Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series, Call to the Hall, where we take a look at the next great player from each NHL franchise to get called to the Hockey Hall of Fame. There are a few caveats, the player must be active, and must have played 300 games (or 150 for goaltenders) with the franchise.
Call to the Hall: San Jose Sharks
Despite a run of success which includes 17 playoff appearances in 23 seasons and multiple division titles since entering the league in 1991-92, San Jose has yet to send either a home-grown talent or a player who has played the majority of his career as a Shark to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Only three players who have worn the teal have been inducted into the hall, including Rob Blake (who captained the team), Igor Larionov, and Ed Belfour, though the former two only played two seasons with the club, and Belfour lasted just 13 games in San Jose’s crease.
However, when it comes to the current roster there are certainly a few potential candidates. Patrick Marleau has been “Mr. Shark,” suiting up for a whopping 1329 games for the club since making his debut as an 18-year-old rookie back in 1997-98. He’s only 35 and seems a sure bet to join the 500-goal, 1000-point club. He stands a good chance of making the Hall of Fame one day, and on any other team he’s be a no-brainer choice for this series. There is, however, an even easier choice to be made here, and while his credentials really don’t need any explanation, we’ll dive into his career to see exactly what has made Joe Thornton so special.
When Thornton was taken 1st overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, he was already wearing the “generational talent” tag and being compared to the likes of Eric Lindros because of his size (he’s listed as 6’4″, 220 pounds) and his incredible offensive instincts.
Despite his size, Thornton never quite had the same physical bite as Lindros, which may have been part of what led Bruins coach Pat Burns to shelter the young phenom so heavily in his rookie season. A frequent scratch and recipient of few minutes when he actually was in the lineup, Thornton managed only seven points in 55 games during his rookie campaign.
However, as early as the following season, Thornton would begin to emerge as an offensive force for the Bruins. He finished 5th in team scoring during his sophomore year with 41 points, and set new career highs in 1999-2000 with 23 goals, 37 assists and 60 points to lead Boston in scoring as a 20-year-old.
Known today primarily as one of the game’s most sublime passers, Thornton showed flashes of his goal-scoring acumen earlier in his career, posting 37 goals in 2000-2001 and 36 goals two years later – impressive totals even in an era where hitting the 40-goal plateau wasn’t as rare as it is today. By 2002-03, Thornton had established himself as one of the premier offensive players in the league, posting his first 100-point season (101 points, 3rd in the NHL that year behind Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund). This is also the point in time where his goal-scoring would decline (he has not hit the 30-goal mark since), though he would become an assist machine.
Thornton spent the 2005 lockout in Switzerland, suiting up for HC Davos and scoring 54 points (including 44 assists) in 40 games and helping the club to both a league championship and a Spengler Cup championship.
Upon returning to the Bruins, there were some troubling signs that the relationship between club and player was on the rocks. Thornton was a restricted free agent and despite some reservations about the direction the club was going, resigned with the team. However, many also criticized Thornton’s play, particularly in the playoffs (which would become a common refrain), and his leadership style. With the Bruins struggling, he was shipped off to San Jose mid-season, despite being Boston’s leading scorer with 33 points in just 23 games.
For Thornton, it would be a defining moment in one of the most unique seasons for an individual in NHL history. In San Jose Thornton would explode for 92 points (20 goals, 72 assists) in 58 games to push his 2005-06 season total to 29 goals, 96 assists and 125 points. He would capture the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, as well as the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in addition to being named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team. Notably, he became the only player to capture those awards after being traded mid-season, while he also became the fifth player (behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Adam Oates) to record at least 96 assists in a single season.
He would nearly repeat the feat just two years later, when he would again lead the league with an incredible 92 assists (becoming just the third player behind Gretzky and Lemieux to record multiple 90-assist seasons), though he would lose out on the Art Ross to Sidney Crosby by six points.
Since then his offensive production has slipped somewhat, though he’s been incredibly consistent, averaging around a point per game (though his 65 points this past season were his lowest total since 1999-2000, discounting the lockout-shortened season). In fact, the only two players with more points than Thornton over the past ten years are Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. In total, Thornton has recorded 358 goals and 901 assists for 1259 points in 1285 games. He is currently the second-highest active point scorer in the NHL behind only Jaromir Jagr.
Internationally, Thornton has found great success with Team Canada. He captured a gold medal at the 1997 World Junior Championships, a gold at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, a silver at the 2005 IIHF World Championships, and gold at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In total Thornton has scored 29 points in 34 senior-level international matches.
So with that resume, where does Thornton land in the Hall of Fame debate? Many people are quick to point to his team’s track records in the playoffs, and rightfully so. Thornton has made it past the second round just twice in his career, and has never participated in a Stanley Cup Final. This has left some to doubt his ability to perform “in the clutch” and “be a great leader.”
While there may be some truth in that, comparing “intangibles” with hard evidence is never easy, Thornton does have multiple international championships on his resume, with both Team Canada and HC Davos. That he hasn’t been able to get over the hump in the NHL is much more likely due to his supporting cast than his own poor performance. Yes his points-per-game has taken a hit in the post-season compared to his regular season numbers, but there’s very few players where that isn’t the case. His total of 100 points in 131 post-season contests (and 29 points in 33 games during the Sharks two runs to the Western Conference Final in 2010 and 2011) are very respectable.
That said, there’s no way his lack of a Stanley Cup is going to keep Thornton out of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He sits 36th all-time in NHL scoring and, at 36 years old, he could easily jump into the top-15 with three or four more productive years. In assists he’s 19th all-time, and he has an opportunity to become only the 13th player to join the 1000-assist club.
Sometimes people can get lost in the narrative of a story and lose the facts, particularly with a player such as Thornton. The fact is that Thornton is and has been the most prolific scorer of his era. The fact is that Thornton has won multiple significant individual and team awards. The fact is that when we speak of Lindros, Forsberg, Oates, Crosby, Ovechkin and Jagr, we’re talking about Thornton’s peers, comparables, and contemporaries.
The fact is that Thornton is going to be inducted three years after he retires as a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.