Joe Thornton (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
The San Jose Sharks might not be favorites to win the Pacific Division, but it wouldn’t be wise to count them out quite yet. With 19 games remaining, the Sharks, led by Joe Thornton, look like a team that could potentially surprise everyone and enter the playoffs as a one seed.
You may have noticed the Ducks, who got off to an awfully slow start, have been one of the league’s best teams over the past few months. Anaheim has won each of their past 10 games, over which time the Ducks have outscored opponents 38-19, have their power play clicking at over 40 percent and steady goaltending from the duo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen.
And you may have also noticed the Kings sit tied alongside those same Ducks for first place in the Pacific Division. Los Angeles has stumbled over the past several weeks, but they’re still playing the smothering, suffocating brand of hockey that has made them a threat to pick up their third Stanley Cup in five seasons.
What’s flown largely under the radar, though, is that the Ducks and Kings aren’t the only team truly vying for the Pacific Division title. While the San Jose Sharks may seem like the division’s sure-to-be third seed, their play over the past two months speaks to a team that’s as much in contention for the top spot in Pacific as their Californian counterparts. A big part of that has been the outstanding play of Joe Thornton.
Thornton, 36, isn’t often mentioned during discussions of who has been the league’s standout players this season, but it’s starting to get increasingly difficult to overlook what the veteran pivot has done. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer has run Thornton alongside newly minted San Jose captain Joe Pavelski for much of the season, and while the early season returns weren’t quite there, Thornton’s production has been remarkable since the start of 2016.
In the 27 games Thornton has played since Jan. 1, he leads all players in points — yes, that includes scoring leader Patrick Kane and even the surging Sidney Crosby — having found the score sheet 35 times, 27 of which have been assists. And while more than a third of Thornton’s points have come on the power play, but that’s not dissimilar from Kane, Crosby and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the other three players with more than 30 points since the New Year, each of whom have at least 11 points with the extra man since Jan. 1.
If Thornton maintains his current scoring pace and remains healthy, by season’s end he will have had his highest scoring season since the 2009-10 season. As it stands, he’s only four points from surpassing last season’s point total and he still has 19 games left to play.
Thornton’s success since the calendar turns isn’t altogether surprising, though, when you consider just how sneakily good the Sharks have been since the start of 2016. While they looked like a playoff team before the New Year, it might be time to start considering them a contender to enter the post-season as the Pacific Division’s top seed. Over the past two months, the Sharks have picked up the fourth-most points of any team. And even though they haven’t kept up with Anaheim, who have swiped 44 of a possible 54 points since Jan. 1, San Jose’s 38 points have vaulted them from a long-shot contender for the division title to right in the thick of the race.
It doesn’t look like a mirage, either. The Ducks and Kings have boasted some of the best possession numbers and underlying statistics of any team for the entirety of the season, but the Sharks appear to be a team that can hang with the league’s elite possession teams, especially over the past two months. San Jose has maintained a 52.2 percent shot attempts for percentage in the 27 games since 2016 began, and no team in the league has a more favorable goal differential than the Sharks’ plus-19 mark at 5-on-5. That includes the surging Ducks, the Cup-favorite Washington Capitals and the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Admittedly, one concern for the Sharks is their PDO, or combined shooting and save percentage. Entering the weekend, San Jose’s PDO sits at 102.2 since the start of January. That’s not obscenely high, but high enough that some drop in play could be expected. It’s not beyond reason that DeBoer’s club could maintain their rate of play into the post-season, though.
Of course, San Jose’s shot at winning the division will come down to more factors than their own play. The success of the Kings and Ducks will also play a part in the Sharks’ chances, and the strength of competition down the home stretch could very well factor as to which team — San Jose, Anaheim or Los Angeles — takes home the Pacific crown. However, even that seems to fall in the Sharks’ favor.
Each of the Pacific’s top three teams have 19 games remaining. Of those remaining contests, the Kings’ opponents have the highest average point total as of March 3, with the Sharks’ opponents boasting the lowest average. San Jose will have six games — nearly a third of their existing slate — split between the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes, two teams closer to a top draft pick than they are to a playoff spot. In addition, the Sharks will only play one game against the two clubs ahead of them, and that’s a March 28 contest against Los Angeles. Sure, that doesn’t give them the chance to pick up points on the Kings or Ducks by way of victories, but it also means they can’t lose those points, either. As for the Ducks and Kings, they square off twice down the stretch.
Regardless of what seed the Sharks make it into the post-season as, though, they shouldn’t be overlooked come playoff time. Getting out of the Pacific was already going to be tough, but with the way the Sharks are playing, it could be a roll of the dice when it comes to who will be representing the Pacific Division in the Western Conference final.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)