Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which Insider Kevin Kurz will highlight a different Sharks player every day leading up to the start of NHL training camp.
Name/Position: Joe Thornton, center
Salary: $6.75 million
Contract status: Signed through 2016-17
2013-14 year in review: Numbers-wise, it was another impressive and productive season for Joe Thornton, who has possibly already done enough in his career to be considered a future Hockey Hall of Famer. Thornton finished second only to Sidney Crosby in assists with 65, and was second on the Sharks in scoring with 76 points. He remains one of the best puck possession players in hockey, aided by a 56.1 success rate in the faceoff circle, 10th in the league.
Thornton became just the 100th NHL player to appear in 1200 career games on March 27 vs. Winnipeg, and enters the season tied for 24th with Bobby Clarke in all-time assists with 852 and 46th all-time in league scoring (1194 points).
2014-15 outlook: There have been few players in the offseason NHL headlines more than Joe Thornton, who was first the subject of rampant trade rumors and later stripped of the club’s captaincy after four seasons when management made it clear there was an issue in the dressing room that reared its head in the playoff debacle against Los Angeles. Don’t expect the attention surrounding Thornton to die down any time soon, either, as the Sharks will attempt to fix the self-identified problem with essentially the same group.
Whether than can be done is debatable, and it’s not a reach to suggest that the fate of the Sharks’ 2014-15 season hinges on how Thornton adjusts to a role change both on and off the ice. Sharks associate coach Larry Robinson suggested in an interview earlier this summer that not everyone in the dressing room was receptive to the affable Thornton’s brand of humor, so maybe easing off a bit in that department is a good place for him to start.
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It’s wholly unfair to blame Thornton alone the Sharks’ dressing room problems, though.
Why didn’t the younger players that had an issue with his approach go either to him, or the head coach, or the general manager to relay that there was a problem? The Sharks want to turn the team over to the younger core of Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but the fact that none of those players (or others) were able to repair the rift doesn’t exactly reflect positively upon them, either.
By the time they went grumbling to their bosses in the exit meetings, it was far too late.
The potential is there for this whole thing to blow up, which is why Thornton’s name was mentioned so often in trade talk over the summer. Make no mistake, Doug Wilson was open to moving him and Patrick Marleau, which is why the G.M. said earlier in the summer that the club might have to take one step backwards in order to take two steps forward. Even had they been able to move Thornton and/or Marleau, the Sharks likely wouldn’t have gotten a good enough return to keep them among the best teams in the Western Conference.
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If the Sharks get off to a poor start, or the dressing room rift remains, the club could get even more aggressive in its desire to show Thornton the door despite his full no-trade clause. Conversely, if the team is able to come together as a group and put up another strong regular season, it could be better prepared for a long playoff run next April.
It’s clear that Thornton still has the skills to be a top NHL player, probably for the next several years. He desperately wants to win a Stanley Cup -– the emotion on his face after the Game 7 loss to the Kings is proof enough of that -– and he wants to do it in San Jose. The problem in the dressing room is fixable. Whether it happens will be an ongoing storyline from now until Thornton’s departure, or the playoffs next spring –- whichever comes first.