It will be difficult to discuss Joe Thornton’s past without reckoning with his insecure future. While we’ll dig deeper into the options available next season for the NHL’s 101st best player later on, any review of his 2018-19 season must operate under the shadow of his potential departure not from the San Jose Sharks, but from the NHL. That said, this isn’t an article on Thornton’s legacy — though it is heavily influential — this is about the power of now, so let’s try to be mindful and stay in the present for a thousand words or so.
When Thornton missed nine games in October with an infection in his recently surgically repaired knee, Sharks fans held their breath. That’s right, for three full weeks, thousands asphyxiated. Upon his return, however, more machine now than man, Thornton put most of our fears to bed, putting together a respectable campaign right through to the team’s ignominious exit a few weeks ago.
In some ways, Thornton enjoyed what could be called a bounce back campaign. His 51 points through 73 games was the highest count since he managed 82 in 2015-16, and his ten 5-on-5 goals were the most since he scored 12 in 2011-12. A deeper look, though, implies that he was helped along by a lesser role, lower ice times from night to night and an inflated individual shooting percentage of 15.87.
While Thornton’s naked point total is higher than in recent seasons, his point per game tally has decreased overall during the past few years, from 1.00 point per game in 2015-16, through 0.63 in 2016-17, back up to 0.77 in 26 games in 2017-18, and 0.70 this season. While that sounds like a classic decline, Thornton’s drop in ice time provides a pretty substantial explanation for it. The big man’s 15:56 average time on ice per game was the lowest he’s skated since his rookie year, when he averaged 6:35 per game over six contests for the Boston Bruins in 1997-98.
So, as we probably expected coming into the season, Thornton was asked to do less as he approached 40, and did more with the opportunity. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Thornton is more likely to flourish with less ice time, more rest and easier match ups, hell, everyone is. But Thornton in particular benefits from this strategy, as his age and recent injury history have to be taken into consideration when carving out a role for him on the team.
Thornton’s special teams prowess does not seem to have radically diminished either. While Jumbo’s 13:03 5-on-5 ice time per game was 12th most among all Sharks skaters, his 1:54 on the power play ranked ninth. Further, Thornton over-performed that opportunity, as his 2.01 power play points per 60 minutes was second best on the team among skaters with at least an average ten seconds per game on the power play (first was Erik Karlsson with 7.24 (!)).
In the playoffs, Thornton seemed to by stymied by the St. Louis Blues’ defensive structure, goaltending and, ahem, heavy style as much as anyone. After putting up ten points in the first 17 games, Thornton (and just about everyone else) was held pointless over the final three. There were nights, though, against the Vegas Golden Knights and a few times against St. Louis, when Thornton’s line was clearly the best on the ice, including a three-point performance in the Western Conference Final. He struggled at times, but did not seem like he couldn’t keep up with the dialed up pace of postseason hockey, as he has at times in past years.
If this season has taught us anything about Thornton, though, it’s that the rumors of his proverbial demise had been greatly exaggerated. At age 39, and with limited ice time, Thornton boasted an adjusted 5-on-5 on ice shot share of 57.24 percent, his best mark in that category since 2014-15. A living legend, Thornton continues to climb all of the NHL’s leaderboards. As of this off-season, and as of his 40th birthday on July 2, Thornton is 14th all time in points with 1478 (the only active player in the top 40), eighth all time in assists with 1065 and 12th all time in games played with 1566. This season, Thornton scored his 400th career goal and marked his first career hat trick against the team that drafted him 22 years ago.
Whether he returns to the Sharks next season or not (read on!), whether he ever gets his name carved on Lord Stanley’s elusive chalice, Joe Thornton is a legend of the game, and we are all richer for having watched him play it.
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
Thanks to these nerds, we can see both Thornton’s lesser role and his recovery from his early knee procedure illustrated above. Thornton’s 2.01 primary points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 over the course of the full season was fifth highest on the team, and his highest pace since recording 2.11 in 2015-16. The idea that Thornton is improving as he gets closer to 40 is difficult to believe, but, combined with easier assignments, carefully managed minutes, and a gentle zone start ratio of 55.49 at 5-on-5, it’s easier to believe that he’s still got quite a bit to offer, if used wisely.
RAPM Chart (via Evolving Hockey)
We’ve gone over the numbers, and these huge blue bars should come as no surprise, but they still kinda do, don’t they? This guy is going to be 40 years old in a month, and he is still well above average in almost every category you care to measure. If there are any nits to pick here, it’s that his expected goals for leaves a bit to be desired, and that may have a lot to do with his decision making regarding shots. Thornton, never what one would call a volume shooter, put up just 90 shots in 73 games this year, a steep drop from the 75 in 47 he managed last year. A player like Thornton does so much away from the puck and with his unreal distribution talents that a dearth of shot volume should really not be a concern.
