When Exactly Did Thornton & Wilson Breakup?

The Trade That Changed Things Forever

Captain Joe Thornton is critical to Sharks success in the playoffs (photo courtesy: Chelsea Alexander)
 (photo courtesy: Chelsea Alexander)

It was in late November 2005 when the San Jose Sharks were in Texas to take on the Dallas Stars. Even with the new shootout rules eliminating ties, the Sharks had not won a single contest in nine straight games. They would go on to lose that night 4-1 to the Stars for their 10th straight loss. Fortunately for them one of the biggest steals in NHL history happened that night. The news broke in the middle of the game that the Sharks had acquired Boston Bruins’ super star captain Joe Thornton in exchange for well liked role players Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau.

While San Jose’s decade long playoff streak started the year before the 2004-05 lockout, the Sharks were looking like a sure bet to miss the playoffs in 2005-06. That is until Thornton came to the rescue and turned the Sharks into an instant sexy pick for the Stanley Cup. Thornton immediately began turning the Sharks around as he helped deliver a 5-0 victory over the Sabres in his debut. San Jose would go onto win their first six games with Thornton in the lineup. His presence took them from near the Western Conference basement all the way to a fifth seed finish. The Sharks would lose to Edmonton that year but in Thornton’s first two years he carried them to the playoffs with back-to-back 90 assist seasons, a feat only previously accomplished by two other players in league history. You might have heard of them before, their names are Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Thornton put up these ridiculous numbers during inflated offensive seasons but he also did so without a whole lot of talent around him.

2007-08 and 2008-09

The following two seasons Thornton continued to be his dominant offensive self, although his numbers did come down a tad. However the team was getting to the point of the same old same old disappointments. The 2008 playoffs saw them lose in the second round for the third straight season. The exit would cost head coach Ron Wilson his job making way for current head coach Todd McLellan. In McLellan’s first year the Sharks retooled and won the President’s Trophy only to be eliminated in the first round by a red-hot Anaheim Ducks squad. After that series ended, Thornton and Patrick Marleau notoriously weren’t made available to the media.

2009-10 through 2013-14 Regular Season

(Icon SMI)
(Icon SMI)

After the first round collapse setback to Anaheim in 2009, Thornton noticeably transformed his game into that of an elite two-way centerman. Having been so dominant offensively for so many years, his defensive play wasn’t as detailed but something changed that offseason and it paid off. Thornton and the Sharks would play much stronger at both ends the next two seasons and it earned them back-to-back trips to the Western Conference finals. Unfortunately for the Sharks, they ran into the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks who nobody was going to beat in a seven game series. However, after that series ended Wilson elected to make Thornton his team captain and Thornton continued to be even better defensively. His point total dropped from 89 to 70 between the two conference final runs but he maintained an elite level performance at both ends. In the final game of the season in Vancouver for Game 5 Thornton played like a mad man with a separated shoulder. He was hurt and still managed to be San Jose’s best performer.

After the two conference final runs, things fell apart for the team in 2011-12. They did not have the same deep lineup from the previous two years. That didn’t stop Thornton from being the best player on the ice during their first round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues. Not to mention plays like this one below during the regular season were seen frequently throughout the year. His work ethic has been second to none the last few years.

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The Sharks gave Thornton next to no help in the series vs the Blues. Both Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski were skunked in the five games despite Thornton’s five point effort and the bottom six provided next to nothing. An incredibly soft rebound goal allowed by Antti Niemi in third period of the final game didn’t help matters either. Thornton had to basically do everything himself, and he nearly forced the series back to San Jose for a Game 6 all by himself.

*(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)
*(Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

During the lockout shortened 2013 season Thornton and Brent Burns were arguably the toughest forward duo to defend against in all of the NHL. Each of them measuring in at 6’4 or taller and 220-230 pounds made for some dominant puck possession along the boards. In the 2013 second round series vs Los Angeles, the Kings had no answer for the Thornton, Burns, and T.J. Galiardi top line as the trio cycled in the offensive zone all series long. The Sharks would end up one bounce short of moving onto the next round.

Finally that brings us to the 2013-14 regular season, Thornton remaining captain and at this point still with a good relationship with GM Doug Wilson. All Thornton would go on to do during this regular season is set a personal career high (since possession numbers have been tracked) in Corsi-percentage as a 34-year-old. With Burns on his line for the majority of the season, Thornton turned in a 58.2% Corsi-for percentage. That number matched his 2007-08 Corsi from when he was 28-years-old.

The Collapse and the Blame Game

So let me just recap the situation for you readers out there. Going into the 2014 playoff series versus Los Angeles, Thornton was coming off a career year possession wise, and had been the best player on the ice (for either team) during the previous two postseasons. Plus over the past four years as a whole, Thornton was playing the best two-way hockey of his career which included a Gold medal with Team Canada. Yet after the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead last spring to the Kings in which every player on the team struggled the last three games, the top guys received the most ire from their GM. During locker room clean out day, Wilson delivered the following statement: “With all due respect to James Sheppard and Matty Irwin, they can’t be your only goal scorers the last three games. You can’t go 0-16 on on your power-play”

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While Wilson repeats multiple times that all of them take responsibility, there is no mention of needing a stronger performance from his blue-line group. No mention of having needed a better contingency plan for when Marc-Edouard Vlasic went down in Game 5. No mention of the need for better goaltending nor better decisions from the coaching staff as regard to matching wits with Darryl Sutter’s group. The only real shot taken in terms of a blame game was the top guys and the power-play. You combine these comments with the fact Wilson was the one to take the captaincy away from Joe Thornton (and then failed to tell him about it) and you can put down this past offseason as the official breakup for Thornton and Wilson.

Patrick Marleau
Joe Thornton (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Until this past offseason, things between Thornton and Wilson seemed no different than they were back in 2005. For whatever reason, three bad playoff games was the breaking point for Wilson. In the above video colleague Josh Dubow of the AP even asks Wilson about not overreacting to the last three games. Well, that is exactly what Wilson did, he overreacted. And that overreaction has led to the mediocre performance by the Sharks this season, capped off with the recent spat in which Thornton told Doug he needs to “shut his mouth.” These two really do sound like a divorced couple, and when a divorce involves the best player in franchise history, future Hockey Hall of Famer with over 900 career assists, you can bet the majority of the fan base is on #TeamJumbo.