On a summer day in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, young players were anxiously waiting to be told which city they will be headed to and what team they will play for. These talented, hopeful players sat with the prospect of fulfilling a childhood dream that many share-- to play in the National Hockey League. For Joe Thornton, that day came more than two decades ago, on June 21, 1997. Thornton, who had an impressive season with the Soo Greyhounds of Ontario the year before, scored 41 goals and 81 assists in span of 59 games in the Ontario Hockey League. Thornton was considered, by most analysts, to be the number one selection in the draft and had all the makings of a superstar. The Boston Bruins selected Joe Thornton first overall in the NHL Entry Draft, followed by the San Jose Sharks selecting Patrick Marleau second. In nine years, the two would become teammates and spend the next 11 years playing together.
Thornton, now 38, has certainly lived up to the expectations that preceded him on draft day as he sits at 16th overall in the NHL’s all-time points list at 1,427 points and second among active players behind only Jaromir Jágr, age 46. The former Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophy winner, accolades given for leading the league in points and being voted most valuable player to their team, has one award that still eludes him: The Stanley Cup.
Future Hall of Famer Thornton had his chance in 2016, when the San Jose Sharks played the Pittsburgh Penguins in the former’s first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Experience and speed gave the Penguins the advantage, as they won the series in six games. They would repeat their success the following year against the Nashville Predators, making the Penguins the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since 1991-1992, when the Penguins had accomplished that feat with a team that had greats such as Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jágr.
In last year’s playoff run, injuries plagued the organization for Sharks players Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks faced an Edmonton Oilers team in the first round, led by the young and immensely talented Connor McDavid. The Oilers would go on to win the series 4-2 and advance to the next round. After the series loss, it was revealed that Joe Thornton played in the last four games of the series with a torn MCL and ACL in his left knee. "I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL," Shark’s head coach Peter DeBoer said. "It’s a courageous effort as I've ever seen.
"Basically, his knee was floating," DeBoer added. Thornton, with his injury, still managed to assist on two goals in the series. Surgery would go on to correct these ailments over the off-season and Thornton returned to the Shark’s lineup in time for the new season.
On January 24 of this year, with less than 40 seconds remaining in a tie game against the Winnipeg Jets, Thornton was sent heading to the locker room after teammate Mikkel Boedker fell on his right leg. After the game, it was said that Thornton sustained an injury to his MCL in his right knee. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said that it was not the same knee that had been repaired by surgery last season. Thornton has since gotten the arthroscopic surgery to repair his right knee, but there is still no timetable for his return, as he was expected to miss several weeks.
Without Thornton, the Sharks found themselves having to restructure their lines, accounting for the absence of their star player. Holding onto second place in the Pacific Division, the Sharks had to prepare to complete the season with the same performance without Thornton as they did with him. Forced to rely on their younger players to step up, opportunities to earn more ice time came for prospect forwards Timo Meier, Danny O’Regan, and Marcus Sorenson. From January 24 to February 26, without Joe Thornton, the Sharks had a record of 7-8-1. Although the record represented a .500 points percentage for the month, it proved to be indicative of more than a monthly statistic.
The 38-year-old Joe Thornton is currently signed on a one year, $8 million contract. It is unsure if he will continue his 21-year playing career at the end of this season. The Sharks will be playing without a player that has been integral to their success since 2006, when the Sharks acquired Jumbo Joe from the Boston Bruins. The case isn’t restricted to Thornton, however, as the Sharks’ organization have many aging stars that could present the Sharks with the challenge of replacing them with new talent. Some of the Sharks’ prominent players over the age of 30 include: Joe Thornton (38), Joel Ward (37), Paul Martin (37), Joe Pavelski (33), Brent Burns (33), Justin Braun (31), and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (30).
When Patrick Marleau (age 38) left the Sharks this off-season, a big question was whether or not the Sharks would be able to replace his production of 27 goals and 46 points. This season, Sharks forwards Chris Tierney (23) and Kevin Labanc (22) have both reached career high point totals of 39 points so far this season. Sharks forward Tomas Hertl (24) currently sits just two points behind his career high point total of 46. But while young players in the organization continue to develop and produce points, there still seemed to be something missing.
On February 26, the San Jose Sharks made a trade before the NHL trade deadline, acquiring Buffalo Sabres left wing forward Evander Kane (age 26) in exchange for a conditional 2019 first-round pick, a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020, and prospect forward Danny O’Regan. "Evander is one of the top young power forwards in the NHL," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson told reporters. "He is a dynamic player who has a unique combination of size, grit, speed and goal-scoring ability. We wanted to add a player that could help this team but also was just hitting his prime. We feel that Evander fits both of those needs and we see this as a great opportunity for him to get to know our group and the city of San Jose."
Since adding Evander Kane, the Sharks have gone 11-2-0 and are currently on an eight-game win streak, their longest winning streak in over seven years. Kane has made an immediate impact on the Sharks’ offense, with 13 points and eightgoals in the 13 games he has played since donning a teal sweater. With the opportunity to enter the playoffs with this kind of momentum, Joe Thornton can have the maximum time to recover from his injury without having to risk aggravating his injury by returning to the ice too soon.
With six games left in the season, every win is crucial. The Sharks are currently still holding second place in the Pacific Division at 97 points, behind the Vegas Golden Knights at 101 points. The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings fight to punch a ticket for the playoffs at third place, with the Ducks gaining a two-point edge over the Kings at 91 points. In the Wild Card, the Colorado Avalanche currently hold on to a playoff spot with 90 points while the St. Louis Blues compete with the Kings for the final playoff spot at 89 points. The Sharks’ remaining schedule won’t make for an easy stroll into the playoffs, with every opponent they will face also in playoff contention. Among the teams in their remaining schedule are the Wild Card hopeful St. Louis Blues, the defending Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators, and the leaders of the Pacific Division in the Vegas Golden Knights.
The playoff picture changes almost every night, with crucial points deciding whether a team goes to the playoffs or has an extended summer break. If the playoffs were to start today, the Sharks would have a battle for California in a first round matchup against the Anaheim Ducks. The Sharks are 3-0-1 against the Ducks this season, with three games ending in a shootout. The last time Anaheim and San Jose met in the first round of the playoffs was in 2009, a series that found the Ducks winning the series 4-2.
While it is still uncertain if Joe Thornton will be able to return from his knee injury in time for the playoffs, the 38-year-old forward has been taken off the injured reserve list and began to skate this week. A lingering question that has to be on his mind: Will this be the last playoff run of his 21-year career? The last chance to win the trophy that has always eluded him?
"You don't realize the atmosphere in the arena until you're down on the ice for real, especially during the playoffs. You come out of the gate, you hear the fans going crazy, you know you're at home and in for a good time. It's something special, that's for sure," a younger, less bearded Thornton said, when he joined the Sharks in 2006. With the promising new addition in Evander Kane and a winning streak to prove it, will Joe Thornton’s return be enough to get the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final once more?