Now: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Brilliance
Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Toronto
It is appropriate this series runs between Thanksgiving and the 15th anniversary of Thornton’s first game as a Shark, on Dec. 2, 2005. Sharks Territory is unquestionably thankful for the 15 season run of the player affectionately known as Jumbo.
We’ll look at some of the things which made him an elite player in this piece. We’ll follow that up with a review of the folklore which surrounds the big player with the big persona. In the third article, we’ll look at California hockey and how Thornton, and fellow California centremen Ryan Getzlaf and Anze Kopitar created a Golden Age for Golden State hockey. In the series finale, we’ll take a look into Thornton’s future with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Joe Thornton in San Jose
Joe Thornton had a greater impact on the San Jose Sharks franchise than any other player in team history. During his time as a Shark, the team was highly successful, posting more points than any other NHL team.
His impact began upon his arrival. He joined a Sharks team mired in a 10-game losing streak with a record of 8-12-4. The team’s losing streak ended in Thornton’s first game. After that, the team reeled off another five consecutive wins. The 2005-06 Sharks were 8-12-4 without Thornton, 36-15-7 with him.
Such was life with Joe Thornton reigning in the pivot for the Sharks. The team finished his first Sharks season with 99 points, despite the miserable start prior to his arrival. The next five seasons, the Sharks put up a minimum of 105 regular-season points, averaging 110, and winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009. Even after this run, the Sharks were a constant contender, dropping below 96 points just once over the next seven full NHL seasons. The 98 points the Sharks tallied in 2015-16 was the third-lowest full-season total in Thornton’s tenure but resulted in the franchise’s longest playoff run. With Thornton in his prime, or even reasonably close to it, the Sharks had exactly zero bad seasons.
During these years, Thornton was arguably the team’s top player every season from 2005-06 to 2015-16 (except for the 2014-15 season, when a shoulder injury greatly limited him for the second half of the season).
Thornton in the Playoffs
Thornton’s playoff record is more muddled. The Sharks were constantly in the playoffs and Thornton was on the fun side of the handshake line 14 times. Thornton himself was a dominant regular-season player, but less so in the playoffs. Ironically, Thornton is a prototype for rugged playoff hockey. But that isn’t how it went down. During his Sharks tenure, he averaged .96 points per game in the regular season, but 0.80 in the playoffs. And he was a plus-161 in the regular season, but minus-22 in the playoffs.
The most obvious of Thornton’s many talents is his ability to pass the puck. He was in a league almost by himself for most of his Sharks career. But he had other attributes, some of which were key to his passing ability.
Indeed, Thornton’s combined skill set enabled him to be an elite NHL player for the Sharks for over a decade. His physical strength and size helped him become among the league’s best at protecting the puck. His elite ability to control the puck, both close to and away from his body enabled him to advance the puck from a variety of angles. Tall players don’t always have great balance, but Thornton’s balance was exceptional. These attributes meant defenders could push and shove Thornton, but not impact his ability to make plays. Most players need time and space to make plays. Thornton was among the few who could make plays under duress.
And like no other in his era, Thornton’s ability to scan the ice was exceptional. He used his own movement and patience to create passing lanes, then he would find the exact right moment to zip a pass to a teammate. It made Joe hard to slow down. If a lab built a player designed for the NHL cycle game, they’d have built Joe Thornton.
There is one other ingredient Thornton possessed. One can call it arrogance, confidence, or audacity, but I’ll go with chutzpah. He would attempt plays others simply wouldn’t.
Defence and Neutral Ice
Thornton also excelled in the neutral zone. At their best, the Sharks created neutral zone turnovers and generated play aggressively into the offensive zone for quick-strike scores. Thornton’s long reach and ability to quickly control the puck were essential in turning change of possessions into an offensive zone re-entry. These rapid re-entries, before the defence could get set, led to high percentage scoring chances.
Not a forte of his when he arrived in San Jose, Thornton developed into a superior defensive player, finishing as high as fifth in the Selke balloting. Few think of Thornton as a fast skater, but his powerful strides enabled him to get back on defence quicker than most thought. Thornton’s reach was both long and powerful, enabling him to lift and tie-up other players’ sticks from greater range and to a greater extent than most forward defenders.
He was consistently strong in the face-off circle (getting tossed out quite often). Plus he led a Sharks power play which was lethal, season after season. It turns out, he was also a great passer when he had time and space.
Joe Thornton Video Review
We’ll link to a few clips to remind fans of some of these attributes.
In this first clip, a defender is draped on Thornton, pushing him towards the perimeter. Most players can do one of three things in this situation: keep their balance, control the puck or scan the ice for an opportunity. Some can do two of three. Thornton does all three. In this situation, most players pass the puck around the perimeter, resulting in little immediate offensive threat. Thornton isn’t most players and shows all three skills. He controls the puck, keeps the perfect balance and sees the ice, which includes a passing lane. Even then, it takes chutzpah to attempt the pass Thornton attempts. The pass requires both great strength and precision coming from the backhand side. And he does, whipping the pass onto Patrick Marleau’s tape.
Dany Heatley’s 2009 hat trick against the Philadelphia Flyers highlights Thornton’s skills on the first two scores. In both cases, Thornton uses his patience and movement to create a momentary passing lane, both goals are tap-ins. We see the chutzpah. It’s as if Thornton is saying, “I’m just going to wait until you give me a four-inch-wide passing lane and then I’m gonna send this three-inch wide puck through it.” How does one defend this? Commentator Drew Remenda offered this suggestion, “if Joe Thornton’s got the puck, I’m gonna sending all five of my guys to cover Dany Heatley.”
In this video, Thornton aids on two scores. He makes an unreal pass to Tomas Hertl for the team’s 3rd goal against the St. Louis Blues in the 2016 playoffs. Again, the sort of pass it takes chutzpah to attempt and brilliance to execute.
Though not as spectacular, the video also includes the team’s first goal that evening, It shows how Thornton quickly turns the team from defence to offence in the neutral zone, enabling a quick-strike score.
Thinking the Game
Though Thornton’s presence seems to come in large sizes, he understood the game in its smallest details.
Two critical examples happened in perhaps the team’s most famous game, Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights in 2019. When teammate Joe Pavelski hit the ice hard, it was Thornton who helped race the team’s medical personnel onto the ice and it was Thornton who helped carry his bloodied and dazed teammate off the ice. It is what a leader does.
In the five minute major which followed, it was Thornton making a critical decision. A brief delay occurred after the Sharks’ third goal power play which tied the game at 3. Thornton’s unit was on the ice for the ensuing face-off, but the delay was long enough that Thornton told head coach Peter DeBoer to put the unit on the ice which had scored three times. They had the hot hand, reasoned the player who had more power-play points than any two players on either team. Shortly thereafter, with Thornton on the bench, the hot-hand unit notched the fourth power-play goal to take a 4-3 lead.
Even in salary negotiations, Thornton attempted to make the team better. He offered to give up a portion of his salary to aid the team’s effort to retain Patrick Marleau when Marleau was a free agent in 2017. After Marleau announced he was leaving, Thornton re-signed in San Jose the next day. Indeed, Thornton was never a ‘money first’ player. He signed six contracts with the Sharks, none for more than three seasons.
Making Everyone Better
Virtually every major piece of NHL hardware which has made it to Sharks Territory has Thornton’s imprint, if not his name. We’ll start with Jonathan Cheechoo’s Rocket Richard Trophy. Cheechoo had 7 goals in the first 20 games before Thornton arrived. He potted 49 in the final 62 games with Thornton. That’s a 29 goal pace without Thornton and a 64 goal pace with him. On the 2009 Presidents’ Cup-winning team, Thornton led the team in points and plus-minus. The Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference Champions came in a year Thornton dominated play, becoming the first NHL player to post better than 70 percent goals for (GF%) in 6 seasons. Thornton himself is the recipient of the lone franchise wins of a Hart Trophy and an Art Ross Trophy.
And just for good measure, Patrick Marleau might still be in search of this 500th NHL goal if not for playing with Thornton. Marleau has played 22 NHL seasons, 12 of them were full seasons with Thornton. All seven of Marleau’s 30 goal seasons came with Thornton as a teammate.
Joe Thornton’s legacy as the best player in San Jose Sharks history is unquestioned. His resume will get him into the Hall-of-Fame in his first eligible year. But there is plenty more to explore and we will do just that in our upcoming articles.
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