San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton isn’t getting younger, but he’s nevertheless got as good of a chance as ever to win the Stanley Cup. Considering they reached the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, that’s saying something.
Sharks Lead the Western Conference
With an overtime victory over the St. Louis Blues last week, the Sharks pulled ahead of the Calgary Flames for first place in the Pacific Division and Western Conference. One 3-0 shutout over the Minnesota Wild later and, heading into Tuesday night action, the Sharks have won five in a row and are firing on all cylinders.
The fact that the latest victory was a shutout is key. After all, if the Sharks have one weakness this season, it’s in net, with Martin Jones posting downright disheartening numbers overall. He’s got a 2.83 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
On the plus side, Jones is on just as much of a roll as the Sharks in front of him, with five consecutive wins. That has earned him a tie for the league lead of 34 (Marc-Andre Fleury of the Las Vegas Golden Knights). So, if you’re keeping score, the Sharks have been able to do as much damage as they have this season with sub-par goaltending. That still hasn’t stopped Jones from collecting the wins all the while because of how strong the team is… and even he’s starting to come around.
Thornton One of Nine 40-Point Scorers
To summarize, assuming Jones stays hot, the Sharks check all the boxes. They have the second-strongest offense in the league (3.61 goals per game), with nine different 40-point scorers, Thornton included. Ten if you include the just-acquired Gustav Nyquist. Even the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, who also have the strongest offense, have “just” six.
Meanwhile, on defense, well, is it even worth mentioning? Obviously, there’s the big three of Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who have enabled the Sharks to allow a league-low 28.4 shots per game.
What the Sharks also have going for them, though? There may not be more of a motivational story at work here than Thornton’s championship-less career up to now. Going on 40 years of age, Thornton is also playing out his second consecutive one-year deal. It admittedly amounts to little else but sheer logic at this point, but Thornton could be retiring as soon as this summer.
Furthermore, the Sharks are up against the salary cap and have six more pending unrestricted free agents. That includes captain Joe Pavelski, who could conceivably reach a new career high in goals, and Karlsson, who should be a priority. They also have restricted free agents Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, both in the midst of breakout seasons, to re-sign.
This Could Be It for Thornton
So, even if Thornton, who’s making $5 million, doesn’t retire, this could be it for him and the Sharks, who could conceivably walk away. If they do or if Thornton leaves on his own for another team, it’s very realistic he won’t get another chance as good as the one in front of him as we speak.
It’s true lightning rarely strikes twice. Pun intended, regarding who the Sharks would likely have to get through to win a championship, and the Sharks did just reach the Stanley Cup Final a few seasons ago. However, they’re on pace for a 109-point season right now.
In 2015-16, they had just 98, when they finally slayed the dragon and finally put to bed any doubts this franchise could win big games. In other words, this team is over the hump and as strong as ever. I mean, when a 40-point-scoring Joe Thornton is your ninth-leading scorer, it’s hard to argue you’re not a legitimate contender.
Thornton may no longer be Sharks captain, but, considering the 14 years he’s spent with the team, it’s his for all intents and purposes. It kind of goes without saying, but he is the longest-serving Shark, with Pavelski and Vlasic only starting in the NHL the season following his acquisition from the Boston Bruins.
It’s commonly accepted that trade, which sent Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm the other way, was a gift for the Sharks. It’s about time for them to repay Thornton the favor.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.