Only two games into the season and the San Jose Sharks face a significant void at the center position with Joe Thornton being placed on the injured reserve list.
The San Jose Sharks did not expect Joe Thornton to carry the team this season in hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup to the Bay Area. After two significant knee injuries the past two seasons — both requiring surgery — the productivity of Thornton on the top line was one question facing the Sharks in training camp.
In the preseason, the rust was evident as Thornton did not look sharp on the ice. In those games, Thornton was trying to get his skating legs back after not playing for a long stretch, due to his injury.
Against Anaheim in the season opener, the top line led by Thornton had a game to forget, struggling in all aspects of the contest. The Sharks dominated play, but special teams were the difference, as San Jose fell to the Ducks at home.
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On the road against Los Angeles, Thornton appeared to show no signs of his knee ailing him, and turned in a strong performance. He registered an assist on Timo Meier’s goal to give the Sharks an early lead in the first period.
Heavy forechecking and physicality often come when the Sharks and the Kings collide, and the first meeting between the two teams brought plenty of hard hitting. Meier and Evander Kane got in the forefront of the altercations with both getting on the scoresheet and being involved in a couple of scrums.
Thornton did not appear to do anything to suggest he tweaked his knee during the Sharks’ overtime win over the Kings. The move of putting him on the injured reserved list is precautionary according to Doug Wilson.
For Thornton to miss time is significant given the toughness the 39-year-old veteran brings to the Sharks. In the playoffs against Edmonton, he played on one leg after tearing his ACL and MCL against Vancouver, just before the regular season concluded.
At the beginning of last season, signs of Thornton not being at full strength were evident as he struggled to keep up with the pace of play. The turnaround did not come until around January where his production became more consistent.
But just as he turned the corner, another setback came after a teammate collided with his knee as he skated off the ice. Thornton revealed after the season ended he suffered the same injury that had knocked him out previously.
Despite not being 100 percent to start the 2017-18 campaign, coach Peter DeBoer was not going to keep Thornton out of the lineup. He continues to battle for pucks and is active with backchecking on defense.
Still, the fact Thornton is going to miss a few games is concerning, and hopefully, the injury is not severe. Hopefully, Wilson is right about it being a precautionary move. San Jose’s next few games are on the road, but none should prove to be too taxing without Thornton being there as a difference maker.
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Dylan Gambrell was called up from the San Jose Barracuda after Thornton was placed on IR. He scored two goals in the Barracuda’s season opener. Gambrell was expected to compete for a roster spot this season, but a poor start to training camp hurt his chances. He did make a strong push at the end, but starting with the Barracuda was the ideal situation for him, so he could play.
Gambrell will go on the fourth line if he gets a chance to be in the lineup. Rourke Chartier could finally make his debut at some point, after being the surprise player to make the opening roster. Concussions have hurt Chartier’s career at an early age but he has shown his offensive caliber when healthy.
Joe Pavelski will likely center the top line. Like Thornton, the captain is struggling through the season’s first two games. He must find a way to step up in the absence of Thornton as he is in a contract year. As of now, discussion of an extension have not taken place.
For now, the two issues needing immediate attention are the power play and goaltending. Special teams are sloppy with the man advantage, as the Sharks cannot get organized enough to create quality chances. Chemistry is ongoing with the newly acquired Erik Karlsson.
Martin Jones did not look good against the Ducks, allowing four goals on 14 shots, preventing the Sharks from having a better outcome.
Against the Kings, the second goal he allowed should have been stopped. Jones did not react fast enough to see the puck bounce off the backboard, and did not square himself up against the post. His late reaction saw the puck go off his shoulder and into the back of the net allowing the Kings to tie the game.
Expect Aaron Dell to make his first start between the pipes his season during the road swing.
Back-to-back games against the New York Islanders, and the Philadelphia Flyers get the east-coast part of the trip started. Games against the New York Rangers, and the New Jersey Devils conclude the road trip. Philly will provide the biggest test, but all remaining games are winnable as the three teams are in rebuilding phases.
Thornton not being in the lineup should not alarm current players. Young players from last year stepped up after he left the lineup. Adversity came early but the Sharks are in good position, as the season has yet to get underway fully.