I know what you're thinking — we're just looking for an excuse to give the Hart to someone other than No. 88 for the hockey team that plays in Chicago. You're not 100 percent wrong, obviously, but one of this blog's central tenets is a deep love for Joe Thornton. Now that we've got those biases out of the way, let's make the case for Thornton as the NHL's MVP.
Let's start with the actual definition of the award. This comes from Wikipedia.
The Hart Memorial Trophy, originally known as the Hart Trophy, is awarded annually to the "player judged most valuable to his team" in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Based on a certain interpretation of this text, you can make a pretty good case for a player who's not necessarily having the best season. That's good! Because while Thornton is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest Shark of all time, it'd be tough to argue he's having the best season of any NHL player.
It's not tough at all to argue Thornton is having the best season of any Sharks player. I received my ballot for the Sharks Foundation Player of the Year award yesterday and needed only as long as it took me to type in his name to make my decision. It's an absolute no-brainer if you've watched this team all year and becomes even more obvious after diving into the numbers. So let's do that!
We'll start with the obvious: Thornton leads the Sharks with 70 points. Those points come on 17 goals and 53 assists — the goal total is his highest since the 2011-12 season. He's on pace for 78 points, which would be his most since his 89 point 2009-10 campaign. What's most amazing about Thornton, in my opinion, is that not much has changed in his game over the past several years. He just keeps on trucking along, seemingly defiant of any preconceived notions of time or aging.
Points alone aren't going to get the job done for Thornton, particularly since he's only a hair ahead of Joe Pavelski in that category. Hell, he's not got that big of a lead on Brent Burns. No, Thornton's campaign rests on his possession stats — and good god are they glorious. All stats are even strength, score-adjusted an from war-on-ice.com unless I specify otherwise.
Thornton's relative fenwick-for percentage is 7.69, good enough for seventh in the NHL among players with at least 500 minutes to their name. The six guys ahead of him come from the following teams: Minnesota (48.8 FF%), Boston (48.9) and Detroit (50.3). The Sharks FF% is 53.2, which is fourth in the league, for reference. It says a lot that Thornton is that much better than his teammates at positively impacting possession on a team that, by and large, is extremely good at it.
Put another way...
This graph, from corsica.hockey, shows Thornton with and without his Sharks teammates (5v5, score adjusted). The red dots are the teammates he plays with most frequently and as you can see not a single teammate plays better without Thornton than they do with Thornton. Jumbo is nobody's anchor. In some cases (hi Pavelski!) Thornton does a lot to drag possession stats onwards and upwards — and that's to say nothing of what he's done for the captain's goal scoring in recent years.
And this is all just what he can do in 5v5 play. Thornton is one of the best power-play forwards in the NHL because of his outstanding vision and playmaking ability. He makes passes most guys don't even know they can't make and while his offensive zone turnovers draw the ire of the Internet, his positive play vastly outweighs any failings he has.
The real heart of Thornton's case is pretty simple: The Sharks might not be a playoff team without him. Nobody on the team, and quite frankly nobody in the NHL, is as important to his team's success as Thornton. For that, I think he's a fine candidate to take home the Hart for the second time in his career. It might be a long shot, but Thornton's career has made a habit of defying expectations — maybe this is the latest in a long line.