On Thornton, Tavares and irrational draft fears

The thing about enduring the Islanders season that was is, at least we had lowered expectations going in. We knew what was needed (youth evaluation, a high draft pick). A biblical plague of injuries from the get-go helped us get there.

Personally, it allowed me a detached observer's enjoyment, an ability not to take losses too hard. (Or, as an ex-girlfriend might describe it: "Cold and emotionally withdrawn. As if my existence is incidental." Hey, whatever. We always allow multiple interpretations here. Now gimme back my Bossy jersey.)

Which isn't to say that I wouldn't have loved to have the San Jose Sharks' season instead. (Ex- says: "Ah-ha! I knew you were eyeing that hussy's legs.") But: Lurking in the background of the Sharks' season was that dark, repressed fear that drops an asterisk in every post-victory beer: "This is great, but if we get to the playoffs and pull the same old..." That stuff wears on you, too.

I'm of the belief that playoff reputations can be greatly exaggerated, thanks the the small sample size and amplified focus (John Druce, anyone?). Take any 4- to 7-game stretch of a season and judge a star player by that stretch, and -- depending on which stretch you choose -- you'll either find some interesting, "choke-worthy" conclusions, or you'll find a man on pace for a 300-point season.

But I watched Joe Thornton's performance in a near do-or-die playoff game last night, for a squad that has all that baggage but also its best shot (on paper) yet to go all the way, and I was horrified. Helium does not begin to describe how lightly he floated into his own zone while Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf were showing him what clutch playoff hockey looks like.

I used to give the Sharks the benefit of the doubt -- "They're still learning," I'd say, pulling for Sharks fans I've encountered -- but no more. Pretty much the entire team didn't show up in its first critical test of the 2009 playoffs. I stayed up late, geared for an epic Battle of California clash to rival the intra-divisional playoffs of yore, eager to see an entire state grasp the intensity of a real, regional, NHL playoff rivalry. Instead I got a mismatch. A disturbing failure. Something is rotten in the state of them Sharks.

Even in restraint, disappointed Sharks coach Todd McLellan paints an ugly picture:

"We have a core of players, goaltender included, some top defenseman, some key forwards that have to match up against their core. If that core is outplayed as it was tonight, the odds of us winning greatly diminish... It's core against core right now, and the goaltender, defenseman and forwards have to be included in that."

But Enough about Me; Let's Hear You Talk about Me

How does this apply to the Islanders? (Ex- says: "It's always about you!") Well, I'm glad I asked that question. Among the Tavares vs. Hedman (now Duchene, too) debate has been an underlying thread of "Defense wins championships, offense sells tickets." If you could throw marketing and sales and franchise uncertainty aside, and just focus on rebuilding a team, where would you start? (Admittedly, I've been a constant purveyor of this debate while fan voting everywhere has gone heavily in favor of JT. But serious voices like Al Arbour, Bill Torrey, various scouts and Islanders beat writer Greg Logan have at least given it some legitimacy.)

And that's what scares me (Ex- says: "Yeah, you fear commitment. Have a nice life."): Joe Thornton has unquestionably provided Sharks fans with several years of regular-season excitement. He's also been part of several seasons, perhaps including this one, of devastating playoff disappointment. The degree to which that's under his control is debatable, but the effect is the same: that lingering stink and fear that he can't get it done when it matters. That the franchise's most dynamic regular season threat is no threat at all when the Cup is up for grabs.

Now, I'm not buying the sudden questions about John Tavares' heart or initiative -- he sure seemed motivated in the WJC's. I'm not worrying about the sudden comparisons to Jason Spezza's um, "mixed" level of engagement. I don't think. And I know those two are different players than what Tavares is purported to be. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice that in the Battle Landslide of California, the team with the all-world scorer is being left behind, and the team with the towering, nasty two-way defenseman is likely moving on.

(Ex- says: "If that's how you see it, I wish we'd never had this discussion. In fact, I wish we'd never met.") Wait, we still have a date June 26th, right?

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