Joe Thornton Ends His Epic Run With San Jose Sharks

Joe Thornton

It was as mundane as it was extraordinary. Or maybe it was extraordinary because it was mundane. The image is this: the San Jose Sharks Joe Thornton, handling the puck as he scans the ice while easing up the half wall. A defender vainly trying to disrupt the big man affectionately known as Jumbo. The defender leaning on him, pushing him, hooking him.

Doing whatever it took to stop Thornton from seeking out that ‘less than an eye blink’ moment when a passing lane emerged; and he could send a pass zipping between defenders onto a teammate’s tape for a quality scoring chance.

This will be my forever image of Thornton as a Shark. Not the slide after a series-winning overtime playoff goal against the Los Angeles Kings. Or his joyous shout on the night of his (most likely) final career hat trick. Nope, it’ll be an image of Thornton doing the sort of thing reserved for the legends of the game, and making it look routine.

If there is a second image for me, it was his determined and fiery expression in the 2010 playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. A missed a high sticking left Thornton with with blood dripping from next to his eye. For all of Thornton’s brilliance, he’d often been considered too easy going. While I can’t claim that was the exact moment things changed for him, this moment looked different, a sign something had changed. A more determined Thornton emerged.

What Legends Do

It was January 23, 2018, before Thornton would leave the game with his second knee injury in two seasons. On a power play, Thornton fed teammate Chris Tierney, his pass zipping between the sticks of all four Jets defenders, with (at most) inches to spare, and perfectly onto Tierney’s tape. As noted on the call of Winnipeg Jets broadcaster Dennis Beyak, “well, he can still pass the puck.” This was Thornton’s hockey genius. As superb as the pass was, what made the play was his ability to find the exact angle and precise moment where a pass could get by all the defenders untouched.

Sharks Joe Thornton

The story is often told, the day of the trade where the Sharks acquired Thornton. Since that day, the Sharks have been among the league’s most successful franchises (albeit without that one most meaningful piece of hardware) and no player has been more responsible than Thornton.

Sure, Thornton won a Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy in 2005-06. And deserved another Hart Trophy in 2015-16.

A decade after winning hockey’s top individual prize, the Sharks Joe Thornton finished fifth in the Hart Trophy voting – a testament to East Coast writers calling it a day before West Coast hockey happened. Thornton not only averaged a point per game (back when that was something special), but his line dominated play. He finished with a goals for (GF%) of over 70%, the first time that had happened in five seasons. He was fifth in the Selke voting (best defensive forward) and, for good measure, ran the league’s most productive power play. The ice didn’t so much tip towards the Sharks with Thornton on it, it went close to vertical.

It is hard to overstate Thornton’s value to the Sharks, even in the later stages of his Sharks career. Going back to the Winnipeg game in 2018, the Sharks power play, led, by Thornton, was en fuego, potting 25 goals in 21 games. After Thornton went down, the power play went from inferno to damp sticks, scoring at less than half the rate. Even late in his career, he still provided tremendous value.

Sharks Joe Thornton Moves to Toronto

So the big fellow, diminished by time and injury, is off to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, leaving the team he’d led for a decade and a half. Sure, he’ll return to the Shark Tank at some point. Whether fans will be allowed in the venue is an open question, but it isn’t likely he’ll have the chance to receive the sort of long ovation accorded Patrick Marleau or Joe Pavelski in their respective returns. For the record, neither Marleau’s Leafs or Pavelski’s Stars won that evening.

Thornton’s NHL journey is winding down, but he’ll have another shot to win hockey’s ultimate prize. Ironically, he’ll play with the person the Sharks hoped would replace Thornton as the team’s top centerman in San Jose, John Tavares.

No Questions for Sharks Joe Thornton

There’s no remaining question on many things. Thornton is the best player in Sharks history. Even in some of the seasons he didn’t win the team’s MVP award, he was the team’s best player. Pretty much all the major hardware which has come to San Jose, directly or indirectly, has his name on it. That Rocket Richard Trophy for Jonathan Cheechoo? A lot easier to win one of those if you’re on Joe Thornton’s wing.

From Devin Setoguchi to Kevin Labanc, about the best thing which could happen to you as a Sharks forward was to find yourself on Thornton’s wing. Just ask Joe Pavelski, whose goal scoring numbers soared when moved there. Or Brent Burns, who posted a career best plus-26 in his lone full season as a Sharks forward.

Yes, Thornton’s number 19 will hang from the Shark Tank rafters at some point. And his entry into Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility is a mere formality. So it goes for a player who managed to pass legends on all-time lists with regularity. In the 2018-19 season, Thornton moved up on the all-time lists in games played, points and assists. Among the players he passed that season: Nicklas Lidstrom, Jarome Iginla, Alex Delvecchio, John Bucyk, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano, Phil Housley, Teemu Selanne, Stan Mikita, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Mario Lemieux.

There’s little left for Thornton to prove in the NHL. It is his time to enjoy the rest of the ride and hopefully, get a Stanley Cup. Whatever happens next, it’ll be in Toronto.

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