Throughout the Joe Thornton era, it's been fairly easy to identify who the San Jose Sharks' most valuable player is every season. Mostly because it's usually Joe Thornton. He certainly qualified in 2005-06 when he took home the Hart Trophy as the overall league MVP and continued to be the Sharks' most valuable player through the 2008-09 season before Patrick Marleau picked up the mantle in each of the two seasons after that. Evolving into a two-way force, Thornton was again San Jose's most important piece in 2011-12 before Antti Niemi led a team that finished 24th in offense to the playoffs to claim MVP honors in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
It's a testament to the depth of the 2013-14 iteration of the Sharks that there isn't really a clear candidate for the distinction of most valuable player. Joe Pavelski, who led the team in goals and points, seems like the obvious answer but automatically naming him MVP on the strength of his production alone arguably shortchanges some other players who had terrific seasons. Here's a rundown of who I think were the Sharks' five most valuable players this season, in alphabetical order; you can decide for yourself which one deserves to top the list.
The case for Couture: In his first full season as Todd McLellan's primary shutdown center, Couture embraced his role; he played against opposing teams' top lines on a regular basis and started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other Sharks forward. Despite those impediments, the Sharks heavily outshot and outscored their opponents with Couture on the ice and the 25-year-old center potted 23 goals and 54 points in 65 games to finish fourth on the team in scoring despite missing a fifth of the season. Couture was also key to an outstanding Sharks penalty kill; in his 88 shorthanded minutes this season, San Jose gave up just 5 goals...and scored 4 of their own including this beauty from Couture himself where he beat one of the best goalies in the league while doing the splits.
The case against Couture: As mentioned, Couture missed 17 games due to hand surgery so it's tough to peg him as the team's most valuable player when he was out of the lineup for a chunk of the year. A 12-game goalless drought in December also meant Couture finished with a pro-rated 82-game goal pace of "just" 29, the lowest of his career so far. Part of that was due to Couture scoring only four power play goals all season as he was very much a factor in the team's struggles to convert on the man-advantage and was dropped to the second unit in favor of Brent Burns late in the campaign.
The case for Marleau: Ho-hum, another 30-goal season for one of the most underappreciated players in NHL history. Since the 2005 lockout, only Alex Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla have managed more 30-goal seasons than Marleau who notched his 7th over that span this year, finishing 2nd on the team (and 11th in the league) with 33 goals and 16th in the NHL (3rd on the Sharks) with 70 points. But perhaps the most compelling argument for Marleau being the Sharks' MVP this season is that no San Jose forward—and only three defensemen—averaged more ice time than the leading scorer in franchise history. If it wasn't for a .909 on-ice save percentage, Marleau would probably be getting well-deserved Selke Trophy buzz right now. Marleau was tasked with much of the same shutdown minutes at even-strength as Couture and performed just as well, while also leading all forwards in ice time on the seventh-best penalty kill in the league.
The case against Marleau: Marleau didn't lead the Sharks in any major statistical category and had his struggles at center when he was forced to play the position in Couture's absence. Despite leading the team's forwards in shorthanded ice time, this wasn't Marleau's finest season in that role as the Sharks gave up more 4-on-5 goals per minute with Marleau on the ice than any other penalty killer, although a lot of that is explained by Marleau primarily drawing opposing top units while Couture and Tommy Wingels usually saw second-tier power play configurations.
The case for Pavelski: He quite literally did it all for the Sharks this season. Pavelski started the year centering the third line and thrived before briefly logging effective shutdown minutes at right wing alongside Marleau and Couture then finally moving on to occupy Tomas Hertl's former spot at left wing on the Joe Thornton line. Playing that role for the second half of the season, Pavelski shattered his previous career highs and became one of just three 40-goal scorers in the NHL this season. Considering he frequently manned the point on the power play, the only thing Pavelski didn't do for San Jose this season was strap on pads and play goal. Only Ovechkin and Corey Perry finished the 2013-14 campaign with more goals than Little Joe who led the Sharks in both goals and points and helped the top line dominate puck possession.
