Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks Legacy: California

Joe Thornton
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We’ve reached the third piece in our tribute series to San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton.

Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Brilliance

Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Folklore

Now: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: California

Next: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Toronto

In this article, we bring in his two most noted rivals and how they were central in creating a unique and extraordinary period of excellence in California hockey.

Golden Era of Golden State Hockey

The NHL’s Pacific Conference had over a decade dominated by three elite centres, one on each of the California teams: the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton, the Los Angeles KingsAnze Kopitar and the Anaheim DucksRyan Getzlaf. Each led one of the league’s premier teams. We’ll explore their dominance in this piece, but first, it is important to frame their importance to the game itself.

The Getzlaf/Kopitar/Thornton era is the golden age of hockey in the Golden State.

NHL hockey needs California. But until this trio arrived, the quality of California NHL hockey was hit and miss, with more on the miss side of things.

The reasons NHL hockey needs California are obvious.

The population of California is about 10% of North America –and slightly larger than all of Canada. The two California metro areas with NHL hockey (the Los Angeles Area and the San Francisco Bay Area) have a larger population than all seven Canadian NHL metro areas combined. And California’s economic engine is even bigger; only four nations have a larger economy.

Hit and miss is also a good way to describe NHL success in warm-weather locations. The Atlanta Flames saw their franchise leave. The Arizona Coyotes franchise, business wise, has been problematic for much of its existence. And it is positively painful at times to see vast swaths of empty seats for the Florida Panthers. Simply putting an NHL team into a major metro area has not been a guarantor of success.

The success of NHL hockey in California is a big boost for hockey at all levels. And for a decade, California hockey was elite. Having elite hockey on the map in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and down the street from Disneyland (with a team name taken from a Disney movie), all to the good.

During this era, Californians were treated to exciting hockey on a continuous basis. And when these teams went head-to-head, the battles were often wondrous.

Dominant Dozen Seasons

While the trio’s dominance ended a few seasons ago, the first of the three to depart the division has officially left; the Sharks Joe Thornton departed and joined the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For the better part of these dozen seasons, visiting NHL teams taking road trips to California faced a gauntlet that earned the nickname Death Valley. It was a reflection of three big, heavy teams led by three of the game’s best centres – and even very good teams often left with little to show for their efforts beyond an enormous number of bumps and bruises.

Beginning with the 2006 playoffs, the Sharks, Ducks or Kings made it to the Western Conference Final 10 times in 12 seasons, with four Stanley Cup Final appearances and three titles. These teams were good, almost every season.

Even in the two seasons none made it that far, these were still good teams (2007-08 and 08-09). In 2008-09, the Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy, signifying the league’s best regular-season record. The prior season, they finished with the league’s second-best record and the Ducks were tied for fourth-best.

The most dominant stretch began with the Kings Stanley Cup win in 2012. In the following four seasons, from 2012-13 to 2015-16, the Sharks, Ducks and Kings finished (in some order) first, second and third in the Pacific Division. Each time with a sizable gap between themselves and the remainder of the division.

Comparing and Contrasting Styles

In some important respects, Getzlaf, Thornton and Kopitar resemble each other. All three are physically imposing, with Kopitar the smallest at 6’3”. And they play a physical style. All are pass-first players. Kopitar, the youngest of the trio, sits at 950 points, 617 assists. Getzlaf is at 965 points, 691 assists. All crossed the 1,000 games played mark. Each was their team’s top scorer and second place wasn’t close. Assuming a normal career trajectory for Kopitar and Getzlaf, each is certain to finish among the top 50 all-time in assists, perhaps in the top 25 (Thornton is seventh all-time).

Though all three have proven durable, Getzlaf only reached the 80 games played plateau three times in 15 seasons. Kopitar made it eight times in 14 seasons and Thornton eight times in 15 seasons. Thornton’s 1055 points as a Shark, 804 assists (and 1509 for his career) is tops among the trio.

At their best, each dominated the ice. All were puck possession monsters, once they got the puck, it was very rare to see a defender take it away.

They differ in some respects. Kopitar is the best two-way player of the trio, his two Selke awards as the best defensive forward were well-earned. Getzlaf is the most physical and chippiest, he leads the trio in hits, PIMs and fights, with 28 on his resume. Thornton is the best overall. While all three should find their way into the Hockey Hall of Fame, only Thornton is a first-ballot lock.

