Doug Wilson was a little wrong.
In this morning’s press conference to discuss Joe Thornton signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he said the San Jose Sharks were second to the Pittsburgh Penguins in wins and points since Jumbo’s first game in teal on December 2, 2005.
While San Jose is indeed second in victories — they have one less than Pittsburgh’s 660 — the Sharks have the most points (1,443), regulation wins (531), and regulation-overtime wins (589) in the NHL since Thornton’s arrival to then-HP Pavilion. They’re also tied for the best power play (20.9%) and have scored the fourth-most goals in the league.
And yes, all those points and goals didn’t amount to a Stanley Cup — but it’s just one way to underscore Thornton’s impact on the San Jose Sharks franchise.
Here’s another way.
“There’s probably very few players in all sports that could alter a franchise in the way he has,” Wilson said. “Even more than the numbers, he set a culture of professionalism, an unmatched love for the game of hockey. He really helped solidify, I think, the city of San Jose as a true hockey town.”
Of course, Wilson deserves just as much credit for that, from agreeing to suit up for the expansion San Jose Sharks after a distinguished playing career in Chicago, to acquiring Thornton as Sharks general manager.
But here’s something that Wilson might be very wrong about: Is San Jose still a playoff team?
Wilson asserted last week: “Do I think this is a playoff team with this roster? Yes, I do.”
Joe Thornton had his doubts, otherwise he would’ve come back.
Wilson acknowledged as much: “[Toronto] had a better year than we did last year. That’s a fair and honest evaluation with where it sits today.
“Joe, at 41, is looking at where the runaway left is and the opportunity. I fully understand that.”
It’s not as if Wilson didn’t try to keep his franchise icon. But Wilson — understandably after years of doing so — wasn’t willing to push all his chips into the middle of table anymore with this current San Jose Sharks roster.
“Joe and I have a very open, honest relationship. I shared with him the things that we were doing,” Wilson noted, before revealing, “we weren’t going to…in this year’s draft, we ended up drafting nine forwards. We needed to rejuvenate and replenish our system. I wasn’t really in a position to move, potentially, our first-round pick next year.”
It’s fair to say the San Jose Sharks are out of the “all-in” game, and Thornton could see that. The additions of Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Donato, Matt Nieto, and Marleau didn’t move the needle enough for somebody who’s declared “I’m a Shark” on multiple occasions. Even last February, Jumbo was already pining for greener pastures.
“I need to win a Stanley Cup,” the 41-year-old acknowledged on a Zoom call this morning.
Wilson tried to accommodate Thornton’s wish during the most recent Trade Deadline: “Joe and I were working on it together, but there just wasn’t a match. There wasn’t a team that he wanted to go be a part of or a team that needed a centerman or that type of fit. We worked together on that just as I did with Patty Marleau. We just couldn’t get a match.”
So what are the San Jose Sharks, if they aren’t “all-in” anymore? They’re still trying to win, of course — but they’ll have to do it with a jumbo-sized hole in their line-up and in their hearts.
“You don’t replace the love of the game, the passion and the energy that he brings. It’s up to everybody else who saw what he did, how he lived his life, emulate that and bring it to the table so we can re-establish our game and our team,” Wilson said of Thornton. “You have to have a whole leadership group. It’s on a whole group of players. It’s not a one-person leadership mentality.”
Wilson expressed faith in a group that honestly, Thornton looks to have lost some belief in.
“We as an organization have gone through this a couple times before in the past and we’ve bounced back very quickly,” Wilson pointed out, hearkening back to a disastrous 2002-03 season that segued into the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals berth the next year and a up-and-down 2014-15 campaign that led to a 2016 Stanley Cup Final appearance. The San Jose GM added: “When Patty went to Toronto [in 2017], you had players like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Barclay Goodrow, Tomas Hertl step up and evolve their game.”
So who’s going to rise to the occasion for the Sharks next year?
Wilson pointed to the team’s younger veterans: “Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, it’s their time. They need to step up to the next level.”
Besides Hertl, Meier, and Labanc, he referenced captain Logan Couture and Evander Kane: “We’ve got five top-six forwards.”
He added, talking about Joel Kellman, Fredrik Handemark, Dylan Gambrell, and other pivots who have never played regular top-nine NHL minutes: “I’ve got eight or nine centermen to vie and fight for those two spots [at third and fourth-line center].
Wilson has spoken consistently about “Our best players needing to be our best players” all off-season — and there’s no doubt that he’s addressing Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.
“I like our defense,” Wilson noted. “I want to leave a spot open for some competition for some of the younger guys.”
He’s also hoping for more out of the Gambrells, Joachim Blichfelds, and Noah Gregors on his squad: “We have some guys who had a taste last year, they’re now going to be a year older. So we think they’re ready to compete.”
The San Jose Sharks have about $3 million dollars in cap space right now. They’re missing an NHL-proven top-six forward, an entire third line, and a bottom-pairing defenseman. They still have time — will they take advantage of the stingiest free agent market in recent memory? Or will they pretty much stand pat?
Thornton, it seems, has made up of his mind on that score. Wilson, as usual, wasn’t tipping his hand to us.
“Would it be nice to add some things?” Wilson mused. “We probably have to re-establish certain areas of our game and earn some things to be added. We certainly have that flexibility to do that.”
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