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Four centers the Sharks should target

Who out there will over-perform relative to his presumed role?

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Apr 7, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal (12) watches the puck against the San Jose Sharks during the first period at SAP Center at San Jose. 
Eric Staal is the ideal acquisition target for the Sharks
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If a recent rumor is to be believed, it appears the organization’s beloved leader might be at it again soon.

With just $1.7 million in cap room (according to CapFriendly) to play with and a few minor-league contracts to move back-and-forth, Sharks manager Doug Wilson will have quite the juggling act to perform should he attempt to land a center. Any trade will likely require the Sharks to move an NHL roster player with a little chunk of change attached to his name.

There are a dozen or more hypothetical things Wilson could do to maneuver his way into another top-9 center, but for the sake of argument we’ll focus first on players who are:

  1. Set to become UFAs at the conclusion of this upcoming season, and
  2. Are relatively inexpensive — so much so that moving someone like, say, Melker Karlsson and his $2 million salary hit would be enough to make the trade work (more or less).

The list of useful players who fit this description is short. Behold, Eric Staal and his $3.5 million cap hit; Marcus Kruger and his $3.08 million dollars worth of roster room; and, Colin Wilson, with a bizarre $3.94 bucket drop.

Eric Staal would make this team scary

Earlier this summer, everyone from Charlie Coyle to Nino Niederreiter to Jason Zucker saw his name in trade rumor articles after new GM Paul Fenton began his tenure. With apologies to Gordon Bombay, the new Minnesota Miracle Man also said he would not make a trade just to make it. Since his introductory press conference, Fenton has re-signed Zucker to a five-year contract and the flames of trade rumors once flickering in the twin cities have died down.

Still, it appears the NHL brain trust is operating in a Twilight Zone-type of reality at the moment, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Staal, unlikely to be re-signed and aging into his 30s, could be on the move.

Eric Staal Minnesota Wild San Jose Sharks trade target
This team needs more Erik/cs

The chart to the right above represents an Domenic Galamini Jr.’s attempt at isolating a player’s individual impact on his team’s shot differential. Staal has begun down-stepping into his personal hockey skill abyss, as is particularly evident by his dwindling defensive impact. But the man is still scoring at a top-six rate (the chart to the left), and he is still helping his team generate shots. Staal’s decline is imminent and evident, but he should still provide top-of-the-lineup impact in the team’s bottom-six (presumably).

Trading for an overqualified center is a tack both the Penguins (Derick Brassard) and Jets (Paul Stastny) took at last season’s trade deadline. Though both teams fell short of the ultimate goal, it’s a strategy Doug Wilson would be wise to emulate.

Kruger and Wilson bring different versions of “Fine”

Marcus Kruger and Colin Wilson potential san jose sharks trade targets during the 2019 NHL season
Kruger and Wilson Are Alright

Kruger is all defense, not much offense; and Wilson offers a little bit of both. In either case, these are players that a team would want to slot into their set of bottom-six forwards. They aren’t the types of difference makers that will punch above their weight and elevate a team’s chances much higher than they already are, if they move the needle that much.

The Sharks’ biggest question mark is now its third- and fourth-line center combination. Antti Suomela drove shot differential and scored more points than anyone in the Finnish Liiga last season, but we have no idea how any of that will translate to the NHL. Dylan Gambrell produced positive results in his first game last season. His subsequent appearances saw the Sharks buried alive in shots against while he was on the ice. If either or both of those two and Maxim Letunov should struggle during the first half of the season, then Kruger and/or Wilson could make for a decent upgrade at the deadline. If either of these two offers a tangible benefit above what the Sharks already have, however, there are probably more challenging problems to address.

The preference here is Kruger. If he can keep the Sharks fourth line from filling the play-by-play sheets with shots against, it would probably provide a greater benefit to the Sharks than would Wilson’s more modest impacts.

Nick Shore is a wild card, but a free wild card

Then there is Nick Shore. It’s uncommon when a 25-year-old NHL-capable player is still a free agent come training camp time. Yet, here he is.

Nick Shore should be a san jose shark
Nick Shore would be a useful bottom-6 player

Shore is like Kruger in that he offers plenty of defense without much offense. But Shore is younger than Kruger and, unlike Kruger, possesses a special trait. As Ryan Stimson detailed in the Athletic in June, Shore is an excellent passer.

The San Jose Sharks and Nick Shore, a match made in purgatory
Nick Shore distributes with the best of them
Ryan Stimson

The top bar is how many shots against Shore’s team allows with him on the ice relative to his teammates. It’s just reminding us that he’s good defensively. The rest of the abbreviations, all discussing 5-on-5 play, are as follows (link to the full chart):

  • SCB%: Percentage of on-ice shots a player contributes to
  • xPrP60: How likely Shore’s shot primary shot contributions are to turn into assists
  • 1TSA60: The rate of shots Shore assists one that are one timers
  • BuildUp60: Shore’s rate of secondary and tertiary shot assists
  • DZSA60: Shore’s rate of shot assists across the slot or from behind the net
  • ixA60: The likelihood one of Shore’s shot assists accounts for pre-shot movement
  • Trans60: The rate of Shore’s shots and shot assists that come from the neutral or defensive zones
  • PSC60: Primary shot contributes (shots taken and primary shot assists) per 60 minutes
  • SA60: Shot assists per 60 minutes
  • Shots60: Shots per 60 minutes
  • 1T60: The rate of one-timer shots Shore takes per 60 minutes
  • iDZ60: The rate of Shore’s shots that follow a cross-slot or behind-the-net pass
  • ixG60: The likelihood one of Shore’s goals accounts for pre-shot movement

In sum, Shore doesn’t shoot and score much on his own, but he dishes passes in all three zones, and he slides mouth-watering saucers to teammates from dangerous areas (behind the net and across the slot). The best part about Shore is he is 100% free aside from the contract the Sharks would have to offer him. San Jose should sign him to a professional tryout (PTO) and see what he has to offer in the bottom six.

San Jose seems content to be patient, unless a big name surfaces

Doug Wilson exercised patience this summer after the John Tavares debacle. Rather than spring for overpriced and aging free agents, he allowed things like the Erik Karlsson trade to develop. It seems that Wilson would rather allow his younger and untested players mix and match into the team’s final two center spots for now. The Krugers and Wilsons and Shores of the world will likely be moves reserved for more desperate times, after it becomes clear the team’s bevy of young centers aren’t cut out for Chris Tierney’s old jobs.

For now, Shark Nation must wait. Wilson may not be done adding to his team, but there isn’t a reasonable way to speculate which big-name center might be available for trade. The players listed above are your typical, pending-UFA rentals dealt at the trade deadline, and so easy to designate as potential targets. What will end up happening, though, is likely nothing or something big. Until then, enjoy the flying Swede.