October 21, 2011
When a player reaches Game No. 1,000 in his career, it's a good moment to take a step back and assess the previous 999. With all due respect to Hal Gill(notes), San Jose Sharks star Joe Thornton(notes) is a much more fascinating case study at 1,000 games, which he'll reach on Friday night at the New Jersey Devils. (Barring an injury in warmups, which all this coverage probably ensures.)
"I still have young legs and a young mind," Thornton said, sporting his infectious smile that he had on the moment he got into the dressing room. "Really, I don't know how (1,000 games) got here so quickly. I woke up one day and here it is. I still feel young, though."
At 1,000 games, how do you assess Joe Thornton's career?
Here is Joe Thornton's stat line through 999 NHL games:
Hockey-Reference.com is your treasure trove of information about a guy like Thornton, beyond the general box score stuff. Based on point shares, his 14-season career tracks well with names like Brett Hull, Jarome Iginla(notes) and Bryan Trottier.
He's 78th all-time in points with 1,002, but 50th all-time in points-per-game average (1.00). He's second in the NHL among active players in assists per game (0.70, trailing Jaromir Jagr's(notes) 0.75) and 25th all-time.
Thornton won the Art Ross and the Hart Trophy in 2005-06, with that mammoth 125-point season after the lockout (and during his trade from the Boston Bruins). He's a six-time all-star, for what that's worth.
He's also never played for the Stanley Cup or won a conference title.
The immediate criticisms of Thornton were always about his passive nature as an offensive force — and that wasn't a pun on his assist totals — and the seemingly unshakable "playoff choker" label. It's only been in the last two seasons that he's changed some minds about both: Playing more aggressively and acting as a leader for the Sharks, while posting 29 points in his last 33 postseason games, including that series clinching goal against the Los Angeles Kings.
With his next 100 points, Thornton will be in Frank Mahovlich territory. In 200, he'll have passed players like Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Bossy, closing in on Jeremy Roenick(notes). In 300 points — and we're talking about five seasons of 60-points-or-better for a 32-year-old player — Thornton will get into the Denis Savard range, and into that territory where a lot of the names surrounding him had plaques in Toronto.
Winning a Stanley Cup usually isn't a mandatory requirement for a Hall of Fame career; heck, Thornton's Olympic gold might suffice. But it's different for Thornton.
It always feels like there's a segment of the hockey population holding back on its admiration until he breaks through, plays in the Finals or hoists the Cup. As if there's an acknowledgement that he's a supremely gifted player, but not an appreciation for his accomplishments. Maybe with Thornton as a set-up guy rather than a Richard Trophy winner, our goal-obsessed culture plays into that, too — Adam Oates will never get the love a sniper does.
At 1,000 games, Joe Thornton is an NHL star. It's the magnitude of his accomplishments that's up for debate.