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Joe Thornton’s health will make or break Sharks’ season

The Sharks didn’t have a big playoff cushion, and Jumbo’s scary-looking injury could turn them into an also-ran. Whatever happens, they should play the trade market conservatively.

Not to be morbid – but to fully understand how grim things suddenly feel in San Jose, it’s worth taking a quick look at what happened to Joe Thornton last night.
 

The footage tells us a lot. Andrew Copp crashes into Mikkel Boedker, who falls on teammate Thornton’s right leg, which buckles inward at an extremely unnatural angle.

The collision occurred in the third period of Tuesday night’s Sharks home game versus the Jets, and Thornton didn’t return for the start of overtime.

“Well, he doesn’t leave unless… we all know him, so it’s not a good feeling,” coach Peter DeBoer told reporters after the game.

Every second of jaw clenching and nail biting is warranted here. Thornton is 38 and had surgery to repair a torn MCL and partially torn ACL in his left knee last summer. The fact he’s hurt his right knee instead is about the only “positive” Sharks fans can take away at this moment. Maybe the injury turns out to be minor, but it certainly didn’t look minor, Thornton was scheduled for an MRI Wednesday morning. He remains as important to the Sharks as almost any player. After a powerhouse 2015-16 campaign in which he finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting and placed fourth in scoring, Thornton slipped to seven goals and 50 points last season, signalling an inevitable career decline. He’s reversed that trend so far this year, though, with 13 goals and 36 points already, while still showcasing elite defensive ability with strong possession and faceoff numbers. He’s very much still this team’s No. 1 pivot and best driver of play among the forwards.

Without him, what are the Sharks, then? At 26-14-7, they occupy second place in the Pacific Division. They lead the outside-the-playoffs L.A. Kings by just four points, however. Can a Thornton-less squad hold that position? San Jose still has strong goaltending, whether it’s from Martin Jones or the sizzling-hot Aaron Dell. The blueline looks fine, with all-world Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic leading the way and some noteworthy strides this season from youngsters Dylan DeMelo, Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed. The forward corps has a respectable blend of veteran depth from Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Boedker and Tomas Hertl and up-and-comers such as Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier.

But even with Thornton, the Sharks sat in a tier comfortably below the Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. And would you pick San Jose to win a series over the Calgary Flames or St. Louis Blues right now? What about the Colorado Avalanche, who just completed a 10-game win streak? Without Thornton, the Sharks might become a bubble team.

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And that’s why GM Doug Wilson must tread carefully. Now is not the time to “take a shot” and aggressively chase down forward upgrades, especially if Thornton is out for the year. San Jose has been very good for a very long time, missing the playoffs just once in the past 13 seasons. It’s no surprise, then, that the Sharks’ farm system is pretty barren. They nabbed Meier ninth overall after that lone playoff miss in 2015, but he’s their only pick in the top half of the first round across the past 10 drafts. Having dealt away some first-rounders during playoff pursuits, San Jose has only picked in the first round in six of the past 10 drafts, and half those first-rounders – Charlie Coyle, Mirco Mueller and Nikolay Goldobin – play on other teams now, traded away.

There’s nothing wrong with mortgaging futures in pursuit of Cup contention, of course. Trading Coyle brought in Burns. Goldobin was part of a package for speedy veteran Jannik Hansen. Wilson was totally justified in adding pieces to a team with serious championship aspirations. Right now, though, it would feel dishonest to call the Sharks a top-tier contender. Gunning for big-time rental pieces via trade would further empty a development pipeline among the league’s weakest. For perspective, in Future Watch 2017, our panel of anonymous NHL scouts and GMs rated the Sharks’ 21-and-younger talent crop 25th overall – and Mueller and Goldobin were still on the team at the time, ranked as their No. 1 and 3 prospects not yet in the NHL. Wilson has almost nothing left. It’s time to start replenishing. He’s already dealt away his second- and third-round pick for this June’s draft. Now he must resist the temptation to move the first-rounder, especially if Thornton’s injury proves serious. There’s no point adding a veteran merely to scrub the deck of a sinking ship.

Even if Thornton returns after a short absence, the Sharks might be better off standing pat and accumulating some young players with higher upside. They had their shot at the Cup two years ago and missed. Now it’s time to regroup.