I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling that Joe Thornton is something of a connoisseur when it comes to tragedy.
OK, let me backtrack considerably; Thornton could be an expert in the field of personal sporting tragedies. The bigger picture is likely just the opposite ... meaning his life is probably pretty great overall.
By CapGeek.com’s measure, “Jumbo Joe” ranks 17th all time in career (on-ice) NHL earnings with $76.43 million and his $20.25 million extension will leave him a touch ahead of Joe Sakic's whopping $96.4 million (currently fourth place). Thornton turns 35 on July 2 and while he may just hang up his skates after this deal - if not during it - he could easily cross the $100 million barrier before he turns 40. Even if much of that money was eaten up by taxes, fancy cars and personal toast preparation assistants, my guess is that he’s crazy rich. I’m not saying that buys happiness … but it can’t hurt.
He's also a Hall of Famer by my estimation (especially based on the "If Dino Ciccarelli can make it" standard*) and probably has a lot of fun in the NHL before mid-April rolls around.
Still, if we can play the naive, childlike fan for a moment and just consider the agony of defeat and irritation of being scapegoated, “Big Bird” might just know the most pain in the NHL in recent years (and maybe in all sports since the days of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas). You might say that Patrick Marleau feels that same pain, but Thornton absorbed basically all of the same defeats that Marleau did - the Sharks’ only other deep playoff run was one of overachievement, I’d say - and he also suffered through the odious treatment that came from being a great player who couldn’t drag tepid Boston Bruins teams far enough to satisfy that market’s often obnoxious media members.
Thornton owns one of the truly defined palates for pain in sports and I bet that Wednesday’s Game 7 loss (and the Los Angeles Kings’ “reverse sweep”) represented a genuine delicacy of degradation.
I’ve openly stated that I get deeply annoyed by lazy “choker” comparisons (not to mention the concept of professional athletes getting to such a high level while being unable to handle pressure/big games/whatever), but I have to admit there’s at least something to the Tony Romo - Thornton comparison. Much like Romo, he gets thrown under the bus no matter what his 20-ish other rostered teammates do or don’t do. He also tends to fail/experience great misfortune on grand scales in borderline-Shakespearean ways.
Still, as a born-again optimist,** let me shift the comparison a few miles away from Romo to another Dallas athlete who once frequently knew similar blame: Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki.
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After a decade of people saying he was too soft/decrying various character flaws of the Big German and his team, Nowitzki played some of the best basketball of his career to usurp Lebron James and the Miami Heat to win a championship in 2011. Much like Thornton, he’s a big man with a soft touch who was often a scapegoat. He’s also something of a free spirit (I could totally imagine Thornton in a photo like this … maybe even with Steve Nash, as well) and plays on a well-managed team that stayed in the picture even as people began to give up on them. Nowitzki won his championship at 32, but Thornton’s close enough in age that it’s conceivable that he’ll finally break through if the Sharks don’t hit the panic button.
If you look at the Sharks’ salary structure, it’s a remarkable array of value contracts. Sure, there are some flaws - their defense could use a little work and Antti Niemi might be stuck in good but not good enough mode - yet plenty of teams would kill for such a collection of talent. I think Todd McLellan is a solid-to-great coach, yet if you have to feed the unwashed masses some meat, get rid of him and keep just about everything else on the “core” level.
Long story short, the Sharks may benefit from combining competence with patience like the Mavericks once did. Let’s also recall that Thornton’s former team the Boston Bruins won a Stanley Cup one season after blowing a 3-0 series lead themselves.
Speaking of losing, I thought I’d roll out one thought for each of the eight teams that were dashed from the postseason in what was the most exciting first round (factoring in quality of games, not just strength of surprises) of the five I’ve covered at Pro Hockey Talk/Rotoworld. The Sharks get an extra mention because their defeat was extra sad.
I’m going in order of stream-of-consciousness:
Flyers: Count me as a person who is a little reluctant to deem Steve Mason “legitimate,” but I think that he’s easily worth drafting in the right spot. It’s too early to rank goalies at this point, but I think Mason can be a nice mid-level guy. Health permitting, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him play in more than the 61 games he logged in 2013-14. His individual numbers probably won’t be great, but the Flyers seem capable of out-scoring their defensive problems often enough for him to be useful.
Of course, this is Philly, so they could also trade Mason by November for all we know.
Lightning: Ben Bishop is entering his contract year, which might inspire your average GM to panic and give him a long-term deal with big money right away. I’m hoping Steve Yzerman plays this in a more canny way, as the NHL features so many teams carrying around expensive goalies that those who save could take advantage of a buyer’s market. I’ll have more on goalies - who might be worth investing in, who may truly be elite in fantasy - in a future column.
Sharks: I generally agree with the Sharks’ decision to extend Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau during the season being that those deals were affordable. That being said, if the franchise regrets this, it’s a lesson that sometimes the safe move (locking people up) isn’t as desirable as making a guy earn it. I’m a big believer in contract year motivation … when was the last time either truly fought for a new deal?
In a weird way, it makes me think about John Tortorella’s (expected) firing. The Vancouver Canucks were at a crossroads and spent big on Torts only to make the expensive decision to get rid of him. The Canucks panicked and paid big time. While I bummed San Jose didn’t try to ride the greed train, at least they haven’t sold out what made them a strong team.
Red Wings: Gustav Nyquist is a real mystery, value-wise. I wonder how many people will outright forget his hot end to the regular season and how many will overrate it. It’s genuinely difficult to tell how he’d fit in with a healthy Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, especially if the Red Wings don’t totally blow money in free agency like they did with Stephen Weiss.
Avalanche: Colorado faces some fascinating choices in re-signing Ryan O’Reilly and/or Paul Stastny. My priority among the two would be O’Reilly, but I’d be tempted to get both if Stastny would take a short-term deal. The Avalanche badly need defense, yet truly valuable blueliners rarely hit the open market. Perhaps the best course of action is to continue to out-score your problems until an opportunity (or maybe a surplus trade) falls into your lap.
Blues: There’s no easy way to sugarcoat Ryan Miller’s work; as much as St. Louis’ failure was about poor scoring, Miller is probably more deserving of the “choker” label than most this postseason considering his mediocre individual numbers. Really, that might be a blessing in disguise, though; the Blues were robbed of the opportunity of giving an aging goalie a risky contract. Doug Armstrong should focus upon value and use that Miller money to invest in scoring (which is what they probably needed to target at the trade deadline more than goaltending anyway).
Maybe they’ll be the team that gets the bargain and exploits the opportunity to be deeper than everyone else instead of the Lightning ...
Stars: Dallas made some big gains this season, but this team needs … a little of everything, really. Defense is the Stars’ most glaring flaw, yet I’d also note that Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn can’t do everything. It sounds like Thomas Vanek has his ticket punched to Minnesota, but if there’s wiggle room, Dallas could be desirable (unless Lindy Ruff’s presence would be a minus instead of a plus).
Blue Jackets: Ryan Johansen appears to be the true breakthrough star and potential steal in fantasy drafts. Even so, contract years make Sergei Bobrovsky and Brandon Dubinsky interesting, too. (Dubinsky is absolutely glorious in leagues that emphasize grit).
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* - Look, I loved Dino growing up, but Hall of Famer ...? Eh.
** - A term I made up for being decreasingly snarky, which I’m sure someone already came up with. In fact, I didn’t bother Googling it because I figure the Internet would just ruin my fun on this one. I miss the days of believing that my ideas are highly original.