The Stanley Cup Finals begin tomorrow between the game’s new cool kids, Smilin’ Darryl Sutter and the Los Angeles Kings, and the old guard’s oldest guards, Alain (Luckiest Man In North America) Vigneault and the New York Rangers.
So what better time to delve yet again into a team that’s never gotten a sniff of June hockey, the San Jose Sharks?
Much has been made of their massive undoing, and it keeps getting referenced as the Kings continue their triumphant march across America. They are “The Team That Cacked Up A 3-0 Lead.” They are “The NHL’s San Diego Chargers.” They are “Team Invertebrate.”
And with a bit of digging, one can find the most vexing problem confronting them while the Kings dance cheerfully (and daily) upon their graves. What to do with Joe Thornton?
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The assumption has been that the Sharks will have to move Thornton if they expect people to believe they are serious about culture change. Thornton, first as the best player and then as the team captain and dominant locker room presence, has been the hub around which all other things Selachimorpha circle.
And now he is being regarded by many as surplus to requirements, the elephant in the room that needs to give way to the new exhibit at the zoo. He knows it, you know it, the Sharks know it, Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan surely know it, and worst of all for San Jose, the rest of the league knows it.
So the troublesome question becomes not, “Can they move him without a shamefully lopsided trade?” but “What if they can’t, or won’t?”
The Sharks are defined by their playoff failures more than by anything else, and this being the NHL, they should be. They have made the playoffs 15 of the last 16 years and sported a points percentage of .569 in those 15 years, so they’ve got the regular season down. But they have lost 15 of their 28 playoff series, failing to escape the second round only three times, and once (2004) because the top four seeds all lost in the first round, leaving them the highest seeded survivors. They are 73-82 (.470) in the postseason, and have lost to the eventual Cup winner only once.
They are, in sum, the Chargers -- or for you basketball aficionados, the Portland Trail Blazers, if you take away Portland’s one title in 1977.
And now, with the fresh stench of blowing a 3-0 lead still in their nostrils because the boys to whom they blew that lead are now the toast of the sport, they want substantive change, and the most substantive of them all is to move Thornton.
Only Thornton has a big contract that has three more years on it, and it has a no-move clause in it, and he isn’t going to accept just going anywhere for the sake of a new address. None of that Bryan Campbell send-me-anywhere Florida Panthers or New York Islanders nonsense for him.
In short, this will not be an easy deal to make for Wilson, unless he is such a motivated seller that he will do a lopsided deal just to see Thornton’s back. He may end up with Thornton anyway, only one who isn’t the top line center, and who isn’t wearing the captain’s "C."
And what then?
You’ll notice Patrick Marleau’s name hasn’t come up here. The Sharks are actually happy with the way he has modified his game to include checking and defensive attention. He still skates well and is not so much the dressing room alpha male. If Wilson were ordered by the government, or in this case billionaire owner Hasso Plattner, to move one of them and keep the other, he would almost surely choose to retain Marleau, which two years ago would have seen utterly daft and/or a cry for help.
So let’s back-burner Marleau and get back to Thornton, and more specifically, the Thornton who remains in San Jose. How much of a humble pie is he willing to take in staying? Does he see a Cup-winner in the room with him as an orbiting body rather than as its sun? Does he believe that a championship can be achieved here, or somewhere else? Exactly how does the future look to him?
This would be so much easier for Wilson if Thornton was used up and ready for the knackers yard. The choice there would be simple -- eat the $20.25M, for Plattner would only be down to his last $8,979,750,000, minus the half he has promised to philanthropic causes like the Brent Burns Book And Exotic Household Pets Fund.
But Thornton is not that. He still has tread, and a good deal of it. The question is where he wants to apply it, and if in San Jose, whether the Sharks can convince him to apply it differently. It’s almost more entertaining if he stays, just to watch him, McLellan and the other players thread that particular needle without drawing a bucket of blood.
In the meantime, every day the Kings live is another day the Sharks die a little more, reminding fans and observers alike of what they just did to themselves, how and why they did it, when they intend to fix it, and most importantly, whether they know how to field-dress a chest wound until they reach the hospital.