Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing series in which Kevin Kurz will highlight a different Sharks player every day leading up to the start of training camp.
Name/Position: Joe Thornton, C
2015-16 cap hit/contract: $6.75 million, signed through 2016-17
2014-15 year in review: When Joe Thornton was stripped of the captaincy last summer the message that management wanted to convey was that the Sharks should not be viewed as “Thornton’s team” anymore, either internally or externally. No longer would one player be the dominant presence or the face of the franchise.
It didn’t go very well.
In the first year of his three-year contract extension, Thornton was the Sharks’ best player for most of the season. He faded late when it was evident that the team was going nowhere, but without Thornton the Sharks would have been out of the playoff race much sooner. Thornton finished the year with 65 points in 78 games, including a team-leading 49 assists. Checking the advanced stats, Thornton was again one of the best possession players in the league.
Off of the ice, there was a bit of a change with the future Hall of Famer. The public responsibilities that come with being an NHL captain shifted to Joe Pavelski. There was the much-publicized quarrel with general manager Doug Wilson. His relationship with the media became dodgy. Finally, at the conclusion of the season, more evidence surfaced that Thornton and head coach Todd McLellan weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.
Through all that, Thornton showed he could still be one of the best players in the league.
2015-16 outlook: Considering how healthy he’s been throughout much of his career, there’s no reason to think Thornton won’t continue to produce at a high level. He and Pavelski, along with whoever ends up on the left wing, will likely be the Sharks’ top line again.
What will be interesting to monitor is how new coach Peter DeBoer handles the team’s leadership structure. We know there will be a captain in place by opening night – likely Pavelski. Will Thornton remain as an alternate? Is there even a slight chance that DeBoer gives him the captaincy back? Or, will the new coach attempt to implement Wilson’s stated plan of turning the team over to younger leaders like Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels? As evidenced by last season, that’s much easier said that done.
There’s also the matter of Thornton’s future in San Jose. He doesn’t want to play anywhere else at this point, as is his right. But what if the Sharks falter this season and are out of the playoff race by the trade deadline? Would Thornton – who isn’t getting any younger at 36 – decide he’d like to play for a team that has a better shot at the Stanley Cup? You can bet that if the Sharks aren’t a contender this year, they’ll want to move some of their veteran players for assets while they still have value.
If the Sharks return to contention, though, Thornton will clearly have to play a large role. That's what the team is banking on.