Programming note: Flames-Sharks coverage starts Wednesday at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Maybe the Sharks wanted to part ways with Joe Thornton over the summer. Comments from team management and the subsequent stripping of the captaincy suggest that was the case.
Thornton, of course, didn’t and doesn’t want to go anywhere, as is his right after signing a three-year contract extension in January with a full no-trade clause.
Since last season’s horrifying end, the 35-year-old’s teammates have seemingly backed and supported their veteran center. When coach Todd McLellan was in the process of selecting the team’s leadership group, it was done in conjunction with the players on the roster. Naming Thornton as one of the club’s four rotating alternate captains was a reflection that the majority of his cohorts still value Thornton’s voice.
“I know a lot was said about this room not being so close, but I think we have as tight a team as anybody,” Thornton said. “I think you look at a lot of locker rooms around the NHL, you really don’t have too many bad seeds. … We’re a tight group and everybody is looking after each other, which is a good sign.”
Thornton’s response since the awkward summer and training camp has been to assume his regular place of being the Sharks’ best player, with seven goals and 13 assists for a team-leading 20 points. An eight-game point streak came to an end on Saturday against Arizona.
“It’s what we expect out of him. We knew that’s what we would get out of him coming in, he wasn’t going to go the other way,” frequent linemate Joe Pavelski said last Friday. “He’s confident. He’s always been confident in his game, and he’s a guy you want to play with.”
Is there any extra determination there after what went on over the summer?
“I don’t know. Maybe mentally a little bit," Pavelski said. "But, he’s shown up, and he’s looked pretty much the same as he has every other year. He’s played hard, he’s made the plays. He came in ready. He was excited for the season just like all of us were. It’s a credit to him.”
Thornton said: “You just compete hard every night, and usually good things are going to come from that. I’ve been doing it my whole career, so it’s just not four weeks, or eight weeks. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now. Just compete hard every night, and good things happen.”
The best reflection of Thornton’s importance is at even-strength. Of the 39 goals the Sharks have scored, Thornton has registered a point on 16 of them, or more than 41 percent. He has seven more even-strength points than any other Sharks forward (defenseman Brent Burns has 12).
The Sharks sit 24th in the NHL with just 0.86 even-strength goals per goal they surrender. In other words, if Thornton wasn’t still here, it’s not a stretch to suggest the team might be buried in the standings already.
Thornton is also a mainstay on the top power play unit, of course. And, although he’s registered just four power play points, he’s a big reason the Sharks are fifth in the NHL with a man advantage at 23.3 percent.
That’s the one area where Thornton has seemingly changed his game a bit. Last season – and for most of his career, really – Thornton has had a tendency to slow down play on the man advantage while setting up along the half-wall. The power play struggled, after it became perhaps a bit too predictable.
This season Thornton seems to be moving the puck more quickly, thereby keeping that unit in constant motion, as is McLellan’s preference. While he might not have the point production he’s used to on the power play (four points, all assists), the team has benefited overall.
Thornton also has seven goals – not reaching that mark until Jan. 25 last season. To be fair, three of those have come into an empty net, but Thornton currently has 45 shots on goal through 23 games. He had just 29 shots through the first 23 games last season.
“I think he’s shooting the puck more,” McLellan said.
The start to the season has been inconsistent for the Sharks, as they sit in fifth place in the Pacific Division and 21st overall in the NHL with a .522 points percentage.
Thornton is hopeful that the team will start to string together some wins now that their early road trips are in the past.
“We’ve had a tough schedule up to this point, so now we just need to take care of business at home and we’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s been a long season so far. We’re only 22 games in, but we’ve got 16 road games out of the way. We’d like to play well at home. We feel like we can play better at home. If we do that, we should be in good shape.”
As it’s been for so many years now, he’ll have to lead the way.