Joe Thornton: Stone Cold Killa?

[Editor's Note] I'm updating this right after the Pittsburgh game, so the stats won't reflect that absolute thrashing of the Pens.

Problem: I can't find the exact quote I'm looking for, after spending the good chunk of my day looking for it.

Solution: Just trust me. Blindly.

McLellan stated at the end of last season that he took responsibility for not getting enough players ready to play on the penalty kill. Due to injuries, the Sharks' 5th ranked regular season penalty kill (83.3%) dropped to 78.8% in the post season. They allowed five power play goals in six games against the Ducks (four losses); a problem that was looked at heavily in the offseason.

The top six penalty killing forwards last year were Patrick Marleau (2.45 TOI/60), Mike Grier (2.44 TOI/60), Travis Moen (2.36 TOI/60), Joe Pavelski (2.06 TOI/60), Milan Michalek (1.96 TOI/60) and Marcel Goc (1.43 TOI/60). Of those six players, only two (Marleau and Pavelski) remain with the team.

Because of player movement, it was a given that there would be different faces on the penalty killing unit this year. However, one of the new faces is a bit surprising.

The top six penalty killers this year are as follows: Joe Pavelski (2.78 TOI/60 in two games), Patrick Marleau (2.42 TOI/60), Scott Nichol (2.12 TOI/60), Manny Malhotra (2.00 TOI/60), Jed Ortmeyer (1.57 TOI/60), and Joe Thornton (1.23 TOI/60). Wait, what?

That's right. The 19 you saw blocking shots and hustling around the ice wasn't an optical illusion. That's Joe Thornton out there, putting up top six penalty kill minutes.

Joe Thornton has never been the best defensive forward, but it looks like that might have changed, at least when a man down. Let's take a look at his defensive numbers for the young season.

 

Joe Thornton - 2009

GP TOI/60 GAON/60 GAOFF/60 GAON
Even Strength 18 14.90 2.61 2.47 11
Penalty Kill 18 1.23 2.87 6.30 1
Power Play 18 3.72 0.95 0.00 1

TOI/60: Time on ice/60 min GAON/60: Goals against on ice/60 min GAOFF/60: Goals against off ice/60 min GAON: Goals against while on ice


 

First, Joe still isn't the best defensive forward even strength (he's only +1 on the season). However, these numbers also show that Thornton has been a beast on the penalty kill, allowing almost four less goals per sixty minutes of ice time than the rest of the killers (both forwards and defensemen). In fact, Joe has only allowed one goal over the 22 minutes he's played shorthanded this season. That's very solid.

Am I advocating that Joe should move up to the first PK unit immediately? Hellllllll to the no. However, it's a beautiful thing that you are getting such solid penalty killing out of your franchise player. It's especially important this season, since Pavelski, a quasi-elite two way forward, only played a few games before injuring his foot. Although Pavelski is now back in the lineup after 15 games on the shelf, Thornton has provided stability to a team that could have been destroyed by an injury to one of its most important special teams pieces. Those problems, coupled with the Sharks' wildly inconsistent play to start the season, could have spelt some serious trouble.

The surprises don't stop with Thornton, though. Guess who's next among forwards with .90 TOI/60 of shorthanded time? Dany Heatley, who hasn't been scored on shorthanded. However, unlike Thornton, Heatley has played mostly in the last 20-30 seconds of a penalty.

Now that Pavelski is back (logging 0:24 shorthanded against Pittsburgh, for those of you playing at home), should he reclaim time from Thornton (who played 0:54 shorthanded last night)? When (or, more appropriately, if) Torrey Mitchell is able to come back to reclaim his spot as a top four penalty killing forward, will his minutes supplant Thornton's (and Heatley's)?

The recoveries of Pavelski and (eventually) Mitchell will likely mean a decrease in Thornton's shorthanded time. But, if the Sharks want to limit minutes played by their best players (Marleau, Pavelski, Thornton, Heatley), then perhaps the best option is to continue playing Thornton for a few shorthanded shifts a game. The time that Thornton has spent on the kill hasn't affected his numbers thus far, as he's on pace to have one of his best ever statistical seasons (on track for 100 points).

Having so many skilled penalty killers will be a blessing for the Sharks as the season progresses, since they'll more able to deal with injuries (as they have so far). If Thornton continues to play stingy defense while contributing offensively, expect to see his name on some MVP ballots after it's all said and done. McLellan would be smart to keep rolling out Jumbo Joe with a man in the box.

Go Sharks.

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