Winning Play: Is Thornton the best third-line center in the Western Conference?

Is Joe Thornton the best third-line center in the Western Conference?

Peter DeBoer might say so: “He’s been, if not our best player, one of our best players the last month.”

Per Evolving-Hockey, Thornton has been the most productive third-line center at 5-on-5 in the West:

Thornton boasts the highest points and primary assists per 60 rates in this group.

(Realizing the third-line center role is fluid on most, if not all teams, these are best guesses from an outsider’s perspective at 3C based on recent lines, overall usage and ideal roles. For example, Bryan Little was playing up as a second-line pivot until Kevin Hayes’s acquisition. Charlie Coyle obviously doesn’t play in Minnesota anymore, but when Mikko Koivu was healthy, that’s probably where he slotted behind Eric Staal and Koivu. Ryan Kesler might be done for the season, but that’s where Anaheim was using him. Still, feel free to chime in with corrections.)

Thornton’s productivity can be attributed in large part to his still unparalleled vision and patience with the puck, on full display here, in last night’s 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators.

Albeit at 4-on-4, on entering the zone, Thornton (19) slowed it down, drawing three Predators’ eyes toward him.

That’s when Thornton dropped it off for Brent Burns (88), who had inherited a wealth of space and time because of Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44). Vlasic contributed by driving the center lane, forcing Viktor Arvidsson (33) to chase him, instead of Burns.

DeBoer was wowed. “The play he made to Burnzie inside the blueline, incredible.”

The 6-foot-5 Burns went wide, taking advantage of a laughable mismatch against the 5-foot-10 Mikael Granlund (64). Meanwhile, Thornton, as quiet as a 6-foot-4, 220-pound skater nicknamed “Jumbo” can be, craftily timed his appearance in front of Mattias Ekholm to be available for the Burns’s pass.

Considering the 39-year-old Thornton’s age, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that he’s somehow being carried by his very talented teammates. That doesn’t appear to be the case:

Thornton’s robust goal differential and expected goal differential per 60 are supported by positive relative expected goal differential and Corsi figures, suggesting that he’s been better than his impressive team. In fact, he makes his teammates better.

Reminiscent of the time and space that he created for Burns last night, three rabid Coyotes eyed Thornton at the wall in this December tilt. Thornton waited, opening up the center lane, and fired a strike at the hard-charging Brenden Dillon (4), who was afforded an easy entry.

In a concession to Thornton’s age, however, DeBoer wisely doesn’t burden his Hall of Fame playmaker with too many defensive zone starts:

Instead, younger pivots like Nick Bonino and Brandon Sutter get buried by defensive zone starts at 5-on-5. That’s to their credit, and an argument against Thornton as the conference’s best 3C. Not that Thornton’s usage is extreme — he sees his share of defensive zone starts. And he’s still a conscientious defensive player, body willing.

In both clips, Thornton tracked down a pair of superstar centers, Evgeni Malkin and Mark Scheifele.

That, of course, has been the biggest Thornton question mark in recent years: his health. Beset by knee injuries last year, a knee infection and a broken toe this season, we probably haven’t seen Thornton with consistent “pop” in his skating until recently.

DeBoer agreed that the San Jose Sharks’ Player of the Month in February is finally moving well on a regular basis: “He’s playing at a really good level right now for us. He looks great.”

But since Thornton isn’t necessarily the dynamic two-way presence that he used to be — the 39-year-old hasn’t been used heavily on the penalty kill since 2011-12 — it’s probably more fair to call Thornton the best offensive third-line center in the Western Conference.

His power play production supports the point:

Thornton leads this group of centermen with 5.16 points per 60 at 5-on-4. He’s second in primary assists to Jason Spezza.

That said, despite fewer responsibilities on the defensive end, there’s an argument that Thornton is still so good at 5-on-5, as well as on the power play, that his overall impact is greater than any other 3C in the conference:

That’s what Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metrics posit. And that’s what DeBoer is counting on as he keeps using his future Hall of Famer to bludgeon often inferior bottom-six competition.