The Trio’s Era of Dominance

Getzlaf was the first of the three to join the division, making his NHL debut with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in October 2005. Thornton joined the Sharks in early December, coming over in a trade from Boston. Earlier in 2005, Kopitar was selected by the Kings in the entry draft.

We mark the start of the trio’s era in October 2006 when Kopitar took to NHL ice for the first time. As a rookie, he would average more ice time that season than either Thornton or Getzlaf. We mark the end of the era on April 2, 2017. This was the day Thornton tore knee ligaments in a (meaningless late-season) game against the Vancouver Canucks. It was the day Thornton’s career as a top-line player essentially ended.

The Teams’ Arc

Each team followed a slightly different arc during these 12 seasons. The Getzlaf era started off strong, with three straight playoff appearances, six playoff series wins in those three seasons and a Stanley Cup. The team hit then hit a brief rough patch, missing the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season saw the Ducks return to elite status; the team finished with the league’s third-best record and the Pacific Division title, a title they’d win each of the next four seasons, too.

The Kings started slowly during the Kopitar era, but in his fourth season, things began to click. While they remained under the national radar, keen observers could see the Kings developing into a force. They began a five-season run of playoff appearances with the 2009-2010 season. After a pair of first-round playoff exits, the Kings became the toughest playoff team in the league, winning 10 of 11 playoff series in the next three seasons, capturing the Stanley Cup twice. Alas, what often happens to elite teams happened to the Kings; the roster became unsustainable, injuries took a toll and the team regressed. Though they’d remain a fringe playoff team the next few seasons, the threads had begun to unravel.

The Joe Thornton era began with a bang, and the Sharks proved the most consistent of the three. Beginning in 2006, the Sharks made the playoffs in 11 of the 12 years.

For the first few seasons, the Sharks and Ducks were elite teams. One won a Presidents’ Trophy, the other nabbed a Stanley Cup.

It took a while for Kopitar’s Kings to emerge. But when they did, they were perhaps the best of the three teams, with two Stanley Cup wins in a three-season span.

Ducks vs. Kings, Ducks vs. Sharks Playoffs

In his time of dominance, Getzlaf’s Ducks squared off just once in the playoffs against Kopitar’s Kings and once against Thornton’s Sharks.

The first tilt came in 2009 when Getzlaf’s Ducks stunned the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Sharks in six games. The final game started with fireworks, with Thornton and Getzlaf fighting on the opening face-off. For better and worse, the series also accelerated a key Sharks narrative: the Sharks as a very good regular season team, but incapable of winning a Stanley Cup. It is a narrative that the franchise still deals with today.

The teams met again in 2018, after the end of the era we defined earlier. In this series, the Sharks were without the injured Thornton.

When the Ducks and Kings squared off, it came in the Second Round of the 2014 playoffs. This is the lone playoff meeting between Getzlaf and Kopitar; it resulted in a seven-game series win for the Kings. Six close-fought and intense games settled nothing before the Kings ran away with Game 7. Not surprisingly, Getzlaf (8 points, no other Duck had more than 4) and Kopitar (9 points) led their respective teams.

The Ducks Stanley Cup win came in 2007. They didn’t play either the Kings or Sharks in their run, losing just five games along the way. And though Getzlaf was just 22 (21 when the playoffs started), he led the Ducks in playoff scoring.

Sharks vs Kings Playoffs

The Sharks and Kings played four memorable series. The Kings’ 2014 second-round win over the Ducks came immediately after their opening-round win over the Sharks, the single most painful series in Sharks history and a candidate for the most painful in NHL history. The Sharks jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, only to have the Kings pull off the reverse sweep and oust the Sharks. Kopitar provided the dagger in the series’ most pivotal game, Game 6. He assisted on Justin Williams controversial goal to break a 1-1 tie in the 3rd period, then netted two more goals shortly thereafter to make the final score 4-1.

2014 was the Kings season. Led by Kopitar, they won their third consecutive seven-game series, another incredibly well-played and highly intense series, this one against the Chicago Blackhawks. Few teams ever ran a more daunting path to the Stanley Cup Final than the Kings, defeating the Sharks (111 regular-season points), the Ducks (116) and the Blackhawks (107). When it came to the Final, the Kings beat the New York Rangers in 5 games, though 3 of their wins came in either overtime or double overtime. That was one impressive and hard-earned Cup.

