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Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?

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The offseason is where you fill out your BINGO card of sports cliches, and this post undoubtedly leans on the “best shape of my life trope,” or something close to it.

Yet, you could almost picture the San Jose Sharks pulling out a favorite of a GM after a quiet offseason or trade deadline: “[Injured player] coming back is like landing a big player.” Such a tactic really fits here because a) the Sharks missed out on big-ticket free agents, despite lobbing a hefty offer at John Tavares and b) Joe Thornton is making promising statements about his health.

(Naturally, this marks that key moment where we first tap the brakes and remind you that plenty of athletes believe that they’ve healed, only to aggravate an injury, sometimes even during training camp. So, please, PLEASE don’t use this as a reason to bet your mortgage on the Sharks winning the Stanley Cup or something similar.)

On one hand, people might wonder: “What else is Thornton going to say?” That’s fair, although there are moments when the typical optimism of the summer can’t hide the cloudiness of certain injury updates. You’ll notice that when a player admits they “aren’t quite 100 percent” and other variations.

So, yeah, Thornton’s interview with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz (sub required) seems promising, and not … too misleading? Hopefully?

“I feel good. I know my birth certificate says 39, but I think not playing a full 82 games and playoffs last year, my body feels really, really good and I feel healthy,” he said. “It’s kind of like a lockout year for myself, you get time to refocus and finally train a little bit and go again. I’m real excited for the year.”

Admittedly, to some extent, it might come down to Thornton’s vivid way with words in Kurz’s story. Adding details such as it almost being “like a lockout year” reminds me of Mike Modano and Teemu Selanne seemingly finding another gear following a full season lost. (Their rebounds didn’t make it worth it, but did dull the pain a bit.)

Of course, it’s one thing to be healthy, and another to actually be effective. Would the already slow-skating Thornton slip from “able to slow the game down” to being too slow to really be viable, much like what seemed to finally happen to Jaromir Jagr in 2017-18?

Again, Thornton had a quip for that, as Kurz reported:

“They’ve said that since I’ve been 16 years old, and I think I’ve had a pretty good career,” Thornton said.

“I think when I’m out there I dictate the play. It doesn’t matter who I play against, I usually dictate the play. I’ve had that criticism for 22 years. I think I’ve kept up pretty good.”

That’s the challenge with sports: an athlete is able to defy critics … until they can’t any longer. We can’t really know that until we actually see Thornton in action, and it’s possible that the sublime passer might not hit his groove right off the bat.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, and consider what this could mean for the Sharks.

Better than we remembered?

Much like David Krejci, Thornton was more effective than maybe some of us might recall in 2017-18, with some of those hazy memories influenced by lower totals thanks to missed games.

Thornton was limited to 36 points (though with 13 goals, thanks to shooting luck), yet he did that in just 47 contests. His .77 point-per-game average would translate to a 63-point output over 82 games. That’s fantastic stuff, especially since Thornton has developed into an increasingly effective two-way performer as San Jose’s spread the scoring wealth a bit.

A reasonably healthy Thornton could tie the Sharks roster together like a Lebowski rug, and I don’t say that just because Thornton’s beard may be lush enough to serve as a rug itself.

Greater expectations?

The Sharks already looked dangerous after landing Evander Kane, going 12-6-1 and sweeping the Ducks before the Golden Knights knocked them out, and that was with Thornton unable to play.

With Thornton, the Sharks could put together two dynamic forward combos (possibly Kane – Logan Couture, Thornton – Joe Pavelski), surround them with some other nice forwards (Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl come to mind), roll out two world-class defensemen (Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), and deploy a respectable starting goalie in Martin Jones.

A healthy Thornton may also inspire GM Doug Wilson to push more chips to the middle of the table; maybe he’d go after Max Pacioretty, even as a rental, if it becomes clear that Joe is the difference-maker they expected?

It was disappointing for the Sharks to miss out on Tavares, along with some other big names. Those letdowns may sting further if Ilya Kovalchuk looks Thornton/Jagr-level ageless with the Kings.

Regardless, it’s tempting to pencil in San Jose as prohibitive favorites to win the Pacific Division if Thornton is as spry as he claims.

