Sharks fans held their collective breath last night as Joe Thornton left the ice with a knee injury in the first period of a 3-1 win over the Canucks last night. It was the second injury to a top six forward in eight days, and the second to one of the team’s top two centers, no less.
The severity of Thornton’s injury is not yet clear. Thornton limped out of the arena under his own power last night, according to the Mercury News’ Curtis Pashelka, and head coach Peter DeBoer was hopeful that Thornton would only be out “short-term.” General Manager Doug Wilson told the Mercury News that Thornton’s knee will be reexamined today.
It would be irresponsible to speculate upon the nature of Thornton’s injury, but his potential absence is one that the Sharks simply cannot withstand.
Amidst all of his struggles, Thornton’s second on the team in assists, third in power play points, and ranks fourth in even strength CF%, seventh in FF%, sixth in relative CF%, and ninth in relative FF%, respectively, among Sharks skaters that have played a minimum of 90 minutes this season.
San Jose’s first 40-or-so minutes following Thornton’s injury does not inspire confidence. Score effects and a very small sample size played a role, as the Sharks held a 2-0 lead at the time of Thornton’s injury, but the Canucks out-attempted the Sharks 34-18 over the game’s final two periods.
This is not an “Ewing theory” situation. Sure, in four games without Couture, the Sharks have managed to tread water, winning two of those games and posting a positive CF% (53.57) and FF% (56.89). But without their top two centers, the Sharks will sink.
With Thornton out, it’s time DeBoer gives Joe Pavelski a longer look centering his own line, as well as Danny O’Regan and/or Ryan Carpenter in the bottom six. O’Regan has struggled in limited minutes (-19.60 FF% rel) while Carpenter has largely excelled (6.67 FF% rel), even as O’Regan has scored more than Carpenter for the Barracuda this season.
But no matter how well any stopgap solutions perform, the Sharks cannot easily replace what Thornton brings to the team. They’re not deep enough to withstand the absence of one, let alone two top-six centers and maintain their prior level of success, but neither is any team in the league.
And if Couture continues to miss time as well, there won’t really be any positives, as evaluating said stopgaps wouldn’t be particularly insightful. The Sharks simply won’t be able to glean much wisdom as to what life without Joe Thornton would look like.
After all, a future without free agent-to-be Thornton almost certainly involves Couture, who is under contract until 2019. If it doesn’t, the players who would conceivably fill those holes will be at much different stages of their careers in the fall of 2019 compared to the spring of 2017.
The Sharks can’t contend in the absence of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, and they can’t adequately evaluate their own roster if both are out, either, offering a lose-lose situation. Should both miss time, fans and the front office won’t ask what if, but instead ponder what it all meant.
All stats according to Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.