The San Jose Sharks have been led, for the past dozen years, by future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton. He is in historic and elite NHL company. His place on the all-time assist list tells the story — the three guys immediately ahead of him, and not far ahead, are Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionne and Gordie Howe. Hockey royalty. Losing Thornton to a knee injury is an obvious problem for the Sharks. But look closely enough and one finds a few silver linings.
The Sharks are among the league’s oldest teams and Thornton is their oldest player. But this season, a series of younger players have started to prove themselves. And while Thornton didn’t keep them out of the lineup, he may be taking important minutes away from their development. Over 18 minutes of ice time night just opened up. We’ll see who takes advantage of this, but here are some of the top candidates.
I’ll start with Timo Meier. He’s shown a major improvement on the line with Thornton and Joe Pavelski. The history of players becoming good as soon as they wind up on Thornton’s wing is a long one. Truth is, it’s consistently helped the team, but perhaps not the player.
Devin Setoguchi looked like a star on Thornton’s wing, but life without Thornton was a problem for Setoguchi. The story for Tomas Hertl is different, yet shares a similar element. He was great on Thornton’s wing, but he had to develop his game away from Thornton to become a strong individual player.
Playing with Thornton does wonders for a player while there. With Meier, he needs to develop his game more broadly.
Without Thornton, he’ll need to find his own game. The past few games have been Meier’s best, including earning a second star in the recent loss to Winnipeg and playing important roles in wins over Anaheim and Pittsburgh. Giving Meier the chance to build on his success without Thornton can be a step forward, even if the numbers might not look as strong.
For Barclay Goodrow, the opportunity comes in the form of added playing time. He has played consistently well, with the exception of the games which came immediately after returning from injury. When healthy, he’s been a fixture on the Sharks fourth line.
Goodrow can handle more the 11 minutes of ice time he averages. He’s scored only six points in 19 games, but he is a plus player. Perhaps he’ll move up a line and play with more talent or play more minutes with his most recent line of Melker Karlsson and Joel Ward. I’ve always liked Goodrow and suspect he’ll have a chance at a bigger role. If he can handle it, and I suspect he can, this has longer term benefits for the player and the team.
Mikkel Boedker has won few fans in San Jose, but his recent run is encouraging. Unfortunately, some of the goodwill Boedker was building evaporated in his collision with Thornton. Alas, blaming Boedker makes no sense.
He has four goals and plus-6 rating in January. He is, at long last, looking like the player San Jose thought they were getting when they signed him in the summer of 2016. Prior to December 21, Boedker had just four even strength points and was minus-5. Since then, he has seven even strength points and is plus-7.
Further, without Thornton, more power play time has opened up. This was among Boedker’s strengths before joining San Jose. It is an opportunity for him to regain a part of his game largely missing over the past season and a half.
For Chris Tierney, the opportunity is also clear. The Sharks third line center is going to have an increased role — either he’ll be the second line center or he’ll play more minutes in his current role. After averaging around 14 minutes a night early in the season, Tierney has seen this figure grow. He’s been below 15 minutes of ice time only once since late November and he’s been averaging 17 minutes a night in January. And the more he’s played, the better he’s been, with ten points and a plus-7 so far this month.
For Tierney, the load will be a bit heavier, the opportunity a bit bigger and the assignments a bit tougher. This is exactly the sort of challenge Tierney needs.
Even a player like Jannik Hansen can use this. Hansen is a free agent as season’s end, and would certainly like to show better than he’s has. He’s frequently a healthy scratch, has just four points on the season and is minus-3. In recent seasons, he’s been just a shade under half a point per game and roughly even overall.
There is plenty of upside. Perhaps some line juggling will enable Hansen to perform better and more consistently. If this happens, the Sharks will either benefit from his improved play or from a trade involving Hansen.
How does the absence of a center create opportunity for a defenseman? Like this. Thornton is one of the Sharks top scorers, both in assists and goals. Heed is an offensive defenseman. Among Sharks defensemen, only Burns puts up points at a faster clip than Heed.
Playing time has been tough to come by for Heed recently, but if the Sharks feel the need to add offense into the mix, returning Heed to the lineup can help, especially on the resurgent power play, which has been a huge part of the Sharks success in the last two months. Thornton has been a power play beast during this time and his absence will be felt strongly. Adding Heed to the power play is adding real firepower. He won’t make up for Thornton’s absence, but he can make the second unit more dangerous than it’s been.
A role has opened up for a player in 6-on-5 situations, both when protecting a lead and while trying to tie the game. In the game against the Rangers, the Sharks first without Thornton, Kevin Labanc earned the opportunity (with the Sharks net empty) and he assisted on a Sharks score.
