the right combination of players for Goodrow and his sub-$1 million cap hit.