Sharks forward Joe Thornton will not play in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden Knights, regardless of what day this week it begins. Pete DeBoer is sure of that.
But San Jose’s third-year coach is less certain whether Thornton will make an appearance at some point in the best-of-seven series.
“It’s not on my radar,” DeBoer said.
Thornton continues to practice with the Sharks’ extra forwards as he recovers from an injured medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
And the future Hall of Famer’s looming return could be the X-factor for San Jose in what many expect to be a close series.
“He’s such a leader for them, and such a good player,” said Knights forward Ryan Carpenter, who spent parts of the past three seasons with San Jose. “Any time you play a team, there’s always
certain guys you’re going to try and be aware of. If he’s on there, it just adds another player you have to be aware of.
“He can make passes a lot of guys really can’t, so you’ve just got to try and take away his time and space. But even then, he can still make plays.”
Thornton missed the past 39 games, including the playoffs, after he was injured Jan. 23 against the Winnipeg Jets and underwent arthroscopic surgery two days later.
The 38-year-old, who has more than 1,400 career points, was second on the Sharks in scoring at the time of his injury with 36 points in 47 games.
“Probably the biggest thing was getting (over) that confidence hump of not having him there, not having his presence there in games, in the room, in practice,” DeBoer said. “To be honest, we probably had a week there where we were a little rattled as a group. Just trying to get the group past that and establishing a belief in our game with the group that we had in there without him.
“We stumbled around for about a week and we came out the other end of it, and that was it.”
San Jose went 19-13-3 after Thornton’s injury and swept Anaheim in the opening round, scoring 16 goals in the four games. If Thornton is cleared, it would leave DeBoer with a tough decision on his lineup.
San Jose averaged 2.87 goals per game prior to Thornton’s injury and averaged 3.2 goals in the final 35 games without “Jumbo Joe.”
The Sharks’ top line of Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi combined for 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in the first round and has been outstanding since Kane was acquired Feb. 26 at the trade deadline.
DeBoer uses his second line of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker in a checking role against other teams’ top line, which doesn’t suit Thornton’s game.
Despite the uptick in offense without Thornton, the Sharks missed him on the power play in the final 2½ months of the regular season.
San Jose converted at 16.5 percent (15-for-91) with the man advantage after Jan. 23, which ranked No. 27 in the league.
And Thornton’s return would no doubt provide an emotional lift for the Sharks, who went 1-2-1 against the Knights.
“He’s a great player and we respect him a lot. He’s a fabulous player for them,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “He adds a Hall of Fame hockey player who’s a hell of a player. He’s a great power-play guy and he’s a great team guy for them. He’s a big part of their group and obviously would add a lot to them.”