Joe Thornton’s 2016-17 season was characterized by a pretty significant step back in production and possession, but before we really dig in, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that a down year for Thornton means he was not absurdly, unreasonably dominant; merely very, very good. At 37, it’s not much of a stretch to attribute at least some of this decline to age. In fact, Thornton was the 12th oldest player to suit up for an NHL team this season (Marleau was 13th), and his 50 points were more than anyone in the top 20 except for Henriks Zetterberg (17th) and Sedin (18th). If he just changes his first name this off season, a resurgence is all but guaranteed.
The man they call Jumbo hit some major milestones this season along with his 50 points, while skating the second most minutes per game among forwards on the team. Thornton's 43 assists propelled him past Doug Gilmour to take sole possession of 13th place on the NHL’s all time assists list, becoming the 13th ever player to record 1000 assists; only Jaromir Jagr (probably a robot, so it doesn’t count) has more among active players. Thornton has always been a pass first, second, and third player, but his seven goals this season frankly aren’t enough for a player with his ice time and cap hit. Of the players above him on the aforementioned assists list, only the very reasonable and fun-loving Adam Oates has fewer.
Despite his history making season, Thornton’s numbers quantify the main concern most of us have over his future. Joe’s 50 points were down from 82 the previous season, his seven goals down from 19, his 43 assists down from 63, his 53.46 CF% down from 56.33, and his 0.63 points per game his lowest since 1998-99. “Oh, boo hoo, Erik, he’s only a 53% possession player at 37 years old, give the dude a break.” Fair point, but for an older player, I think it’s likely that his 82 point season was more of an anomaly than the 65 and 50 point seasons that flank it.
Some of this decline was probably luck based (or the hockey gods taking their toll, up to you), as Thornton’s shooting percentage of 5.66 is well below his career average of 10.78, so a bounce back in that department is likely, assuming he can still, you know, walk. Thornton was still relied upon heavily by the coaching staff, spending the most even strength ice time against the toughest competition among all Sharks skaters, and still posting positive shot attempt differentials consistently.
His influence in the postseason was remarkable. We’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and elsewhere excusing the Sharks’ loss to the Edmonton Oilers because of a glut of injuries to key players, Thornton’s chief among them. Thornton returned from what should have been a pretty debilitating injury in Game 3 of the first round series against Edmonton, and seemed ubiquitous through the first 20 of that game. He, understandably, slowed down a bit, but still put up two points in four games, and skated to a CF% of 54. Even with one leg, Joe Thornton makes a positive difference for this team.
Thornton may be another year older and slower, but one of the things that amazes me about his play is that the game seems to slow down to suit him at times. More so during the NHL Mastercard Bridgestone Discover World Cup of Hockey 2016 Toronto, as soon as Thornton took possession of the puck, the entire game seemed to slow down around him. This ability, born out of years of experience in insanely high pressure situations, hasn’t faded with his age, and makes me think he’s still got a few years left in him (again, if he can still walk). Players like Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, and Zetterberg come to mind as players with that ability, and they’re a dying breed: East-West players in a North-South world that’s changing around them.
And, perhaps most importantly, no one in this league beards like Joe Thornton beards. Accept no substitutes.
2016-17 Sharks 5v5 Usage Chart (via Corsica Hockey)
Joe Thornton Rolling 25-game score, zone, and venue-adjusted average CF% (via Corsica Hockey)
Player Hero Chart (via Own The Puck):
This is what I’m talking about right here, you guys. Joe Thornton sold his youth to a bog hag 20 years ago for the ability to stand behind Carey Price’s net totally unmolested for seven full seconds. This is vintage Sharks: Joe receives a pass behind the net, and holds it for what seems like an eternity. The Canadiens defense just stands and watches, since they know as soon as any of them move, Thornton will punish them. Somehow, he gets the puck onto Patrick Marleau’s stick, who wastes no time putting it past Price and in. He’s even immune to Price’s patented death stare after the fact.
What comes next?
Joe Thornton is probably the biggest name to his unrestricted free agency this offseason, if he actually does. I’m of the opinion that Doug Wilson has two contracts with Thornton’s and Marleau’s names on them in a locked drawer in his desk just waiting for the expansion draft to end, but if Thornton chooses to test the market, there will be takers. I’d love to see him stick around if the term (3 years-ish) and money ($5 million-ish) are right, but I’ll never blame a hockey player for chasing the dollar (I’ll just cry about it).
Hanging over all of this speculation, however, is The Injury. Joe Thornton played through a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee, an injory suffered in an April 2 game in Vancouver, through four games of the postseason against Edmonton. Team doctors apparently told him that he couldn't make it any worse. Considering the issues the NHL has had with team doctors allowing players to play through serious injuries in recent history (see Wideman, D., Crosby, S., and Couture, L.), I find this hard to believe. Even if skating on a knee missing two ligaments does not further damage it, it sure doesn’t help.
I attended Game 6 in San Jose, and near the end of the third period, Joe Thornton was the last man to exit the defensive zone after a clear and he headed straight towards the Sharks’ bench. On his way, he put too much weight on his right foot and crumpled into the boards, catching himself on the wall with his hand. I haven’t been able to find footage of this stumble as it was behind the play and the cameras had moved on, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but this can be the kind of injury that affects a player (or person) for the rest of his life. When the injury first happened in Vancouver, I thought it could be career ending, and there’s a distant possibility it still might be, but even if it’s not, Thornton needs to go into next season with significantly more care and less responsibility, wherever he is.
He’s not 19 any more.