[Where they stand: Pacific Division in July]

Beyond the Sharks’ appealing balance and viable top-end talent, other Pacific teams carry question marks. The Golden Knights were already going to have their skeptics even before Nate Schmidt‘s 20-game suspension was announced. The Kings got Kovalchuk and may have their own healed-up center in Jeff Carter, yet that team has issues ranging from depth to aging concerns. There are worries about Anaheim taking a step back, Calgary once again watching a busy offseason flame out, the Oilers’ idleness haunting them, and the Coyotes still being a few strides short of true competitiveness. There’s also the Vancouver Canucks. They exist.

Back in late July, a small majority (27.32 percent) of PHT readers voted the Sharks as the favorites in the Pacific, edging Vegas (23.61 percent), and that was before this positive outlook on Thornton and the Schmidt news, among other developments.

Plenty can change during the span of the 2018-19 season, and even during training camp, but it’s tough to blame Sharks fans for feeling that much more exciting after today.

In fact, it could get to the point where “Pacific Division favorites” would be thinking far too small.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Olczyk honored on Hockey Fights Cancer night in Chicago

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The Chicago Blackhawks honored one of their own on Hockey Fights Cancer night at the United Center on Sunday.

Eddie Olczyk skated onto the ice fighting back tears as the Chicago faithful cheered him on.

The honoring was two-fold.

First, it was a part of Chicago’s ‘One More Shift’ ceremony that’s included former players such as Ed Belfour, Steve Larmer and Jeremy Roenick.

Secondly, it was a chance to properly acknowledge Olczyk’s fight against Stage 3 colon cancer, a battle he waged for months before announcing in March that he was cancer-free.

Olczyk took the ceremonial faceoff opposite of Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu (whose brother Saku missed the entire 2001-02 season with Burkitt’s lymphoma).

Carter Holmes, an 11-year-old Blackhawks fan who is in remission after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in June, got to drop the puck after spending time with the team thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Olczyk gave Holmes a hug after handing him the puck.

Olczyk played 222 games for the Blackhawks across five seasons, scoring 77 goals 132 points. The 52-year-old was drafted third overall by Chicago in the 1984 NHL Draft and went on to play 1,031 games with six different teams over his 16-year career, including stops in Winnipeg, Toronto, New York, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

With the Rangers, Olczyk lifted the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Olczyk has been working with NBC as a color commentator since 2006.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Burke not impressed with ‘clown’ Marchand; Matthews returns to practice

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Artemi Panarin saga continues to roll along. Here’s a take on him being a luxury and not a necessity for the Blue Jackets. (Union and Blue)

• How a love for fashion changed the course of one NHL prospect’s career. (Daily Hive)

• Arizona was doing so well, then injuries hit hard. (AZ Central)

• How the numbers aren’t telling the whole story of Connor Hellebuyck‘s pedestrian start to the season. (The Point)

• The New York Rangers are a pleasant surprise so far this season, but they may need to shake up their defensive pairings to keep the good times rolling. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• On Frederik Andersen and how he’s been incredible for the Toronto Maple Leafs so far. (The Hockey News)

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews returned to practice on Sunday. (TSN)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins need help from their lesser-known players. (Pensburgh)

• Faint murmurs of another lockout are starting to sprout up but the NHL is doing everything it can to avoid that happening again. (New York Post)

• As the NHL and a consortium of players settled their concussion lawsuit, the legacy of Gary Bettman remains unclear. (New York Times)

• An inside look at the offseason training program that Tyler Seguin used. (SportsDay)

• This story is about the Ottawa Senators and it is incredible. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Brian ‘Burkey’ Burke wants Brad Marchand to stop acting like a fool. (WEEI)

Gritty!


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Crawford comes up big for Blackhawks

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Three stars

1. Esa Lindell, Dallas Stars

Lindell scored his second and third goals of the season on Sunday, with the latter being the game-winner as the Stars demolished the New York Islanders 6-2.

This spot could have easily gone to either Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn, each who came away with three-point nights in the win. Dallas has won two straight and are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games.

Gotta love on the defensemen sometimes though.

2. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Crawford was struggling pretty bad prior to this past week after losing five straight. Since then, Crawford is 2-0-1 and has allowed just two goals in those three games.

Crawford’s recent surge was highlighted on Sunday after he stopped 39 shots on Sunday en route to a 3-1 Blackhawks win against the Minnesota Wild. The Hawks are just 2-5-3 in their past 10, so a better Crawford could go a long way as they try to position themselves in a tough Central Division.

3. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. 

It looks like every game in the Pacific Division is going to have deeper meaning this year with how poor those teams can be at times.

Marchessault, with two goals and an assist, ensured that Vegas got back to winning ways with a three-point night in a 6-3 win against the Edmonton Oilers. Marchessault was riding a three-game pointless streak coming into Sunday.

Other notable performances: 

  • Nathan MacKinnon had two goals and an assist and Mikko Rantanen padded his stats with two more apples and the game-winner on the power play in overtime. That line is just silly.
  • Three-point night in a losing effort for Ducks defenseman Brandon Montour.
  • Leon Draisaitl had a goal and an assist in a losing cause himself.
  • Curtis McElhinney steered aside 33 shots to help the Hurricanes to a 2-1 win.

Highlights of the night

Tremendous:

Slick feed:

Factoids

Scores

Stars 6, Islanders 2

Hurricanes 2, Devils 1

Blackhawks 3, Wild 1

Avalanche 4, Ducks 3 (OT)

Golden Knights 6, Oilers 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Jarnkrok, Atkinson post hat tricks; Karlsson gets first for Sharks

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Three stars

1. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Three goals for the hat trick and an assist to cap off a four-point night for Atkinson in a 4-1 win for the Blue Jackets against the Carolina Hurricanes. Not too shabby. Atkinson helped Columbus to its second-best start through 20 games in franchise history. The Blue Jackets have won three in a row and are sitting in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Atkinson is rocking a four-game point streak now with six goals and nine points during that time. He’s currently on pace to eclipse the 40-goal mark, which would be a career-high. He had 35 two years ago.

Atkinson is now tied with Rick Nash for most hat tricks in franchise history at five.

2. Calle Jarnkrok, Nashville Predators

Jarnkork scored quite the hat trick himself on Saturday.

One of his goals came at even strength, another on the power play and one shorthanded. There should be a special name for that, like the hat-hat trick or something (terrible, right?) or maybe the three-phase hatty? I’m striking out.

Whatever ever way you slice it, it was no small feat. Since 2013-14, only seven players — including Jarnkrok — have done it. Not bad for your first hatty.

3. Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks 

San Jose got a Dell on Saturday night, and it stopped 30 shots for his fourth career shutout in a 4-0 win against the St. L

Not a bad purchase.

Dell exacted a bit of revenge after he was between the pipes on Nov. 9 when the Sharks were blanked by the same Blues team 4-0 on Nov. 9.

Other notable performances:

  • The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames can both take a bow. What a game.
  • We almost need to create a ‘Mike Hoffman Streak Watch’ section or something like that. Regardless, the man pushed his point streak to 15 games on Saturday with a goal and an assist, extending the franchise record.
  • Carey Price is taking a beating in the media but he’s been solid over his past two games, including stopping 36-of-38 in a 3-2 win.
  • Henrik Lundqvist captured win No. 438 to pass Jacques Plante for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list.
  • Mark Stone had two goals in a 6-4 win for the Ottawa Senators over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Chris Kreider is a big reason why the New York Rangers are near the top of the Metropolitan Division. He had a three-point night, scoring and adding two assists.
  • Speaking of the Metropolitan, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30-of-31 and has now won in his past four appearances. His Blue Jackets are in first place.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are good. Rasmus Dahlin is also good and he had a goal and an assist to help the Buffalo Sabres to their fifth straight win.
  • Elias Pettersson scored again, so Vancouver can breathe again.
  • Erik Karlsson finally scored his first of the season in his 21st game, so San Jose can also stop holding its breath.
  • Jaroslav Halak continues to defy anyone and everyone’s expectations. He stopped 31 shots for his seventh win of the season. He’s got a .935 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.

Highlights of the night

Erik Karlsson dropped his first goal with the San Jose Sharks. It was quite the rocket.

Jarnkrok’s hatty:

And Atkinson’s:

Factoids

Scores
Lightning 6, Flyers 5 (OT)
Red Wings 3, Devils 2 (OT)
Sabres 3, Wild 2
Canadiens 3, Canucks 2
Senators 6, Penguins 4
Rangers 4, Panthers 2
Blue Jackets 4, Hurricanes 1
Bruins 2, Coyotes 1
Predators 5, Kings 3
Flames 4, Oilers 2
Sharks 4, Blues 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck