The San Jose Sharks have no time to deal with the loss of Joe Thornton. The NHL, like other sports leagues, requires a “next man up” approach. If Joe can’t go, someone else will. It is about the team, not the individual. The Sharks have been among the league’s healthier teams this season. Many teams have lost key players for extended periods, survived and in some cases, even thrived.
Thornton is no longer the most critical Sharks player, though he’s close. Logan Couture is the best forward, Marc-Edouard Vlasic the best defenseman, Brent Burns the leading scorer and Joe Pavelski the team captain. Still, there is something unique about Thornton. The Sharks without Thornton have a “through the looking-glass” quality – like the famous character Alice – this Sharks team has entered a strange parallel world.
The Most Recent Case
Thornton has been remarkably durable, meaning the Sharks have precious little experience without Thornton. Last season, he tore two knee ligaments and missed the final few (and essentially meaningless) regular season games. He rejoined the Sharks for Game 3 of the opening round playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers.
Alas, the Sharks had no real chance in the series. While Thornton was skating on one leg, Logan Couture’s facial injuries made it painful to breath. Tomas Hertl had a broken foot, Patrick Marleau a broken thumb and Joonas Donskoi was dealing with his second separated shoulder of the season. Joe Pavelski wasn’t right. Paul Martin had an ankle problem which took more than the full offseason to heal and Joel Ward was spotted shortly after season’s end with his arm in a sling.
Simply put, a very beat-up Sharks team lost to the Oilers. This series isn’t a good way to evaluate the Sharks, either without Thornton or with a less than healthy Thornton.
The More Relevant Case
His prior injury provides better insights into the Sharks without Thornton. It happened on the last day of 2014. Thornton injured his shoulder and missed four games. The Sharks managed to split those games, but the team wasn’t good. In regulation, the Sharks were outscored 19-10. Thornton returned to the lineup, but he wasn’t really healthy over the rest of the season. He also wasn’t effective and the Sharks missed the playoffs. Some wondered if he was more old than injured.
When Thornton returned healthy the next season, he showed what healthy Thornton is. He was dominant, scoring a point per game, led the league’s top power play, and putting up a bonkers even strength ‘goals for’ percentage of over 70% (GF%). Thornton’s line with Pavelski and most often, Tomas Hertl, was a combined plus-66 on the season. The next nine forwards (based on games played) were minus-56.
In terms of scoring, Thornton, Pavelski and defenseman Burns each had 75 points or more, no other Sharks player hit 50. It is fair to say Thornton’s line carried the team. This Thornton-led Sharks team went to the Stanley Cup Final. Turns out, a healthy Thornton is a very big deal.
Times Have Changed
In 2014-15, the Sharks showed they weren’t good without a healthy Thornton and in 2015-16, they demonstrated how dependent the team was on him.
But things have changed. This season, through 48 games, Thornton and Pavelski are the two worst forwards in plus-minus, with Thornton at minus-9 and Pavelski minus-10, a swing of minus-69 from their 2015-16 totals. The next nine forwards are plus-1, an improvement of plus-57.
This team’s scoring load is also more distributed. San Jose has seven players with at least ten goals, including a rapidly improving Timo Meier, and another four will likely hit the double-digit mark.
This Sharks team is not highly dependent on the Thornton line or Thornton himself. Instead, the burden is shared.
Weathering the Storm?
While the Sharks without Thornton might feel like a through the looking-glass moment, it is really a glimpse into the future. The Sharks need to become less dependent on Thornton for their own good. His injury accelerates this process.
Indeed, this isn’t about weathering the storm, it is about new realities. Importantly, the Sharks get to measure themselves in a new way. If they can succeed without Thornton, it suggests the next few years can be very bright with the right free agent or trade acquisitions. However, if the team falters, one has to question what quality talent like Burns, Couture, Vlasic, Pavelski and goalie Martin Jones are really delivering.
The Early Returns
The Sharks have played two games without Thornton and they’ve had a common feature: mental mistakes.
The first game without Thornton was a mini-disaster. The Sharks defense was poor and their usually excellent special teams managed to play a big part in their 6-5 loss to a struggling New York Rangers team, including giving up a short-handed score. The team played hard, but not smart and not disciplined.
In the loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Sharks led 2-1 late in the second period. The Pens scored the next two goals and Sharks players deserved assists on each. Brent Burns reverse pass behind the net went to straight to Phil Kessel who fed Evgeni Malkin alone in front for a score. On the next goal, a wandering Martin Jones tapped the puck to the Pens’ Patric Hornqvist. With Jones still out of the net, Hornqvist fed Malkin in front of an empty net and the Pens never gave up the lead after that.
The goals San Jose gave up to the Rangers or Penguins were not because of Joe Thornton’s absence. They came because of mistakes which San Jose needs to clean up. The sorts of mistakes veteran teams don’t make often. Since Thornton left the ice in the final minute of play against Winnipeg, the Sharks have played 121 minutes of hockey and given up 12 goals. This bad defensive result isn’t due to Thornton’s absence.
It is not just about the players. For Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, it is time for him to show a mastery of his craft. Including playoff games, DeBoer has over 750 NHL games on his resume. He’ll need to take an unsettled team and guide it through these challenging times. This is where DeBoer shows he deserves to be the Sharks coach for the longer term. Or not.
Alice was no longer through the looking-glass when she encountered the Mad Hatter for a famous tea party (she was, however, down a rabbit hole). In this part of Wonderland, time stands still.
For hockey teams, time does not stand still. The Sharks have evolved and must no longer depend on the player who has been their centerpiece since the day he arrived in 2005. In the weeks ahead, the Sharks will find their weaknesses and strengths. In the process, they’ll need to find their way. The challenge is mental, not physical.
The team may be forgiven if it stumbles without Thornton, but it shouldn’t be. Thornton’s era is not over, but the end is in sight. It is up to the rest of the team, filled with quality talent and competent role players, to show it can thrive without the greatest player in team history.