Joe Thornton began the 2019-20 season as the Sharks’ third line center. A 40-year-old role player, Thornton is still capable of providing depth, experience and strong hockey IQ for a Stanley Cup contending team. He was supposed to serve as a mentor, take a back seat and see if he could cap off a Hall of Fame-career with an elusive championship.
On Sunday, Thornton started San Jose’s 62nd game of the season against the Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the first line, centering Timo Meier and Dylan Gambrell. In what could have been his final shifts in a Sharks uniform with the trade deadline looming on Monday afternoon, Thornton — in a 4-1 loss to the Islanders — shared a bench with players named Alexander True, Stefan Noesen, Noah Gregor and Joel Kellman.
This was not the plan. The Sharks, by late February, were projected to be in the thick of the Pacific Division race with their elite players clicking, perhaps scouring the market for pieces who could put them over the top in a championship push. They were not supposed to be bottom-feeders — selling off core pieces like Brenden Dillon, playing guys with little-to-no NHL experience, losing three of their top players for much of the season to injuries in Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture and Tomás Hertl. Entering Sunday, the Sharks were 26-31-4 with 56 points, 13 points behind the final playoff spot in the West.
And Thornton — grey beard and all — with more than 1,600 games under his belt was definitely not supposed to be on the top line with two 23-year-olds, one of whom (Gambrell) had played in just eight regular season games prior to this season. Just a day after telling The Athletic that it would be tempting to be traded to a contending team, Thornton was the featured player on the Sharks’ top line in Long Island.
The Sharks were supposed to be that contending team that could carry Thornton to that long-awaited championship, after he had been unable to carry the Sharks to a Stanley Cup for so many years. Now, it is up to him and General Manager Doug Wilson if he wants to try to win it all while wearing a different sweater. That was not the plan.
Thornton was on the ice for a lot of action. Seven minutes into the game, he watched from the neutral zone as Anders Lee opened the scoring for the Islanders on a 2-on-1 rush. Four minutes later, he was on the ice when Gambrell tipped in a shot from the point by Radim Simek to tie the game. And with a minute to play in the first period, Thornton again was caught behind the play as Lee scored his second goal of the game with a wrist shot from the left side. None of those goals-against were directly Thornton’s fault. Nevertheless, this was not the plan — Thornton was going to be involved, but not this involved.
On Sunday, the usual issues that plague a struggling team hurt the Sharks:
Giving shooters open lanes to fire, defensive miscues, taking penalties and not drawing enough, suspect goaltending, falling behind early and digging a hole, failing to generate rebounds. When a team plunges from the top of the standings one year to near the bottom in the next, the problems cannot be fixed by plugging a hole here or there.
Forward Barclay Goodrow said:
“We played well for stretches. We had a couple of breakdowns, puck ended up in the net. [Try to] strip someone from behind, two seconds later the puck is in the net. Little things are costing us right now.”
The issues are little things here and there, but also everywhere. Injuries to top contributors. A near-roster overhaul from opening night. A mid-season coaching change when Pete Deboer was let go in December. Evander Kane, a 20-goal scorer, benched after poor play in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers. Martin Jones, considered a franchise goaltender not long ago, losing his job to backup Aaron Dell. The winning culture that has existed in San Jose ever since Thornton was acquired by the Sharks in 2005 has been lost this season in the blink of an eye.
In context, a 40-year-old centering the first line was the result of those myriad problems, a microcosm of what happens when one thing goes wrong, followed by another, and another and another.
Goodrow said the makeshift roster is having an effect on players who are seeing the ice more than they are accustomed to:
“We do need everyone. We had some key guys out, some guys playing bigger roles, playing bigger minutes. It’s going to take all 20 guys to win on a nightly basis.”
For now, the Sharks will head to Philadelphia to face the Flyers on Tuesday.
Before the puck drops at Wells Fargo Center, they will have a sense of how the roster will look as they try to carry some positivity into next season. Will Thornton and another Sharks legend in Patrick Marleau be a part of it, or will they want to shoot for one more hurrah at a Stanley Cup? Will Wilson dangle other names such as Barclay Goodrow or Melker Karlsson?
Interim head coach Bob Boughner said after Sunday’s game that there will be a sense of relief after the trade deadline passes at 3 p.m. ET on Monday. He looks forward to Couture returning to the lineup at some point and being able to balance the lines a little better. Boughner said they’ll get back to some kind of semblance:
“… Of line combinations, at least. “
There will be no semblance of normalcy this season. Never in recent memory have they seen their playoff chances effectively end before March. Even in 2014-15, when the Sharks last missed the playoffs, they were in the hunt until the final weeks of the season.
The season after that, the Sharks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. But they failed to win in Thornton’s best chance at a championship. Will he be around for the next rebound, or will the Sharks’ superstar-turned-grizzled veteran lift the Cup for another team?
Whether Thornton stays or leaves, none of this was supposed to be the plan on opening night.