Joe Thornton's defensive renaissance may be coming at an offensive price
When the Sharks gave Joe Thornton a three year $21MM contract extension this summer, it was seen as a notable victory for an organization that has had very limited success in the free agent market over the years. One of the best centers in the world had taken a paycut to play in a city he had grown to love, setting the stage for the leadership torch to finally be passed in the locker room. He had been the Sharks best player on the ice for years, the engine of San Jose's potent offensive machine-- now was the time for him to be recognized as such.
On October 7th, 2010, Joe Thornton was elected Captain by the San Jose Sharks. And on October 7th, 2010, Thornton made a conscious effort to change his game.
No longer was he content with being billed as an offensive dynamo who thrived solely in the offensive zone. Instead, Thornton set out to do what all great leaders have done throughout the course of history-- lead by example. Throughout his career the defensive zone was an area of his game that had been seen as an area that needed improvement, and understandably so. With a knack for threading the needle through even the most active of opposing sticks, Thornton's bread had always been buttered offensively, the asset that landed him the Hart and Art Ross Trophy in 2006. It's what made him, and continues to make him, the precious commodity that he is today.
Since the NHL lockout, only Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have scored more points per game than Thornton. An elite list of players. A rich conglomerate of offensive talents.
And yet, Thornton wasn't satisfied.
The Captaincy, especially in San Jose, carries a responsibility that extends beyond regular season accomplishments and gaudy point totals. In order to win in the postseason, where a goal for is just as important as a goal against, you must commit to both ends of the ice. The level of competition is much greater than the regular season; a symphony of finely tuned clubs at the pinnacle of their testosterone levels, fighting for each inch of serene white ice like bloodhounds thirsting for raw meat. In order to survive, you're going to have to win one goal games regularly. In order to do that, your top line has to make each shift count for all 200 feet.
Thornton's renaissance in the defensive zone has not gone unnoticed. Sharks radio color commenter Jamie Baker, and television color commenter Drew Remenda, have all given Thornton his due when it comes to his newfound interest in the defensive zone. And pundits across the country have extended compliments as well-- Jim Fox and Bob Miller, broadcasters for the Los Angeles Kings, remarked several times on air during San Jose's 1-0 victory over Los Angeles at just how different Thornton looked this season. They were vindicated throughout the night, most notably at the end of the third period when Thornton backchecked like a bull and ripped the puck off of Marco Sturm's stick in the neutral zone as the Kings made one last rush up the ice.
Thornton's strides in the defensive zone have been a welcome addition to his game this season. There is no denying that.
But as is generally the case, everything has a price.
On pace for 75 points this season, there's no question that Thornton hasn't lived up to the offensive standards he's set for himself throughout his career. The same can be said of his top line counterparts Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley-- the group of players known as HTML have had mercurial stretches of play throughout the year, the latter currently posting a mere three goals since December began, and the former being the subject of criticism since the beginning of the season. With Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe beginning to assert themselves as the go-to line offensively, and beginning to take leadership roles in the locker room as well, the players who were previously seen as the heavy lifters in the scoring department have begun to burn a little less brighter.
So what exactly has ailed Thornton offensively this season? Heatley's and Marleau's production has obviously been detrimental to his stat line-- Thornton has always been a player who relied on his assist totals to contribute offensively, and with Marleau's shooting percentage down at 10.9% despite leading the team in shots with 140, there's some underlying numbers here that indicate a slight resurgence could be on the way. As it stands now though, Thornton hasn't benefited from his goal scorers lighting the lamp as they have in years past.
However, the most concerning aspect of Thornton's decreased offensive production comes in the form of his even strength numbers. If you want to look at why he's on pace for his worst season offensively since 2004, or why he's currently a -9 in the plus/minus category (2nd worst on the team with Joe Pavelski) despite showing some qualitative defensive improvements, it's all here in a nutshell.
During the last three seasons of Sharks hockey, San Jose's power play has been one of the most potent units in the league. A 23.5% conversion rate is good for second in the NHL this year as of this posting; coupled with 21.0% (4th) and 24.2% (3rd) in 2009-2010 and 2008-2009 respectively, it's an asset that has helped the team to win massive amounts of hockey games.
