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Who will become the Sharks’ top center after Joe Thornton?

Joe Thornton signed a one-year contract on his 38th birthday, and it seems like at this point in his career he will be taking things year-to-year. Thornton has been an elite first-line center for the duration of his career, but that seems to be changing due to his age. He is still a capable top-six center and will be the Sharks’ offensive lifeline this season, just as he has been his entire tenure in San Jose. Whether it is partway through this season, next summer, or a couple of years down the line, it is inevitable that a new first-line center will be needed if the Sharks want to stay a contender. There are three scenarios for the Sharks to get a first-line center.

1. Tank for a high pick

Tanking is probably the worst option since it involves some bad seasons and most fans don’t want to see that. The flipside of this is that it seems to be the best way for a team to acquire an elite center without having to give up assets. If you look at most of the recent Stanley Cup Champions, they were able to acquire their top center via the draft with a first-round pick. Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2005, 1st overall), Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks, 2006, 3rd overall), Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings, 2005, 11th overall), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks, 2003, 19th overall), Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes, 2003, 2nd overall), etc. There were a couple of exceptions to this general rule since the lockout with Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins, 2003, 45th overall) and Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings, 1998, 171st overall), but the Bruins also had Tyler Seguin (2010, 2nd overall) on their roster even though he was in and out of the lineup.

Tanking is probably the least likely way for the Sharks to get their future top center, but is always an option.

2. Promote from within

The most ideal scenario for the Sharks is to promote someone from within, but there might not be someone capable. The likely candidate is Logan Couture, but he could have already hit his ceiling at 28-years-old. The Sharks will be hoping for the 2016 playoffs version of Couture if he gets promoted. Couture has been a great second-line center, but being the first-line center is a whole new challenge.

Tomas Hertl would be second in line to get the first line role, but the jury is still out on how good he can be. Plus, his knee injuries are also a concern. Hertl will be entering his fifth season this year and has only been durable enough to hit the 50 game mark in two of his four seasons. His season career highs are 21 goals and 25 assists while playing on Thornton’s wing. If Hertl can play a full season this year and show some growth (preferably 65 points or more), then the Sharks could start feeling comfortable with a Hertl-led offense.

The long shot candidate for the role is Danny O’Regan. He was only a 5th round pick back in the 2012 draft, but he has shown some offensive prowess in his first year of professional hockey. O’Regan led the San Jose Barracuda with 58 points in 63 games and was the AHL’s 12th leading scorer amongst rookies. It’s not common for a fifth round pick to become a first line center, but he was the AHL’s rookie of the year and late round picks have emerged before, so there’s a slim chance.

All three of these players are good players, but you need to be more than just good to be a championship caliber top line center. The possibility is there, but it doesn’t look promising.

3. Trade

The most talked about option is for the Sharks to make a big trade. Many names have floated around the rumor mill in the past six months, including Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche), John Tavares (New York Islanders), and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens). The Sharks would instantly have their center of the future if they got one of these players, Tavares especially. Galchenyuk would be a slight gamble, but he is only 23 years old and has improved in each season since he entered the league. Many say he would have been the first overall pick in 2012 if he hadn’t of been injured that year. Duchene would add a lot of speed down the middle for the Sharks and give them a look that they haven’t seen before on the top line. Tavares would easily be the best option if a choice had to be made between the three, but he would cost the most in assets. He’s a former first overall pick, captain, averages nearly a point per game, and is only 26 years old. He’s dominant when he’s on the ice in a way that Thornton was in his prime, and still can be today.

The price to acquire any of these players would be steep but could be worth it. Galchenyuk and Duchene would almost certainly require giving up Justin Braun, two promising prospects, and a 1st round pick. Tavares would require even more. He could be worth the same package with another prospect and another high draft pick. Giving up Braun can be dealt with, but depending on the prospects it could be hard to part ways with some of them. The pool that GMs would want to choose from include O’Regan, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Jeremy Roy, and more. All of these players could be big time contributors in the NHL, but top centers don’t come cheap.

Doug Wilson will have to take one of these three routes in the coming future, but only time will tell which he takes. What do you think is the best option?

How should the Sharks acquire their next top center?

Tank and draft 99
Promote from within 273
Trade 566

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