There is also an opening on the top power play unit and, assuming a player gets bumped up from the second unit to fill it, there’ll be an opening on the second power play unit. Again, it was Labanc getting the first opportunity with the top unit, but in this case, the Sharks gave up a short-handed goal for just the second time this season.
When the Sharks shorten their bench late in a game, Thornton is one of the players who gets a full measure of ice time. Someone else is going to find themselves on the ice more often in these crucial minutes.
Thornton hasn’t been in the face-off circle much in the past few weeks, it means someone is going to take a bunch more face-offs. It’s been Meier recently, with mixed results, so far. Thornton is good for close to a thousand draws a year, so there is a lot of opportunity here as well.
Finally, Thornton’s absence creates a leadership void. San Jose has plenty of quality leaders, including team captain Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Marc-Edoaurd Vlasic. But perhaps younger players like Meier and Tierney can play a bigger leadership role.
Thornton’s move to injured reserve means the Sharks have a ton of potential cap room. If it seems Thornton is done for the regular season, San Jose can acquire expensive players in his stead, as his cap hit won’t count against the cap as long as he is on IR (there is more to it than that, but its close enough for this analysis).
Two players stand out: the Sedin twins from the Vancouver Canucks. Their annual cap hit is $7 million per Sedin and their contracts expire this season. They’d be affordable for San Jose based on cap space, perhaps the only potentially playoff-bound team who can afford them. This means there’d be little competition for the Sedins on the trade market and San Jose wouldn’t need to part with much.
You’d have to think the twins will consider taking a shot at a Cup run if given the chance (despite their own letter to Vancouver penned in September). Time is running out on their opportunities and it’s not likely to happen in Vancouver, either this season or in the near future. The call on whether to stay in Vancouver or move on largely belongs to them. If they want to take the shot, Vancouver management will be hard-pressed to say ‘no’. It’d be a Ray Borque situation – giving these aging stars a chance to play for the game’s biggest prize. Much as Bruin fans wanted Borque to win a Stanley Cup, Canuck fans will wish them the same for the Sedins.
Cap hit restrictions disappear at the start of the playoffs, meaning Thornton could (if healthy) return and play in the playoffs. Thornton and the Sedins in the same lineup would make San Jose a very deep, very dangerous playoff team. There is a lot of reward in this equation.
Kicking Out the Crutch
The Sharks are an older team and several older players are phasing out. Patrick Marleau (38 years old) is already gone. Joel Ward (37) and Jannik Hansen (32 in March) are in the final season of their contracts while Paul Martin (37 in March) is on the trading block. It is unlikely he finishes the final season on his contract (next season) with San Jose.
Thornton (38), for all his greatness, is also a crutch the Sharks rely on. He has been amazingly durable. He’s been the guy: the focal point and identity of the team. His verbal sparring match with Bryan Little of Winnipeg the other night was vintage Thornton. For an entire minute, Thornton yelled at Little during a stoppage of play. Shortly after the puck dropped, Thornton made the sort of exceptional pass which is pretty much the sole province of Hall-of-Fame players – and it resulted in the game’s tying goal.
Learning From Adversity
The Sharks will miss Thornton. They are forced to discover who they are without him. It might not be easy to do and the path may not be obvious. Yet the ability to overcome adversity is critical to the character of both individuals and teams. Any team hoping to play for championships has adversity and must, at times, find ways to overcome it.
One thing is certain, the Sharks have plenty of pressure games and the team will be tested. Though they have the fifth best record in the Western Conference, six teams are very close behind and an seventh is capable of joining the playoff race.
It is time for Sharks players to upgrade their games and seize opportunities. The Sharks won’t be a better team without Thornton, but several players on the roster will be relied on more, face more challenging situations and have the opportunity to become better players and better leaders.
Hopefully Thornton returns to health sooner than later. But in the interim, the Sharks can improve themselves, individually and collectively. Which is an important silver lining.
• Early in the season, I discussed the benefits of San Jose’s depth. Among the benefits, it helps out when injuries strike. When the Sharks waived fourth line center Ryan Carpenter, he was claimed by Vegas. He’s done next to nothing for Vegas, but he’d sure be useful for San Jose at this moment.
San Jose was already rumored to be in the market for a fourth line center. With Thornton out, the hole got bigger. And while Carpenter wasn’t great for San Jose, he was solid defensively and good on the penalty kill. The sort of thing which makes a fourth line center useful. Plus he’d shown strong chemistry with Goodrow. Now would have been the ideal time for those two to pair up again.
• Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer rolled out lines for the first Thornton-less game against the New York Rangers. He did minimal rearranging compared with the lines he’s used recently. But in Thornoton’s absence, I expect to see more line juggling, especially after the All-Star break. DeBoer did some juggling in the game against the Rangers, including moving Tierney onto the line with Pavelski and Meier. It was Boedker who started the game on this line.