And Joe Thornton has been a big part of the reason why that level of success has been there. In 08-09 Thornton racked up 35 points on the man advantage, good for 40.7% of his total point output. In 09-10 it was the same story, with Thornton logging 29 points, good for 32.6% of his total output.
This season he's already seen 21 of his points come on the power play, amounting to exactly 60% of his scoring output on the year. A big part of the power play's success this season without a doubt, but a telling example of some rather middling offensive production at even strength. He has relied on the power play to keep the points coming, accounting for one of his worst even strength seasons in a Sharks uniform.
Measuring his points on a sixty minute basis in order to establish his effectiveness based on ice time, Thornton's even strength numbers have dwindled down into an area previously unseen. The man affectionately called "Jumbo" has been huge in this category over the years for the Sharks, consistently leading the team-- the points have justified the nickname, and vice versa. This season however, Thornton has dipped below 2.00 PTS/60 MIN for the first time since coming to San Jose in 2005. His 1.54 rate has fallen remarkably from the standards set during the last two years, where Thornton put up 2.76 and 2.33 points during the ever-grueling even strength game. From your top line centerman, that's not a trend that is welcome to see. And it's the main reason why his point production has slipped this year.
Furthermore, Thornton's defensive ambitions have begun to play a detrimental role in another aspect of his game. As he has become more defensively responsible, avoiding taking borderline penalties, he has also become less of a factor in drawing those very penalties. The 08-09 and 09-10 seasons saw Thornton draw penalties at a reasonable clip, but play with a bit of reckless abandon as well-- on a per sixty minute basis he drew 1.6 and 1.4 penalties respectively, while also taking 0.7 and 1.0 penalties. This year the split has been about the same, but on a much smaller level-- Thornton has taken 0.4 penalties per sixty minutes, but only drawn 0.8. Is he a little less aggressive during puck battles in order to avoid going to the box? Did the suspension for his hit on David Perron make him wary of playing with an edge? As Captain, has he tried to set an example for his teammates by playing a cleaner game?
It's likely a little of both.
Thornton has always been a player who gets hooked, held, and slashed more than the average center-- his profile as one of the game's playmakers means opposing defenseman are going to be glued to his hip wherever he goes, and his massive 6'4 235 pound frame means that infractions against him tend to be overlooked more so than his smaller contemporaries. It's the nature of the NHL's officiating crew, a fact of life that every player in the league is well aware of by now.
When Thornton is playing his periphery game along the boards, those hooks and slashes can be thrown with a more reckless abandon. The dirty areas of the ice are ones where more is let go, and understandably so. A direct scoring chance isn't present at the moment, and therefore, "let them play" becomes the mantra in the mind. Which is what makes Thornton's periphery play so frustrating sometimes-- the calls aren't going to come in that area, but as we saw last night when Thornton used his body to deliberately drive to the front of the net, an aggressive play to the middle is going to draw a penalty because it generates a scoring chance.
66% of the Sharks goals this season have been scored in and around the crease. That's where you go when you want the biscuit in the basket. That's where you go when passing lanes are clogged at even strength. And that's where you go when the pass from beneath the end line isn't getting through to your forwards.
Qualitatively, Thornton has improved defensively this season. It's a welcome addition to his game, and one that will ultimately pay off dividends for the team towards the end of the season. Your Captain sets the tone, and despite his decreased offensive production, it's hard to find any complaints with his effort level this season-- he's been consistent in that regard, and there's little here that indicates Ryane Clowe was referencing Thornton last night when he questioned the priorities of certain players. It doesn't add up.
But however welcoming the effort level has been defensively, Thornton's check doesn't get cashed because he's a penalty killing wizard in front of the San Jose net. He gets paid to produce points. And those haven't come this season, especially at even strength.
With the Sharks halfway through their season, and still struggling with inconsistency, the time has come for Thornton and his top tier counterparts to explode offensively. It may not solve the defensive issues the team has, something that can only be rectified via trade, but it will take a lot of pressure off the team as a whole in the third period. If Thornton, Heatley, and Marleau can pick up the pace and meet the expectations associated with their combined $21MM+ contracts, those one goal leads that slip away during the final frame all of a sudden turn into two goal leads that have a much better chance of being held.
And Thornton's increased attention to the defensive aspect of his game will begin to look a whole lot better for San Jose's bottom line.