SAN JOSE — Joe Thornton says there’s “no doubt” that he’ll be in the Sharks lineup Saturday night.
This time, he’s telling the truth.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Thornton will make his return to game action when the Sharks host the Arizona Coyotes at the SAP Center. Thornton will be suiting up just a little more than five months after he underwent surgery to repair the anterior and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on April 24.
“I’m in. No doubt,” Thornton said when asked if he’d be in the Sharks lineup Saturday. “Let’s go. No messing around, eh?”
Thornton spat out the same words — “no doubt” — that he used when he was asked whether he’d be able to suit up for Game 1 of the Sharks Stanley Cup playoff series with the Edmonton Oilers just three days after he damaged his left knee, downplaying the severity of his injury.
The veteran forward wound up missing the first two games of series and it was eventually revealed that he played four playoff games with tears in his ACL and MCL.
But Sharks coach Pete DeBoer confirmed after the Sharks morning practice Saturday that Thornton will be in the lineup against the Coyotes.
At this point, neither Thornton nor DeBoer knows exactly what to expect from the 38-year-old as he tests out his new knee for the first time in a game setting.
Thornton acknowledged that competing at game speed is different from practice, but he intends to play full minutes, performing all the roles that he will be asked to play during the regular season.
Is his coach on board with that plan?
“I think the game will dictate that,” DeBoer said. “But I’m sure he’ll be giving me the hairy eyeball if I only play him 11 minutes.”
Defenseman Paul Martin will also be making his preseason debut. Martin underwent ankle surgery in the offseason.
The 36-year blue liner said defensive partner Brent Burns, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, will pick him up if there’s any rust in his game.
“If I’m in trouble, I can just slide the puck over to my defensive partner,” he said.
2. Labanc gets audition on top line.
Kevin Labanc will try to lock down a spot on the Sharks roster when he gets an audition skating alongside Thornton on the team’s top scoring line Saturday.
On paper, Labanc could be an ideal compliment to Thornton and Joe Pavelski. He has one of the best shots in the organization. He proved that he has a nose for the net, winning an Ontario Hockey League scoring title two years ago, and he came into camp in tremendous shape, a response to the second half burnout he experienced last season when he scored just one goal over his last 31 games.
Although most NHL players see the preseason as a tune up, Labanc is approaching Saturday night’s exhibition as though it’s a playoff game.
“It’s a job and it’s still attainable by anybody on the team,” the 21-year-old forward said. “If you’re not doing your job, someone else is going to take it, so you have to bear down.”
The big test for Labanc will be proving that he has the battle level in his game to play alongside Thornton and Pavelski.
DeBoer acknowledged last season that the ideal-third piece for his top line is a player who’s strong on the boards, powerful around the net and relentless in pursuit of the puck, attributes displayed by Tomas Hertl and Melker Karlsson in that role.
The Sharks coach made it abundantly clear that Saturday’s game is nothing more than an audition for Labanc.
“I’m not giving this guy that job,” the Sharks coach said, noticeably irritated. “He’s had a good camp. He’s going to get an opportunity, but that means nothing. That can disappear in one period or one bad shift. That’s the reality of where those (young) guys are at.”
3. What role will Tierney play this season?
With Joe Pavelski sitting out the remainder of the preseason for maintenance purposes, Chris Tierney will get his first taste of NHL action playing on the wing.
Tierney will skate on the Sharks top line, playing on Thornton’s left while Labanc fills out the right side.
The move is interesting because it means that Ryan Carpenter will serve as the team’s fourth line center in a game that will feature most of the Sharks NHL lineup.
Tierney appeared to be caught in no-man’s land after the Sharks signed Carpenter to a two-year deal in the offseason, and DeBoer stated early in training camp that he believes the Barracuda standout has the potential to play at the NHL level.
Carpenter spent a lot of time skating on Barracuda captain John McCarthy’s wing last season, so his placement as fourth line center Saturday suggests that DeBoer wants to see what he looks like in that role.
What does Tierney’s move to the wing Saturday say about what his role on the team will be?
“We want to look at some different options,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got to have interchangeable people. We’ve always played him at center and we’re looking at some different things.”
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