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Inside the Cage: Replacing Thornton's Production

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

No question the Sharks are going to miss Joe Thornton, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on Wednesday to repair his right MCL.

But maybe - just maybe - the Sharks are better equipped to soldier on in Jumbo Joe's absence better than at any time during his 13 seasons in San Jose. 

As the Sharks pick up following their post-All-Star break portion of the schedule in Pittsburgh to start a five-game road trip, the team boasts seven skaters with double-figure goal totals. The group includes Logan Couture (20), Tomas Hertl (14), Chris Tierney (12), Timo Meier (11), Joe Pavelski (10), Joonas Donskoi (10) and Thornton himself (13). 

That's the second largest number of double-figure goal scorers in the league, and ranks just one behind the New York Rangers, who possess eight. 

In addition, San Jose has four more players - Marc-Edouard Vlasic (8), Brent Burns (7), Mikkel Boedker and Melker Karlsson (7 each) - certainly well within reach of joining the double-digit goal club. And assuming rookie Kevin Labanc - with 15 points in 16 games - gets a little better luck than his 6.1 shooting percentage suggests, he could be a fifth skater to hit double-figures, too, if he pots five more goals. 

The Sharks look to be a slam dunk to finish the season with 11 double-figure goals scorers, and possibly 12. In historical perspective, San Jose has not had more than nine reach double digits since 10 did in 2013-14. The Sharks haven't had 11 since 2006-07, and the club has never possessed as many as 11 during Thornton's time in San Jose.

So, yes, maybe the Sharks are equipped internally to bridge the offensive gap until Thornton returns. And while typically it can take a minimum of six weeks to return from a procedure similar to his, there is no time table for Thornton's return because he'd just try to beat it anyhow.

"The nice thing is that this isn't happening in Game 5 when we still don't know what our identity is as a team or what works for us," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "The young guys have had 40 games to get some confidence and figure out how they can be successful at this level."

The key to sustaining an offense that ranks first in the NHL with 44 goals scored since the calendar turned to 2018 appears to be the emergence of the younger players at forward. For instance:

  • Tierney has already set career highs in goals, points (13), power-play goals (3) and short-handed goals (2) while on pace for a plus-minus best (plus-5) and faceoff percentage (51.4 percent).
  • Hertl is one goal shy of the 15 he scored in his rookie campaign of 2013-14, and another eight gives him a new 5-year career high. He's clearly a more polished and confident skater in the offensive zone with his prowess on draws and ability to use his body to protect the puck.
  • Meier, who long ago surpassed his modest high of three goals, is tied for the most goals scored on the team since Dec. 1 with nine. And 13 of his 17 points have come since Dec. 1.
  • Donskoi is clearly back to the offensive force he displayed his rookie year of 2015-16 - and then some - when he scored 11 goals and 26 points. Donskoi's next goal will tie his career high. 

This is exactly how the Sharks want to continue to trend over the next month and beyond because there is no one to replace Thornton inside or outside the organization. We're talking about one of the game's greatest and most consistent offensive performer.

"As much as it hurts to play the game without the big guy, you've got to step up and other guys have to run with the opportunity," Couture said. "If you're in this organization, you're getting an opportunity up here you better come up and give it all you've got because this is a good time to make an impression right now."

Not long before his injury, Thornton moved into 12th place on the NHL's all-time assist list with 1,030, 16th place in all-time points with 1,427 and 21st in all-time games played with 1,493.

Video: NYR@SJS: Couture buries stellar feed from Labanc

There were signs of a more balanced attack just before the injury, too. A total of 20 of the 21 players who have suited up for San Jose in the month of January have recorded at least one point, and 14 of those 21 skaters have scored at least one goal.

"The optimism is with our younger guys, the way they've played," Couture said. "That helps cushion the blow a little bit, but you can't replace Joe Thornton. You just can't do it." 

And, because general manager Doug Wilson and DeBoer agree the team enjoys success because it's a sum of their parts, equal responsibility to share the load while Thornton is out rides with the veterans as much as the youth. 

To that end, the Sharks have to be thrilled with these kind of developments:

  • Burns has responded from no goals in the team's first 20 games to having posted all his goals and 34 of his 41 points since Nov. 22 as the defending Norris winner again leads all NHL defensemen in points, ranks first in assists (27) and is tied for fourth in goals since that date.
  • Boedker has shown a recent bounce back by having scored four of his goals since Jan. 15, and is tied with Thornton for the most goals on San Jose since that date. 
  • While playing through injury early on, Pavelski has rallied from posting only six points in each of the season's first two months to nearly double the output with 11 points produced in both December and January.

"We'll need everyone," Couture predicted. "We'll need four lines and six D. And we need both goaltenders to play well. It's a tough league to win in, and it's a tough league to win in when you're missing one of your best players."

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