The San Jose Sharks have been reduced in their time to being the NHL’s glorified version of the Portland Trail Blazers—almost always in the playoffs, always ultimately being on the business end of a handshake line. It’s almost a zen koan at this point; when unrequited love turns to “Call us when you get your act together.”
And so it is again, with the team always “in the mix” (ITM) a game away from ending up as counter spillage, down 3-1 to the Vegas Golden Newbies and seemingly done in emotionally by a superior team and its own failings. They have been reduced to reading comment threads in which fans argue about the new motivations for the old plotline, which is “Why they are the same team every year, no matter what they do to be different?”
They play Game 5 tonight before their own fans in The Tank, the arena whose nickname has become its playoff motto. Nobody expects much from them except for those veteran observers who know that there is no such thing as momentum between games and that they could win tonight just out of spite, and nobody whatsoever, not even the delusionals who have had the optimism beaten out of them time and again, thinks they have three more wins in them then 12 after that, maybe even including them.
This, after all, was the team that took on Evander Kane and then Erik Karlsson and became one of the most popular preseason choices for deep contention, and now the concept of utter disarray looks down on it as too messy. And in the middle of this, as he always is, is Joe Thornton, the sport’s version of Ernie Banks.
There are always lists of “best player never to win it all,” the latest and most comprehensive being Sean McIndoe’s at The Athletic, but they always end in anticlimax because Thornton has topped the list for at least the past five years. Unlike Banks, though, who only had a couple of chances to win something enduring because of the general rancidity of those Cubs teams, Thornton has always been ITM, and except for 2016, the year they defied the laws of competitive physics and got to the Cup final, he has always been collateral footage for someone else’s highlight reel.
He has changed his game at least twice to accommodate the requirements of different coaches. He has been the center of the dressing room and support for the center of the dressing room. He can grow a John Brown beard in 45 minutes. Everyone likes him (well, maybe not Tomas Nosek, whose head interfered with Thornton’s mood in Game 3), and everyone speaks in the most glowing terms about his abilities even at this late stage of his career.
And now, with a galling first-round expulsion the Sharks’ very likely fate, and the specter of a roster and maybe even organizational remake (re: assistant coaches, the first line of frustration for any team) for the summer as the response, the topic of Thornton rises yet again—if only because he may at some point finally decide that this is just one thing he’s not going to get out of his career.
He has never really tackled the subject frontally, because he never tackles any subject frontally. He is a master of deflection in good times and bad, and because this is spring, this is a bad time. Tempers are frayed, the fight not to point fingers is taking more and more energy, and the team’s newest rival has blocked their hats in successive years with increasing laughter. The goaltending has been horrendous, the defense has been reduced to shambolic levels by play and injury, and they have picked unsuccessful spats with youth around the ice. So it’s one more lost year to the quest for Thornton’s Winterfell (I am told this is a current cultural thing, so fine).
This is the decision that helped Patrick Marleau leave for Toronto (that, and a three-year deal the Sharks would never have matched), and given that Thornton’s contract hits E again this summer, it is the decision that confronts him now.
At this point, you almost hope the 39-year-old Thornton does just chuck it in, because the fun he has playing and hanging around the lads has at some point got to lose to the physical toll and mental savaging of being told by fate that he is either the wrong horse for this race or he is the right jockey on the wrong horse. The Sharks are defined by him; he is their emotional center for anyone who follows them, and when he leaves, so follows the implosion.
But it might be a price the franchise must pay for autocorrecting “playoffs” with “disappointment,” “anger,” and now “resignation.” When your years are so relentlessly reduced to online debates about who needs to go and how quickly, maybe implosion is the only thing left. Maybe it happens whether general manager Doug Wilson wants it to happen or not. He has rolled heavy dice repeatedly to get a Cup, for himself, for his adopted town, for Thornton, and the result has been a never-ending version of Strictly Come Dancing, in which your feet move a lot but you’re still on the same dance floor watching someone get to the stage.
And the only bit of memorabilia to come out of it may be a statue of His Beardiness, who gets to grapple yet again with the concept of having his years in San Jose end with his name engraved on the plaque below a sculpture outside the arena but not on the metal plate bolted to facing of the prize he likely will never have.
Ray Ratto misses Darryl Sutter, the first man to ever successfully swallow his own head, mandible over face.