The San Jose Sharks find themselves in an interesting position in the Western Conference playoff race.
As of Thursday afternoon they are in second place in the Pacific Division, and at first glance that would seem to be a pretty great spot to be in. But they are also only two points clear of the Los Angeles Kings who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, and only four points clear of an Anaheim Ducks team that is starting to get healthier and could still be a threat in the West.
Now the Sharks are entering a stretch of games where they will be without one of their top players, seemingly ageless center Joe Thornton, as he is sidelined with an MCL injury.
The timeline for Thornton’s return currently sits at “several weeks,” which is obviously very open ended.
This is going to be a problem for the Sharks not only because of how tight the Western Conference playoff race is, but also because of how important Thornton still is to their success.
He is currently second on the team in scoring (behind only defenseman Brent Burns), he is one of the top possession-driving players on the team, and he is still a dominant two-way force that can play 18 minutes a night in all situations. He plays shutdown defense, he is a dynamic playmaker with the puck.
He is also the engine that drives their top-line alongside Joe Pavelski.
That is where the Sharks might see a big hit over the next few weeks with Thornton sidelined.
Thornton and Pavelski have been glued together on the Sharks’ top line for several years now and it’s not hard to see the impact Thornton has on that duo. It’s not that Pavelski isn’t capable of being a productive player without Thornton, it’s just that Thornton is so good and such a dynamic playmaker — even to this day at his age — that it simply makes Pavelski that much better, and as a duo the two have been pretty much unstoppable for more than four years now.
Just look at the numbers for that duo since the start of the 2013-14 season (via Natural Stat Trick).
Totally different team when the two are separated, and while the goal differential this season has not quite been there the territorial play has been and it seems to only be a matter of time until the results start to match the way they have been playing.
That is the sort of impact that Thornton can make and what makes him such a key cog in the Sharks’ machine.
With him out of the lineup it not only puts a huge dent in what is an already thin center position, but now there is going to be more pressure on Pavelski to carry the top line. He is definitely capable of that, but they are just so much better as a duo and there really isn’t anybody else that is capable of replacing what Thornton can provide.
Thornton is not only one of the best players ever, he has also been incredibly underrated and remarkably durable.
The Sharks really haven’t had to experience life without him much since he arrived on the team in the middle of the 2005-06 season. Since then he has never missed more than four games in any individual season, and has appeared in 961 out of a possible 973 regular season games as a member of the Sharks.
He has been a constant, dominant player in their lineup.
Now they are going to have to get a taste of what life is like without him at a really crucial time in their season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.