It may not be a popular move, and it may not benefit the team immediately, but in the long run, moving Jumbo Joe now is the right move for Sharks general manager Doug Wilson to make.
But the Sharks captain is also turning 35 in July and will begin the downside of his career shortly. As a general manager, it is always better to trade a player away a year or two too early rather than a year too late. Trading Thornton now while he’s still among the league leaders guarantees a better return for the Sharks.
San Jose has been one of the league’s elite teams since Thornton was traded to Team Teal back in 2005. Thornton has given a lot to this team. He won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer and the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP in 2005-06. He has appeared in three All-Star Games since joining the Sharks and is the only player in NHL history other than Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to record back-to-back season with 90 or more assists.
But all of that came in the regular season. There is the little matter of the playoffs. Despite being one of the best teams in the NHL since Thornton’s arrival, San Jose has never reached the Stanley Cup Final, let alone won a title.
Thornton has been one of the team’s undisputed leaders since he arrived in San Jose. For whatever reason, that leadership has not been able to get a very talented team over the top. Nine times the Sharks qualified for the playoffs while Thornton was one of the franchise's leaders and best players. Nine times San Jose’s season ended without hockey’s ultimate prize.
This year, the disappointment reached a new low. The Sharks held a 3-0 lead in their opening-round playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings only to lose four straight games, including Game 7 at home. That made the Sharks only the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead.
These constant playoff disappointments can’t all be blamed on Thornton. But when the leaders of a team fail to help them reach their potential for nearly a decade, some changes in leadership are needed.
Management has changed the supporting cast over the years, but the leadership duo of Thornton and Patrick Marleau has remained in place.
After the collapse against the Kings, Wilson vowed to make changes to the team. They have to be more than cosmetic alterations. After nearly a decade of falling short, the leadership has to be altered.
Thornton himself sees the writing on the wall. He has a no-trade clause in his contract, which runs for another two seasons. But according to the Mercury News' David Pollak, Thornton has indicated a willingness to agree to a trade if the fans no longer want him in San Jose. Thornton is leaving the door open to a trade if it’s a deal with the right team and under the right circumstances.
Wilson has to at least explore those options and see what Thornton may get him in return on the open market. A trade gives Wilson the chance to make his team a bit younger and change the chemistry in the locker room. What’s there hasn’t worked in nine years. It’s time for a change.
The Sharks cannot become the next Calgary Flames. In 2004, the Flames went to the Stanley Cup Final under the leadership of Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. Nine years later, Iginla and Kiprusoff were still the best two players on the Flames. But Calgary held on to them for too long. The rest of the team got mediocre.
It won’t be a popular move for the Sharks to trade Joe Thornton. But the job of a hockey general manager isn’t to do what’s popular, it’s to do what helps his team win a championship. The current team has been good, but not good enough. It’s time for a change.