Joe Thornton is still San Jose's underrated MVP
Joe Thornton doesn't score like he used to, and everyone playing around him is reaping the benefits.
You might have heard that Doug Wilson wants to trade Joe Thornton to change the culture of the San Jose Sharks. This is a lot like your boss firing the best coworker you have because he bailed on the boss' super cool barbecue/pool party.
The narrative makers who dare to keep us lowly sports blogs accountable will tell you that Thornton is nothing but a playoff choker because they are stupid. I imagine some of you will be rushing to the comments any moment now to tell me some version of the same narrative. To you fine folks, I deliver this.
Now that the unbelievers have been dispensed, let's take a few moments to explore just how great Thornton was for the Sharks last season. First, here's an image from Extra Skater to give you an idea of how tough Jumbo had it last year. Only three players had a higher defensive zone start percentage and just two faced tougher competition.
Todd McLellan frequently started Thornton in the Sharks' defensive zone against the team's toughest opponents. How did Thornton respond? By posting a relative corsi of +6.8 percent. That's the highest of any forward on the team and second only to the excellent Marc-Edouard Vlasic's +7.1 percent relative corsi overall. As you can see on the chart, Vlasic posted his numbers against stiff, but easier competition than Thornton. Jumbo is really, really good. Really good. Really very good.
So what about the goal scoring, or lack thereof? Here are Thornton's goals scored/total points in each of the last four seasons, starting in 2010-11: 21/70, 18/77, 7/40 (lockout), 11/76. So where Thornton has seen his goals dissipate he has seen an increase in his assist numbers. That's not news to anyone who has watched the team the last two seasons. Thornton talked about looking to be more of a facilitator after the 2011-12 season and it has paid serious dividends for the Sharks.
When I wrote about Joe Pavelski yesterday, I mentioned the positives of playing on Thornton's line in terms of goal scoring; what I didn't mention is how much of an uptick playing on his line impacts everyone's possession numbers. Take a look at the Sharks' top possession players last season in the image below (also from Extra Skater).
I don't imagine anyone is shocked to see these names on the list. They all spent significant time on the first line last year and it stands to reason that the best possession players will play on the top line. But while Brent Burns, Pavelski and Tomas Hertl were all shifted around at times last season, Thornton stayed (almost) perfectly consistently on that top line. It's also worth nothing that Thornton's relative corsi is a full two percentage points higher than the next closest player on this list. It's not a coincidence.
Okay, so you've seen the numbers, but what about the Eye Test? Thornton's passing ability is evident to anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time watching the Sharks -- even if we could all do without some of those damn no-look back passes. Here are a couple of examples of Thornton at his pass-first best.
Yeah, he's pretty good at the whole passing thing. It's unfortunate the NHL doesn't have access to some the SportsVu type of technology we're seeing implemented in the NBA. I would love to see some data on Thornton's pass completion percentage as well as a heat map for where most of his assists come from. For now, we know that Thornton is the best possession driver on the Sharks, the best passer and arguably(?) the best player to ever wear teal.
Man, are we gonna trade this loser or what?