Two of the other three series between Thornton’s Sharks and Kopitar’s Kings were tough and tight. The 2011 series, though, didn’t feature Kopitar, who’d broken his ankle shortly before the playoffs began. Despite missing their top player, The Kings battled and served notice they’d be a force in the years ahead. The six-game series ended with Thornton gleefully sliding on the ice following his overtime game-winner. Game 3 of the series featured the Sharks overcoming a four-goal deficit to win in overtime. It was the most memorable game in the series and certainly the Sharks’ most memorable playoff comeback win, at least until the 2019 Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights.

With Kopitar back for the 2012 season, the Kings slipped into the last seeded playoff spot — and then dominated each series on their way to the Stanley Cup, without playing either the Sharks or Ducks. They lost just 4 games in 4 playoff series and Kopitar was dominant.

The following season, the Kings and Sharks had another memorable series, with the Kings winning in perhaps the best series of all among these teams. Game after game was tightly contested. Jonathan Quick’s sprawling stop on Joe Pavelski late in Game 7 provided the margin of difference. Kings fans recall it with glee, Sharks fans with angst.

The fourth and most recent series between the Sharks and Kings came in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs, with a surging Sharks team overwhelming a depleted Kings squad in five games.

In all, the Kings and Sharks went head to head in 45 playoff games, provided numerous highlights and gut-wrenching emotions. Each team won two series, with the Sharks totalling 24 wins and the Kings 21.

NHL Hardware

While West Coast hockey gets fewer eyeballs and fewer votes for NHL hardware, Getzlaf, Thornton and Kopitar did get noticed. Thornton collected an Art Ross Trophy and a Hart Trophy in 2006. Thornton’s greatness led to Jonathan Cheechoo’s Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer, much as Getzlaf’s greatness had everything to do with Corey Perry winning a Rocket Richard award and a Hart Trophy. No doubt Kopitar’s brilliant 2015-16 season helped Drew Doughty to his Norris Trophy win. Kopitar won a pair of awards that same season, the Lady Byng and Selke. He’d add another Selke win in 2018.

Getzlaf hasn’t won individual NHL hardware, though he finished as high as second in the Hart voting and in the top-10 three times. Kopitar also has three top-10 Hart finishes, finishing as high as third. He’s also been a top-10 Selke finisher eight times. Thornton has five top-10 Hart finishes as a Shark, along with a fifth-place Selke finish in 2016.

In the playoffs, Ryan Getzlaf has played in 125 games, been on the fun side of the handshake line 12 times, made it to the Conference Final four times and won one Stanley Cup. Anze Kopitar has played in 79 playoff games, been victorious in 10 series and won the Cup twice. Joe Thornton played in 144 playoff games as a Shark, winning 14 series. He made four trips to the Conference Final and once to the Cup Final, meaning he has a Clarence Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champions to his credit.

An Era Ends

The trio’s era of dominance ended in 2017 with Thornton’s major knee injury. All three teams descended over the next few seasons. This culminated in the 2019-20 season where the three teams occupied the bottom three spots in the weak NHL Pacific Division. With their long era of dominance over, it is time for new leadership to emerge in the division.

Even with Joe Thornton gone, Kopitar and Getzlaf remain formidable players. The rest of their teams, though, have depleted and become shells of their former selves.

During their prime, many hockey fans missed just how good California hockey was. This trio lacked the NHL glamour of the Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin match-up, perhaps because most of the games took place when the majority of the hockey world had already gone to bed. Their loss.

During the decade-plus reign of Kopitar, Getzlaf and Thornton, California hockey established itself as the best in the game. It was where the big boys played. The hockey was fast, heavy and highly skilled. Fortunately for California fans, they got to see these teams play each other in many memorable games.

Though only Kopitar wears the jersey of a King, these three centres ruled; players and coaches across the league noticed.

Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and Anze Kopitar are the kings of California hockey. They’ve lived long, by NHL standards, and they’ve prospered. Three times, they conquered. Even if one has now departed the division and the golden days of Golden State hockey are in the past, their legacy is a treasure to those who’ve had the opportunity to appreciate their greatness.

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