Joe Thornton's Quietly Exceptional Season

SAN JOSE, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks watches the puck go into the net for a goal past goaltender Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on February 10, 2012 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Is this Joe Thornton's best season as a San Jose Shark?

The mere suggestion is likely viewed as sacrilege in most circles of Sharks fandom. After all, this is the guy who turned the pride of Moose Factory, Ontario into a 56-goal-scoring Rocket Richard winner. The man who became just the third player in league history (after some scrubs named Wayne and Mario) to record 90 assists in consecutive seasons. The player who led the Sharks in scoring by a ridiculous 41 points in 07-08.

And while it's true that Thornton is not going to flirt with a hundred points this season and likely never will again in his career, the fantastic year he's having has little to do with winning scoring titles. It's the culmination of a process that began when Todd McLellan took over the Sharks' bench in 2008; the process of turning Joe Thornton, the somewhat one-dimensional superstar into Joe Thornton, the complete two-way center. Defensive evolution is a narrative that's often spun about players on the wrong side of 30 with declining counting stats but, at least in Thornton's case, it's actually the truth and here are the numbers to prove it, courtesy of behindthenet.ca:

Season Corsi Rel QoC OZS% Corsi Rel PDO 5v5 P/60
2007-08 -1.229 58.0% 12.9 1024 2.84
2008-09 0.425 54.0% 4.7 1015 2.33
2009-10 0.964 49.8% 2.4 1031 2.76
2010-11 0.664 51.8% 1.7 1007 1.73
2011-12 1.614 50.5% 18.9 1006 2.48

The first two columns are contextual stats that illustrate Thornton's usage by the Sharks coaching staff in each season. Corsi Rel QoC is a quality of competition metric that represents the best approximation available of how good the opposing players Thornton was matched up against were at 5v5 while OZS% is the percentage of non-neutral zone 5v5 shifts that Thornton began in the offensive zone. Corsi Rel is the difference between Thornton's Corsi rating and that of the Sharks with Jumbo off the ice. PDO is the Sharks' 5v5 shooting percentage added to their 5v5 save percentage with Thornton on the ice 5v5 and 5v5 P/60 denotes how many points Thornton scored 5v5 per sixty minutes of ice time in that game state.

While we don't have access to the underlying data from Thornton's first two seasons in San Jose, rest assured that they looked very similar to the 2007-08 numbers. Ron Wilson did everything he could during his tenure to ensure Thornton consistently faced the opposition's worst players as often as possible. Only eight forwards who appeared in at least 40 games in 07-08 faced easier competition than Thornton, all of them fourth-line goons like George Parros, Brad May and Aaron Downey. This isn't to criticize Wilson or Thornton; Joe obviously has very little control over how he's deployed and Wilson's strategy of providing his best offensive player with the best opportunity to succeed is an effective one, as Alain Vigneault and the Canucks will attest.

That all changed when Todd McLellan took the helm at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Coming from an organization in Detroit that has always believed in a power-versus-power brand of line matching (Mike Babcock often talks about how the only place to "hide" players is on the bench), McLellan immediately identified Joe Pavelski as his primary shutdown center but also began weaning Thornton off the protected zonestarts and weak competition he received during Ron Wilson's regime. That plan was accelerated the following year as Pavelski missed 15 games with a foot injury early in the season, forcing McLellan to deploy Thornton against opposing top lines on a full-time basis. The results were impressive and McLellan continued to use Thornton in that role, pairing him with Patrick Marleau last season when Jumbo faced the toughest competition of any Sharks center and into this year where, playing regularly on a line with Pavelski for the first time, Thornton has faced the eleventh-toughest competition of any forward in the NHL. From ninth-easiest to eleventh-hardest; talk about a dramatic shift in usage.

But of course it's the results that matter. This evolution in Thornton's deployment would deserve to be looked at in a far different light if Jumbo was failing miserably in his matchups. But that he most certainly isn't. Thornton's Corsi Rel of 18.9 is third in the league behind only the Sedin twins while his raw Corsi number is also top ten league-wide. Despite his lowest PDO in five years, significantly driven by an on-ice shooting percentage of just 8.09% (exactly league average), Thornton's 5v5 P/60 is top 30 among forwards while his raw even-strength point total ranks 16th in the NHL. Pavelski's role in all of this shouldn't be overlooked as Thornton's most frequent linemate this season (the two have spent 85.7% of their shifts together) is compiling a Selke-worthy campaign in his own right and has driven the bus on many an occasion. With the Joes taking on the league's offensive titans and killing it, an opportunity arises for other lines to exploit opposing teams' lesser lights. To this point, that opportunity has mostly been wasted on guys like Michal Handzus, a sharp contrast to last season when Pavelski, Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell wreaked havoc in soft minutes, but the Sharks' trio of deadline acquisitions should turn that into a real advantage for San Jose.

Perhaps it's a simplistic analogy but earlier in Thornton's Sharks career he was a lot like Henrik Sedin, a prolific scorer but one who accomplished much of his success in sheltered ice time, thereby forcing his teammates to shoulder the defensive burden. Now he's much more comparable to a different Swedish center named Henrik - the Red Wings' Zetterberg, a two-way force capable of lining up in the defensive zone against the toughs on a nightly basis and dominating them territorially. With all due respect to Mr. Sedin, I'd rather go into battle with the latter on my side.

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