Would a healthy Thornton make Sharks Pacific Division favorites?

Getty
4 Comments

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.