Sharks Gameday: Joe Thornton's 300th

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4:30 PST
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34-21-6, 72 points 36-20-5, 74 points
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Last night Joe Thornton scored his 300th goal of his NHL career. He joins a list of 175 other NHL players to accomplish the feat-- considering Thornton has always been billed as a pass-first playmaking center, the fact that he reached the mark before his 32nd birthday is a somewhat surprising accomplishment. Consistency has been the value Thornton brings to the table in this respect-- for over a decade he's scored at least twenty goals a season, with his rookie and sophomore campaigns being the only outliers as they saw Thornton pocket 3 and 16 goals respectively. That's a long time for a player to produce at the NHL level.

A lot of that is due to his durability. As we said last year when Thornton crashed into the boards against Vancouver and tweaked his knee, that iron man streak was something he took a lot of pride in throughout his career.

It was a ride that spanned his entire career as a San Jose Shark, and one that Joe Thornton himself took a lot of pride in. An ironman willing to deal with the physically demanding life of an NHL superstar, Thornton had managed to dress for every single game the Sharks played since being traded from the Boston Bruins on November 30, 2005. He skated through hooks, slashes, opposing team's top blueliners, and harsh scrutiny from the fanbase and media for 379 straight games in San Jose.

On Saturday night that streak was placed in jeopardy-- on Sunday afternoon, it was gone.

>> Joe Thornton's "Iron Man" streak comes to a close"

But to truly understand what Joe Thornton means to this organization, one only has to look at his total point production since being traded in a blockbuster move five and a half years ago. Since the NHL lockout he has produced points at a frantic clip, joining the likes of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin at the top of the leaderboard for forwards who have played at least 200 games.


Top Points/Game Players since the NHL Lockout

Rank
Player Team GP G A PTS/GM Age Cap hit
1 Sidney Crosby
PIT
412
215
327
1.39
23
$8.7MM
2
Alex Ovechkin
WSH
457
293
298
1.29
25
$9.54MM
3
Joe Thornton
SJS
464
129
420
1.20
31
$7.0MM
4
Evgeni Malkin
PIT
352
158
260
1.19
24
$8.7MM

Thornton's production has been declining since he came to the Sharks in 2005, but there's a reason for that-- as the years have moved on, opposing teams have realized that the Sharks power play essentially runs through Thornton. To combat that they've assigned their best defenseman to shadow him on the power play and try to push him outside as much as possible. Coupled with the hooks and slashes he is constantly subjected to because of his stature, it's led to a decrease in his effectiveness with the man advantage. At a points per game rate, Thornton put up 0.68 and 0.65 PP/G in 05-06 and 06-07; he has since setted down to 0.45, 0.42, and 0.35 PP/GM in the respective years following. This season he is producing at a 0.47 clip per game, struggling instead at even strength.

A large reason for Thornton's middling numbers this year at even strength has been due to his increased attention to the defensive zone. Thornton currently leads the entire NHL with 88 takeaways, something that we examined earlier this season:

On October 7th, 2010, Joe Thornton was elected Captain by the San Jose Sharks. And on October 7th, 2010, Thornton made a conscious effort to change his game.

No longer was he content with being billed as an offensive dynamo who thrived solely in the offensive zone. Instead, Thornton set out to do what all great leaders have done throughout the course of history-- lead by example. Throughout his career the defensive zone was an area of his game that had been seen as an area that needed improvement, and understandably so. With a knack for threading the needle through even the most active of opposing sticks, Thornton's bread had always been buttered offensively, the asset that landed him the Hart and Art Ross Trophy in 2006. It's what made him, and continues to make him, the precious commodity that he is today.

Since the NHL lockout, only Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have scored more points per game than Thornton. An elite list of players. A rich conglomerate of offensive talents.

And yet, Thornton wasn't satisfied.

The Captaincy, especially in San Jose, carries a responsibility that extends beyond regular season accomplishments and gaudy point totals. In order to win in the postseason, where a goal for is just as important as a goal against, you must commit to both ends of the ice. The level of competition is much greater than the regular season; a symphony of finely tuned clubs at the pinnacle of their testosterone levels, fighting for each inch of serene white ice like bloodhounds thirsting for raw meat. In order to survive, you're going to have to win one goal games regularly. In order to do that, your top line has to make each shift count for all 200 feet.

>> "Joe Thornton's defensive renaissance may be coming at an offensive price"

A common theme this season has been the fact that the Sharks top three forwards of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau weren't living up to the expectations given to them by their large contracts. These three players aren't paid $7.0MM+ a year to backcheck down the middle and drive opposing defenseman into second row seats-- they're paid to score like Hank Moody on a Jameson binge and put points up on the board. It's been a tumultuous relationship with a team that Ray Ratto deservedly called "The San Jose GreasyUglies," a group that had struggled offensively until recently.

Don't look now of course, because Thornton is in the midst of a four game point streak. A one goal, two assist performance last night against the Detroit Red Wings was the icing on the cake, and with the addition of Ian White to solidify the blueline, there's a potential for more goals to come. The breakout will be smoother, the defensive responsibility of the forwards less critical to the team's success. Coupled with Devin Setoguchi's  goal scoring and it's safe to say Thornton now has a couple more hammers in his toolbox to pound away with. Even if he prefers to pass the hammer and let someone else drive the nail in.

Thornton's 300th wasn't just a milestone in a player's career. It was symbolic of all of the good he has done for this organization since becoming the first superstar to play in San Jose, whether it be through his gaudy point totals, work in the community, or role as Team Captain. An easily accessible player, quick with a grin, one that has instant charisma. A genuinely good guy. And a helluva hockey player at that.

As we said earlier this year, Thornton's attention to the defensive aspect of his game will benefit the Sharks bottom line if he puts up the points he is capable of. Come April Thornton will be the one on whom the bright lights shine the brightest. His role as Captain cements that notion. And the steps he's taken in the last four games are good signs that more may be underway.

Thornton's career in San Jose has been a magnificent one, his presence undeniable. With all due respect to Patrick Marleau, Thornton has been the nucleus of this team since the day he set foot in sunny California, the moment news broke that a man they called Jumbo Joe would be joining the Sharks. From Cheechoo to Setoguchi to Marleau to Michalek, Thornton has made his teammates jobs easier, created opportunities when there was none.

Last night he took care of himself first before adding two helpers.

Hard to call it selfish. Easy to say it was well deserved.

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