I don’t want to write about Joe Thornton playing worse than he did a season ago. I want to write about Thornton inexplicably playing at the same Hall of Fame level he played at least season and the season before that and ... you get the idea. But we are now nearly a quarter of the way through the season and Thornton is just not playing as well as he did a season ago.
His possession stats, the area where Thornton shines ordinarily, certainly took a step back this year as they have for each of the past few years. In 2013-14, Thornton posted a fenwick-for percentage of 59.27 (score-adjusted, even strength from corsica.hockey). The next year it dropped to 58.87, then 57.56 and now to 54.00.
It’s still early enough that we don’t need to panic, but there’s a trend developing here. That’s not that odd given Thornton’s age (37), but he was elite last year and San Jose really needs him to be elite this year if they want to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Those numbers came with different linemates over the years, but Thornton has played (primarily) with Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. As of late, Hertl has played elsewhere which I believe seriously dents Thornton’s possession game. Take a look at his FF% with the following linemates:
So here’s the dealio: This is sorted by FF% (combos with at least 50 minutes on the ice together) and I’ll admit I was surprised by how low the Pavelski-Thornton-Hertl line finished on the chart. The Nieto line comes in a relatively small sampel (fewer than 150 minutes) and we know the Burns and Zubrus lines aren’t coming back.
That leaves the Melker Karlsson option, which has been tossed around by myself and Marcus earlier this season. Perhaps pairing Melker back with the Joes will help mitigate the damage.
To be clear, I don’t think Thornton playing with Ward is the reason his numbers are down (though that certainly hurt as that line struggled mightily). Thornton regressed this season and is not the same player he was a few seasons ago. That’s how this works. Now the Sharks need to find a way to mitigate the damage; the same goes for Marleau, who has had his fair share of struggles this year.
This is Thornton with and without other teammates. In limited ice time, Thornton played very well with David Schlemko and Brenden Dillon while you can see how poorly he played with Joel Ward. He has not played with Melker Karlsson in significant minutes this year and that might be a solution, particularly if a line shakeup is coming because of Hertl’s injury.
There isn’t really a solution to this problem. The Sharks can find ways to mitigate the damage, but that’s about it. At the end of the season, there will need to be a discussion on whether or not Thornton should be re-signed. That’s a shame, but it’s also the inevitability of every NHL career. So enjoy Thornton while he’s here.