Sharks move on without Thornton after free agent leaves for Maple Leafs

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The San Jose Sharks are preparing for a future without Joe Thornton, who played the past 15 seasons with them before he signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

“We have to re-establish our game,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said Sunday. “Joe, at 41, he’s looking at the runway left and opportunity [to win the Stanley Cup]. I fully understand that. But we as an organization have gone through this before in the past and we’ve bounced back quickly. It’s up to us to go to work, get back at it and learn from what happened last year.”

The Sharks (29-36-5, .450 points percentage) finished 15th in the Western Conference last season. They advanced to the Western Conference Final in 2019, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games.

Wilson said one big positive entering this season is defenseman Erik Karlsson and forwards Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are healthy. Karlsson missed the final 13 games of 2019-20 after breaking his thumb Feb. 14. He scored 40 points (six goals, 34 assists) in 56 games. Couture (39 points; 16 goals, 23 assists in 52 games) was injured when a puck hit him in the face against the Colorado Avalanche on March 8 and missed 17 games (Jan. 9-Feb. 23) with a fractured ankle. Hertl (36 points; 16 goals, 20 assists in 48 games) had surgery on a torn ACL sustained against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 29.

Goalie Devan Dubnyk was acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 5 and forward Patrick Marleau signed a one-year contract Oct. 13. The 41-year-old is first in Sharks history in games played (1,551), goals, (518) and points (1,102), and second in assists (584) behind Thornton (804).

Forward Matt Nieto signed a one-year contract Oct. 13 after scoring 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 70 regular-season games and three points (goal, two assists) in 14 postseason games for the Avalanche. San Jose also re-signed forward Stefan Noesen to a one-year contract Oct. 9.

“We have five top-six forwards, guys who have scored 30 goals or close to 60 points, we need someone to come in and compete for that spot,” Wilson said. “I like our defense. I want to leave a spot open for some competition for some of the younger guys. We think we have the bones of a good team. We have some competition. We have some young guys coming in.”

Traded to the Sharks by the Boston Bruins on Nov. 30, 2005, Thornton leaves as San Jose’s leader in assists, second in games (1,104) and points (1,055) and fourth in goals (251). He has scored 1,509 points (420 goals, 1,089 assists) in 1,636 games during 22 seasons with the Sharks and Bruins.

Wilson said Sharks veterans know they must lead a turnaround but it’s also time for younger players to accept a greater role and learn from the example Thornton set.

“Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, it’s their time,” Wilson said. “They need to step up to the next level. 

“We have to be the sum of all our parts. There are teams around this league that have lost some good players. Some teams lost their best players in their prime and they found their team game, they found their collective connection and had a lot of success. We need everyone to bring something to the table, learn from what happened last year, re-establish our game and bring that love and juice and energy that ‘Jumbo’ brought to the rink.”

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