The case against Pavelski: Pavelski is a fantastic two-way forward and has been for nearly his entire career but there's no question him scoring 41 goals is almost entirely a product of playing with Thornton and benefiting from inordinate shooting luck. Maybe the latter is irrelevant when it comes to deciding on an MVP; while Pavelski's 18.2% shooting percentage (his career rate was 10.0% coming into the year) is bound to come back down to earth, the fact is that it didn't during the course of the season and the 41 goals he banked because of that provided the Sharks with a ton of value. The former, on the other hand, is inarguable. Pavelski scored nearly 40% of his goals on the Thornton-run power play while his even-strength scoring rate more than doubled when he was on the ice with Thornton; Pavelski averaged 0.7 goals per 60 5-on-5 minutes without Thornton this season and 1.62 with him.
The case for Thornton: Every pleasantly surprising offensive storyline for the Sharks this season revolved around Joe Thornton. Tomas Hertl setting the league on fire (literally, according to Adam Oates) early in the year? The rookie was on Thornton's wing for the entirety of that run. Brent Burns completing the transformation from top-flight defenseman into dominant power forward? Thornton had plenty to do with that, assisting on 16 of Burns' 22 goals. Joe Pavelski finishing 3rd in the league in scoring with the fourth 40-goal campaign in Sharks history? It's not a coincidence Pavs started filling the net after being placed on Thornton's line and saw his even-strength goal rate more than double in his minutes with Jumbo Joe. Even at 34, Thornton is still the straw that stirs the drink for the Sharks up front and he does so more effectively than almost any other center in the NHL. Only Sidney Crosby finished with more assists than Thornton this season but Jumbo's vision and playmaking ability wasn't limited to the offensive zone; he excelled at moving the puck up ice to get the Sharks out of sticky situations in their defensive end, a big reason Todd McLellan entrusted him with more shifts beginning in that end of the ice than every Sharks forward save Marleau and Couture. While Couture was injured, Thornton regularly squared off against opposing top lines and routinely came out ahead; the only centers to finish with a higher on-ice shot differential than Thornton this season were Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. That isn't terrible company.
The case against Thornton: While the power play's struggles earlier in the year could mostly be traced to bad luck, Thornton bears some responsibility for the top unit's failings given that he's their primary decision-maker and puck distributor. Despite heavy usage in the defensive zone at even-strength, Thornton didn't regularly kill penalties for the Sharks this season unlike the other three forwards on this list. While Thornton has never really been a dominant goal-scorer during his Sharks career, he finished with just 11 goals in 82 games which is his lowest goals-per-game output since his rookie year.
The case for Vlasic: Vlasic was far and away the Sharks' best defenseman this season and enjoyed a career year that probably merits him Norris Trophy consideration. Vlasic led the team in average even-strength ice time, mostly spent against top opposing forwards with his shifts starting more frequently in the defensive zone than the attacking end of the ice. Despite that, Vlasic's on-ice shot differential at evens was third among defensemen in the entire NHL with only Drew Doughty and his partner Jake Muzzin ranking higher. Vlasic killed it regardless of who his partner was, effectively thwarting opposing offensive weapons and turning play the other way throughout the season. It's not a coincidence that every Shark who played at least five minutes with Vlasic at even-strength had better possession numbers with him than without him. He tied for the team lead in shorthanded ice time and, while he didn't see a regular shift on the power play, Vlasic was surprisingly productive at even-strength, finishing with more points in that game state than offensively skilled defensemen like Doughty, Dion Phaneuf and even teammate Dan Boyle.
The case against Vlasic: Ultimately, Vlasic was left off the power play this year on merit. He isn't good enough offensively to be on it and that's the main mark against an otherwise brilliant season. Vlasic finished 69th among defensemen in scoring and, despite a productive start to the season, wasn't much of a factor on the scoresheet after October. It isn't a big deal because Vlasic is smart enough and can skate well enough to make low-risk plays that gain territory for his team but since these awards tend to be based on production, Vlasic is at a significant disadvantage.