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2014-15 Season Review: Joe Thornton

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We continue our post-mortem of the Sharks' season with a review of Jumbo Joe.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Fear The Fin Player Card (click to enlarge; a glossary of terms used can be found here; all data courtesy War On IceBehind the Net, Hockey AnalysisNHLNumbers and NHL.com; stick tap to Japers' Rink):

2014-15 Joe Thornton Player Card

2014-15 Sharks 5v5 Forward Usage Chart (via Hockey Abstract):

Joe Thornton Usage Chart

Joe Thornton Hero Chart (via Own The Puck):

Joe Thornton HERO Chart

The Good: After spending the offseason being scapegoated for San Jose's collapse against the Kings, subjected to endless trade rumors and ultimately stripped of the captaincy, Joe Thornton responded in 2014-15 by not just being the Sharks' best player this season but one of the best two-way forwards in the entire NHL. With Thornton on the ice at 5-on-5, the Sharks controlled 58.5% of puck possession. When he wasn't on the ice, they controlled just 48.7%. That 9.8 percentage point difference, equivalent to the disparity in possession numbers between the second-best and second-worst teams in the league, was the second-greatest on-ice difference for a regular NHL forward this season, 0.1 behind Vancouver's Henrik Sedin. If you want to assign blame for the Sharks missing the playoffs or the Canucks losing in the first round to the worst team to make the postseason in a decade, don't point your finger at those teams' first-line centers; point it at their atrocious depth that Thornton and Sedin did everything they could to help their clubs overcome.

Thornton carried Joe Pavelski to another 35+-goal season, he made afterthought undrafted free agent signing Melker Karlsson score at a 20-goal pace and he was front and center for the Sharks' bounce-back season on the power play. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Thornton's season was that he finished third on the team in scoring (second in points per game) despite the worst 5-on-5 on-ice shooting percentage of his career, a 6.7% clip that ranked ninth among Sharks forwards. When that bounces back next season, he should be flirting with a point per game again in a league where few players reach that height these days.

For all the talk last summer about Thornton not being a player you can "win with" it's worth mentioning that Jumbo, at 35 years old, managed better relative possession numbers and a better scoring rate this season than Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron—the last three number one centers to win a Cup—and his playoff points-per-game rate since joining the Sharks is equivalent to or better than all three of them. There doesn't need to be a 'C' on his jersey for it to be blatantly obvious Thornton is still the leader of this team, and a damn good one at that.

The Bad: Uh...pass? I guess he could have scored more down the stretch as the Sharks made their final, doomed push for the playoffs but that seemed to be the result of some combination of playing through injury (although that was never confirmed by the team), Thornton's aforementioned poor percentage luck and the fact that there just aren't that many goals in the NHL anymore and superstars going through scoring slumps is an even more frequent occurrence than it used to be—just ask Steven Stamkos.

The Highlight:

There are plenty of Joe Thornton milestones from this season to choose from, including his 1200th career point and his 600th assist as a Shark, but his 900th career helper overall that carried him into the top 20 all time in NHL assists was quintessential Jumbo. He sets up shop in his customary office, daring one of the Leafs' defenders to flush him out from behind their net before waiting for the perfect moment to make a deft pass to Melker Karlsson before the rookie forward draws coverage.

Really, though, the actual highlight of Thornton's season was him publicly telling Doug Wilson to shut his mouth, articulating a sentiment shared by a lot of us about the general manager's past 12 months.

The Future: Thornton isn't going anywhere and that's the way it should be. He might not be mid-2000s Jumbo anymore but he's still more than good enough to be the best player on a championship team as long as he's surrounded by the right pieces. The Sharks need to spend this summer adding those pieces, from a legitimate starting goaltender to a better left winger for Jumbo than Melker Karlsson to useful NHL-caliber depth both up front and on the blueline. Joe Thorntons just don't come along very often; they're pretty much impossible to find unless you're drafting first overall in the right draft.

The Sharks may very well never have another player this good ever again. They can't continue to squander the last few years of him being an elite piece by continuing on an ill-conceived, half-assed rebuild. That doesn't mean they should trade as many young players, prospects and picks as possible but moving a few for the right player, even an older one like Patrick Sharp, could put them back in contention next season while also allowing prospects like Nikolay Goldobin, Mirco Mueller and Barclay Goodrow to properly develop in the minors rather than being rushed into NHL gigs. It's a win-win.

The Vote: Grade Thornton below on a typical grading curve from A+ to F based on his performance relative to his potential and your expectations for the season. If he had the best year you could have imagined him having, give him a A+; if he more or less played as you expected he would, give him a C+ or C; if he had the worst year you could have imagined him having, give him an F.