SAN JOSE — With the uncertainty surrounding the health of Logan Couture and now Joe Thornton, the Sharks chances of making another deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring are quickly losing air with just one week left in the regular season.
In the best-case scenario, the Sharks will be heading into the playoffs with their top two centers both fighting through injuries at a time when the team is struggling through a 2-8 stretch, having coughed up a nine-point lead in the Pacific Division in just 11 days.
In the worst-case scenario, actually, forget about the worst-case scenario; if the Sharks wind up losing just one of their top line centers for most or all of the first round, their chances of playing hockey in May, let alone June, will be severely crippled.
Last year, the Sharks depth down the middle with Thornton, Couture, Patrick Marleau and Chris Tierney was a key reason why the team finally broke through and reached the Stanley Cup Final. With quality centers on each line, the Sharks created matchup problems around the league, riding the alignment to a 28-12-4 record in the second half and a first-round victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
Although the added depth with Marleau and Tierney provided the group with a new fold, the Sharks one-two punch at the center position with Thornton and Couture is why the team continues to be elite despite its aging core.
In short, Thornton and Couture are perfect complements for one another atop the Sharks lineup.
Although his numbers have dipped a bit this season, Thornton continues to be an irreplaceable part of the Sharks offense. With his “jumbo”-sized frame, tremendous wingspan and preternatural passing vision, Thornton still finds ways to create time and space for his teammates even in an era where it’s increasingly difficult to find ice without exceptional speed.
Brent Burns wouldn’t be leading the league in shots on goal (310) without Thornton’s ability to attract defenses and set him up with open shooting lanes at the point. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that Joe Pavelski would be just one goal away from clinching his fifth 30-goal season in six years if it weren’t for Thornton’s ability to slip the puck through tight spaces on the inside, giving Pavelski quality looks in between the faceoff dots, an area that’s as cramped as the Silicon Valley housing market these days.
But as the gray strip in Thornton’s beard grows wider, he’s benefiting from playing with a defensive-minded counterpart such as Couture, who draws the league’s top match-ups on a nightly basis.
When the Chicago Blackhawks are in town, it’s Couture, along with defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who’s tasked with shutting down Patrick Kane’s line. In the Stanley Cup Final, Couture drew the assignment of going head-to-head with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, and if the Sharks land a date with the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, he’ll be asked to slow down the league’s leading scorer, Connor McDavid.
Despite the defensive challenges he faces on nightly basis, Couture continues to be a threat on the offensive side, too, ranking third on the team in scoring with two more points than Thornton (52) after notching 30 points in 24 games during the playoffs last spring, which was tops in the NHL.
Couture’s ability to square off against the top centers in the league gives the Sharks a near-nightly match-up edge because it allows Thornton and Pavelski’s line to go to work against opponents’ second lines, which rarely feature first ballot Hall of Famers and top-10 goal scorers.
Suffice it to say, if either Couture or Thornton is sidelined during the playoffs, it will severely impair their ability to hang with their Pacific Division rivals in the spring.
For instance, if Couture is unavailable for a series with the Oilers, McDavid will feast off whichever match-up he draws. as he did Thursday in the Sharks’ 3-2 loss in Edmonton. If Couture is in but Thornton is out, the Sharks will lose their match-up against the Oilers pedestrian second line of Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.
A series against the first-place Anaheim Ducks would be even more daunting as the Sharks — without either Couture or Thornton — would be hard-pressed to go pound for pound with top-line center Ryan Getzlaf (23 points in his last 19 games) and Ryan Kesler, who’s in the running for another Selke Trophy.
But at this point, it’s still unclear just how severe both Couture and Thornton’s injuries are, which is why the Sharks can hold off on their funeral arrangements for the time being. The organization is notoriously secretive when it comes to injuries, so Sharks Territory will be on edge until either one or both players makes an appearance at practice, a morning skate or during pregame warm-ups.
Having said that, if the playoffs start next week and the dwindling Sharks are forced to kick off their Western Conference title defense without one of their elite centers, it might be appropriate to show up at the Tank wearing your black jersey.