It happened with five seconds remaining in the San Jose Sharks 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Joe Thornton, collided with a linesman Brian Mach during the course of play. The collision knocked Thornton to the ice, but not Mach.
Thornton has spent a career with big, physical players leaning on him and pushing him with all they’ve got. The player known as Jumbo has routinely shaken these defenders off. On Sunday, an inadvertent bump into a linesman put him down. Perhaps this moment is a metaphor for Thornton’s declining play this season. The question being raised is very important to the San Jose Sharks: has Father Time found Joe Thornton?
A Down Season
From the day he arrived in San Jose in 2005, Thornton has been the team’s best player. Not merely in the aggregate, but each and every season, he was the Sharks best player. Until this one. He sits on the verge of history with 999 career assists. Only a dozen other NHLers have done this, and they all qualify as hockey legends.
Thornton was a dominant force in the league last season. He deserved better than his fifth place finish in the Hart Trophy voting for the league’s most valuable player. At 5-on-5 with Thornton on the ice, the Sharks scored over 70 percent of the goals, opponents under 30 percent. This was best in the league. In addition, the Thornton-led power play topped the NHL in goals.
This season, the greatness is absent. Thornton remains a good player. But the Sharks need Thornton’s greatness to be a great team. The Sharks power play has been anemic, tied for 22nd in power-play goals and the trend-line is pointed in the wrong direction. At even strength, Thornton’s plus-6 rating is a far cry from his plus-25 last season.
More concerning is the recent state of his play. Last season, Thornton was able to hit another gear beginning with the New Year. In the first 27 games of 2016, Thornton delivered 35 points and was plus-15. In the Sharks 27 games since the start of 2017, Thornton has 15 points and is minus-1.
Wear and Tear
Thornton has played every meaningful Sharks game over the last two seasons — a total of 168 games. If the Sharks are to achieve their team goal, he’ll play another 40 games between now and June. Thornton also had a shortened offseason, one of several Sharks who played in the World Cup of Hockey. It may be cynical, but the biggest hit Thornton delivered all season came in September. That’s not the right month for delivering one’s biggest hit.
Wear and tear concerns with the Sharks have been raised since before the start of the season. The issue keeps appearing because it is a meaningful one, perhaps ultimately a defining one, for the Sharks this season.
Players age differently. Handling an aging player is challenging. In part, it is because the competitive nature stays around longer than the ability. But also, aging players often have games where they look ageless. Sometimes they can have a great season. Between age 36 and 40, baseball great Cal Ripken had four seasons where he hit a modest .271 or less. And one season, at age 38, where he hit a sparkling .340. When players decline with age, it is rarely a straight line.
Thornton’s decline may, in part, be traceable to changes in the game. Many teams have adopted faster forechecking and better defense in passing lanes. These seem to disrupt Thornton’s patient game.
In contrast to Thornton’s decline is the resurgence of Patrick Marleau. He and Thornton are the same age, but Marleau’s arrows are pointing in the other direction. Marleau’s ice time has been reduced by nearly two minutes per game compared to last season. Unlike Thornton, Marleau did not play in the World Cup of Hockey. With Marleau, less has proven to be more. He is scoring more (with 18 games left, he has already exceeded his even strength point total from last season) and is a positive player for the first time in three seasons. Last season, Thornton’s plus-minus bested the struggling Marleau by 47 (plus-25 vs minus-22). This season, the two players are both plus-6. On occasion, it seems Father Time allows players to turn back the clock. Smarter use of the player helps, too.
The One Absolute
This is a good Sharks team and this is an important season for them. They are less dependent on Thornton. Last season, the nine most-played Sharks forwards not on Thornton’s line were a combined minus-56. This season, the forwards not on Thornton’s line entered the game against Minnesota a combined plus-40. Quite a turnaround.
Come the playoffs, the Sharks will need success from the top line. While other lines are much improved this season, the playoffs have a way of requiring your best players to be your best players.
There is only one absolute when it comes to aging players — Father Time will win. The question regarding Thornton is simple enough. Are we seeing an age-related decline of a once great player or are we seeing something else? Is he battling injuries or overwork or Father Time? The answer is important, because a resurgent Joe Thornton is essential to the Sharks playoff hopes.
• If the 3-1 loss to Minnesota on Sunday created uncomfortable flashbacks for Sharks fans, it might be because it resembled another game — the 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins after which, the visiting Pens hoisted the Stanley Cup. The scoreboard suggested a close game, but the play on the ice did not. In both games, the Sharks trailed by one goal for most of the third period (empty net goals sealed both games). In both third periods, the Sharks offense was almost non-existent against fast, smothering defenses.
• A day after writing about Micheal Haley, the fourth-line forward delivered a terrific assist in the loss to Minnesota — perhaps his best play as a member of the Sharks.
• The Sharks played through the toughest part of their schedule earlier in the season, at one point playing playoff top contenders game after game. In the 20-game stretch prior to the game against Minnesota, though, the Sharks played only two games against the league’s top 10. The games between now and the regular season’s end are more balanced. Three games are against top teams and a bunch more against teams either in a playoff spot or just a point or two out of one. Also in the midst of it, a game against the Sharks kryptonite, the Buffalo Sabres.