By Tom Hunter (@)
“If this guy was playing in Toronto, Montreal or New York, he’d be a living legend.” That’s what San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer had to say about his veteran center Joe Thornton when talking to the media Monday morning. It seems like an odd thing to bring up as your team is preparing for game two of the Western Conference Final, but you know what? He’s not wrong.
A lot can (and has been) said about Joe Thornton the man off the ice. He’s had his captaincy taken away, he helped drive his last head coach out of town, he was sold by Boston for pennies on the dollar, and we all know what how well he tolerates the media. Whether you’re a fan of the man or not, the fact that Joe Thornton is in the midst of a legendary career should not be up for debate.
When he was drafted first overall 19 years ago, Joe Thornton was being looked at as the next great Bruin power forward following in the lineage of Phil Esposito and Cam Neely. After putting up absurd numbers in for the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL, Thornton didn’t exactly make a great first impression in Boston. Seven points in 55 games is not something a fan base wants to see out of their blue chip rookie.
While the sting might have been dulled by another Bruin winning the Calder Trophy that season, there’s no doubt Thornton was a disappointment. Sergei Samsonov was selected seven picks after Thornton and went on the be named the NHLs rookie of the year playing a much bigger role for a playoff-bound Boston team than their prized first pick.
After a much better second season (a year in which he was again outplayed by classmate Samsonov), Thornton started to turn a corner. The big kid was beginning to figure out how to play in the NHL and by season four, Thornton was up to a point per game. Thornton turned into an all-star and one of the best players in the game but thanks to only three playoff series from 1999-2004, the word ‘underachiever’ started to be thrown around.
Then on November 30, 2005, the trade that shocked the hockey world went down.
The Bruins traded their captain to the San Jose Sharks in a three-for-one deal that is proof the quantity does not equal quality. The Bruins thought it would be a good idea to trade their 26-year old franchise centerman to the West coast in exchange for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart. A trade that only looks good in comparison to the next time the Bruins would decide to jettison a ‘troubled’ star center.
Dominating in San Jose
How did Thornton respond? He put up an amazing 92 points in the remaining 58 games of the 2005-06 season. Since the trade, Thornton has produced at a rate that is almost unrivaled over that time frame. In 11 seasons with San Jose, he has averaged 1.06 points per game (884 points in 835 games).
What may be even more impressive is the stability with which Thornton has performed for the Sharks. He’s never injured…never. Thornton has missed all of nine games in the past 11 seasons. In an era where the game is so fast and physical that injuries are inevitable, Thornton in an anomaly.
He is the model of consistency and sits second among active players behind Jaromir Jagr in points. He is currently 28th all-time in NHL scoring and is a season away from jumping into the top-20. Thornton is among the best to ever play the center position and yet that label of ‘underachiever’ still haunts him.
Along with Patrick Marleau, Thornton has been the face of a franchise that has developed a reputation for choking in the playoffs. The Sharks have blown some significant playoff series in magnificent fashion and despite being among the best regular season teams year after year, they’ve yet to make a Stanley Cup final.
Now, with the Sharks beating the St. Louis Blues in this year’s Western Conference Final, his coach had brought up the idea of ‘Joe Thornton: The Underappreciated Legend’. It’s true, Thornton may not get the recognition around the league that he deserves (you know East Coast Bias and all), but those who are paying attention are witnessing an iconic NHL career.
The Ageless Wonder
At 36, Thornton put up 82 points in 82 games this seasons with barely anyone noticing. It’s not just the points and durability that are impressive. Just when it may have seemed like he was slowing down, Thornton had his best year since 2010. But the thing is, all it takes is to look at the numbers beyond his points to see that Thornton wasn’t slowing down, he has been among the top-10 in CF% and top-12 in P/60 at even strength in the entire NHL over the past three seasons.
*numbers from puckalytics.com
They Say He Needs To Win
He has an Olympic Gold medal, a World Cup victory, a Heart Trophy and an Art Ross for winning the league’s scoring title. Yet the cloud of ‘he doesn’t win’ still hangs over Thornton.
As has become the case with Alexander Ovechkin, the narrative surrounding Joe Thornton is that he can’t win. He and his teams have great regular seasons but when they get to the playoffs and the Cup is on the line, he just can’t get over the hump. While it’s true, the Sharks have not been to the Stanley Cup Finals until now, that’s not on Thornton. Aside from a poor performance in their devastating first round loss in 2014, Thornton has been among the Sharks best players every spring.
The Sharks in the final is something many are happy to see. Not just because it means Thornton’s beard keeps growing (although that is a huge perk), but because it would be great to see one of the game’s all-time greats get monkey off his back and finally be recognized for what he is. One of the best to ever play the game.
Joe Thornton rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He can be pretty surly with the media, dismissive to his former coaches and managers and stubborn to the point of refusing to waive his no-trade clause when his team was looking ot re-build. The fact of the matter is that Joe Thornton is one of the best in the game today and a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, Peter DeBoer might be right and not enough people realize it simply because he plays in California.