The San Jose Sharks' latest playoff run came to another disappointing end with a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Even worse than the loss itself was the way it happened, becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to lose a 3-0 series lead.
A loss like that can be pretty damaging to a franchise. Not because of what it means as part of some larger and often times misguided narrative (the Sharks are chokers!), but because of the overreaction that is sure to follow from the front office. It's usually something along the lines of this: this group of players didn't get the job done, didn't reach our goals, so now we have to make changes. Drastic changes. Major changes.
The Sharks have already decided to bring back general manager Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan, so any changes that come this offseason will be focussed on the roster. Wilson has acknowledged that it might be time for younger players to take on larger leadership roles and that it's perhaps time to move on from some of the team's established veterans.
The team already traded the free agent rights of defenseman Dan Boyle to the New York Islanders for a draft pick.
The other two names that have been talked about the most are Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, not only the two cornerstones of the franchise for the past decade, but also the two players that have been synonymous with all of their playoff shortcomings (which is more than a little silly since both have been wildly productive playoff performers). Both signed three-year contract extensions to remain with the Sharks during the 2013-14 regular season so any trade (or even the thought of one) would be a pretty sudden change in direction.
For now, let's just focus on Thornton, still one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL and perhaps the Sharks' most valuable player.
His agent -- who also happens to be his brother, John Thornton -- recently told David Pollack of the San Jose Mercury News that the one thing that could convince him to re-think his decision to want to remain with the team (his contract has a no-trade clause) would be if he felt the fans did not want him in San Jose.
If Sharks fans are smart, they'll do whatever they can to make sure he doesn't feel that way.
I get that Thornton will be 35 at the start of next season and that he has probably already played his best hockey. I also get that the Sharks have yet to advance to a Stanley Cup Final with him as the focal point of the team, and when a team with that much talent and skill fails to achieve it's ultimate goal, changes are going to be made. But trading a player like Thornton is change for the sake of change, and that isn't productive.
It's usually destructive.
Even after this year's disappointment at the hands of the Kings, the Sharks' Stanley Cup window is still wide open and Thornton, as a superstar center, is still a major part of that. Every team that wins the Cup has a top-player like that in the middle of its top line.
Just look at the teams that have won the Cup in the salary cap era:
2006: Eric Staal (Carolina)
2007: Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim)
2008: Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit)
2009: Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh)
2010: Jonathan Toews (Chicago)
2011: Patrice Bergeron (Boston)
2012: Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles)
2013: Jonathan Toews (Chicago)
The Sharks still have that type of player with Thornton, who is not only still one of the best playmakers and passers in the NHL (and also one of the best to ever play in the NHL), but the guy that actually keeps the whole thing together on the ice for them. The table below looks at the Sharks' performance in even-strength situations (Corsi percentage, which is just a measure of total shot attempts, as well as goals for and goals against) over each of the past three seasons with Thornton on the ice, versus when he is not on the ice.
|Year||Corsi% W/Thornton||GF W/Thornton||GA W/Thornton||Corsi % W/O Thornotn||GF W/O Thornton||GA W/O Thornton|
That's a stunning difference. With him on the ice over the past three years they have controlled the puck at a championship level and outscored their opponents by 48 goals. Without him, they've barely broken even in shot attempts and been outscored by 19. Thornton does have the luxury of playing alongside other top-line players (Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Marleau) which certainly helps his numbers, but he is also usually matching up against the other team's best players.
For example: This next table looks at Thornton's 15 most comment opponents over the same three-year stretch and how those players did in their ice-time against Thornton, and how they did against every other player they played against in the NHL.
|Player||Time vs. Thornton||GF% Vs. Thornton||CF% Vs Thornton||Time vs. Others||GF% Vs. Others||CF% Vs. Others|
It is admittedly not the biggest sampling of ice-time, but almost all of them perform significantly worse against Thornton. Once you get past the top-15, some of the names that follow are Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Sedin, Bobby Ryan, Taylor Hall and Marian Hossa, most of whom share similar struggles against Thornton.
Sports are funny sometimes. We love to talk about how it's always about "the team" and that no one player is bigger than that. When a team wins, it's because of the collective group, and everybody coming together as one and knowing their role.
That all seems to go out the window when a team -- especially one that has huge expectations following it around -- loses. In that case it's all because of that one guy that didn't do enough, and more often than not these days that also happens to be the best player that takes that heat.
There is no doubt that the Sharks have some holes to fill and some changes that need to be made. But the last change they need to be considering at this point is moving their best and most valuable player.