When the Sharks visited the Edmonton Oilers on April 7, things were going very badly. The 3-2 win over the hapless Oilers was just San Jose’s second two point night in their previous 11 opportunities, a game that will most likely be more easily remembered for supplying Leon Draisaitl with his 48th and 49th goals of the season than for anything the visitors accomplished. The assist on Marcus Sorensen’s opening tally for the Sharks, though, was textbook Thornton.
While going through the year’s goals to pick a highlight to ... um ... highlight for the big man, I was struck by how many of Sorensen’s or Kevin Labanc’s goals looked exactly like this one: Thornton posting up behind the opponents’ net, biding his time, and unleashing a ridiculous pass through skates and sticks right onto the tape of his teammate. For Sorensen, I found six. This one is my favorite.
What sets this assist apart from others of its ilk, aside from being the one that powered Thornton past Steve Yzerman for sole possession of eighth place all time, is how Thornton enlisted Edmonton’s goaltender in his web of deception. Thornton got his backhand pass under the outstretched stick of Anthony “Stolie the goalie” Stolarz and, somehow, right onto the tape of Sorensen, who was being double-covered at the time by Draisaitl and Adam Larsson. The casual nature with which Thornton threads these passes through does a lot to hide any indication that a dish is coming, which is why Larsson and Stolarz both looked so frantic after the damage was done.
One of the reasons Thornton has continued to be so productive as he’s gotten older, aside from his absurdly diligent fitness routine and diet off the ice, is that his game is built on vision and deft passing, not on speed or power. For that reason, his game can be expected to deteriorate more slowly than that of a more strength- or speed-based skater, whose skills just seem to fall off a cliff (see Iginla, J.A.-L.A.T.J.E.).
What comes next?
Joe Thornton’s future is entirely in his hands and thus, up in the air. As such, we’ll try to throw some seeing stones up there with it and see where they come down. The way it appears, Thornton has four options and we’ll go through them from what seems least to most likely.
Least likely: Thornton could go full Iginla or Jaromir Jagr and sign a one-year deal with a team that seems likely to win next year, and so on until his legs finish falling off. This seems really improbable for a few reasons. First, after this year’s postseason in particular, how can any sane human make any prediction of who is most likely to win the Cup in mid-April, let alone early July? We were all ready to hand the friggin’ thing to the Tampa Bay Lightning six weeks ago and they didn’t even win a single playoff game.
Second, Thornton seemed pretty clear in his exit interviews that he had no desire to play anywhere else, reiterating to reporters, “I’m a Shark ... There’s one team, and it’s here.” Drawing him away from San Jose looks like it would take a king’s ransom, and in a cap league, those ransoms are pretty hard to come by.
Unlikely: Thornton retires. At 39, and with two surgically repaired knees in the past few years, hanging up the skates would not be a crazy decision for Thornton to make. If he wants to continue playing the game, but without the constant grind of the NHL’s grueling and far-too-long regular season, he could always move his family back to his wife’s home land of Switzerland and play there. Thornton raved about the experience after playing in the Swiss league during the 2004-05 lockout, during which time he met his soon-to-be wife. Still, referring back to the team’s exit interviews, Thornton seemed to have every intention of being right back in that stall come September, saying “I feel like I can still play, that’s for sure, but I haven’t made any decision at all yet,” and deferring the decision to “Doug and Hasso.”
For their part, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and owner Hasso Plattner seem amenable to his return. Said Wilson, “Whatever decision he makes, we’re there for him.”
Not that likely, but maybe the best option for everyone:The old Mike Fisher routine. On August 3 of 2017, Nashville Predators captain Mike Fisher announced his retirement from the NHL. He hung up his skates, had a sweet ceremony with the team, and rode of into the proverbial sunset. Except then he rode right back out of it. On January 31 of 2018, Fisher rescinded his retirement and signed a one-year contract with a Predators team that looked like it had all the makings of a championship run. That didn’t quite play out, but the Predators won the President’s Trophy that year, made a very cool and not at all stupid and lame banner, and were crushed in Game 7 at home by the Winnipeg Jets in round two.
There is, therefore, a precedent for this sort of thing. Thornton seems less-than-thrilled about the grind of rehab, off-season training and regular season play. Why not sit out the first few months of the season, see how Wilson’s off-season wheeling and dealing have built up the team, and decide in January whether or not to come back, rested and willing? It’s a strange plan, but as Fisher and others before him have shown, an eminently possible one.
Okay, probably this one: Sign a one year contract for whatever happens to be left on the cap, which seems the most likely. As cool as it is, the halfway through the year strategy is a weird one, and probably a long shot. By everything Thornton and management have said to the media, he seems to be willing to come back and the team seems to be willing to take him. Both parties have shown flexibility in regards to cap numbers, as the $8 million deal in 2017-18 may well have included a handshake deal to take a little less down the line. It wouldn’t shock any of us if Thornton came back with an AAV under $5 million just to make things work for management.
Thornton’s on ice contributions are still shocking, and his stature in this locker room and in this city cannot be overstated. He is a living legend, and if he wants to play until he’s 60 and start making a run at Gordie Howe’s records, find a lawnmower for him to sit on and sign him up for it.