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He was the next Eric Lindros. He was a first-overall draft bust. He was a rising superstar. He wasn’t the right type of player for the Boston market. He was the league’s most valuable player. He was the NHL’s best center. He was a playoff choke artist. He felt too much “pressure and stress” to be captain.
“All that really matters is what your peers say and what your teammates say. At the end of the day that’s all that matters,” Thornton said. “Guys that watch maybe three or four of my games throughout 82 games or in the playoffs, don’t have a really good grasp of how I play the game. All I really care about is my peers and my teammates how they think I prepare and play the game.”
For a player who has won a Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, Olympic gold medal and put up 1,259 points in his career, Thornton has a large amount of critics and naysayers.
Like Thornton, Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan has never won a Stanley Cup. But the 39-year-old Doan has this image of a loyal leader/warrior who has stayed with the Coyotes franchise through the lean times.
Colorado Avalanche forward Jarome Iginla has never won a Stanley Cup, and has turned into a mercenary to some degree, bouncing from location to location to find his best chance to finally win. But the 38-year-old winger is another guy who hasn’t been chastised for lack of playoff success to the same degree.
Why does Thornton have such a reputation and those two players don’t?
Was it how it didn’t work out in Boston? Is it because the uber-talented Sharks have never made it to a Stanley Cup Final with Thornton as their centerpiece? Did the fact that he’s never averaged over a point-per-game in the playoffs mean he wasn’t successful in the postseason?
“I can understand why you’d say maybe some of the media hasn’t … he doesn’t get his due of how truly elite he is,” Doan said. “He’s elite and he’s special. And he’s comfortable with not demanding it. He does his job and makes everyone around him better if no one else can recognize that he’s doing it. The guys who play against him and play with him know how incredible he is. “
To understand the brilliance in Thornton’s game is to delve deep into it and see that he’s a durable, powerful center that excels in traditional and advanced areas of today’s game.
Since the 2004-05 lockout he’s never played fewer than 78 games, and has never seen a drop-off due to exhaustion, mostly because he’s been able to figure out ways to add different parts of his game to keep his production up. Since 1999-2000, Thornton has twice dipped below 70 points (just barley) in a full season.
He may not be as fast as he once was, but he’s become adept to using his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame to protect the puck on the walls and hold onto it for lengths of time to make a passing play on his forehand or backhand.
“One of the best things with Joe is he passes the puck on his backhand almost as well as he does on his forehand,” Doan said. “That’s what makes him special. Because when he’s on his backhand, you can protect the puck that much better, it’s impressive.”
Last season, Thornton’s shot attempts differential was plus-353, fourth in the NHL according to the league’s enhanced stats site.
His shot attempts relative percentage was a plus-9.6, meaning the Sharks held onto the puck more when he was on the ice than when he wasn’t.
In 2013-14 he was at plus-373 overall and a plus-6.6 percent. In 2011-12 he was plus-276 and plus-5.8 percent.
“He’s a guy who has dominated and can dominate and those are the types of things you think about when you play with him,” Pavelski said. “You have to bring your game. He demands it. He wants the puck. He wants to make the plays that score goals and win games. That’s the feeling I get when I play with him as his teammate for a while now.”
Thornton also ranks 36th all-time in the league in scoring. For argument’s sake, give him 116 more games – the amount he lost because of two lockouts – and 100 points, he’d rank 25th all-time in points, ahead of Hockey Hall of Famers Brendan Shanahan and Mats Sundin.
And all of Thornton’s numbers were put up in the dead-puck era.
But why is there this feeling that there’s something missing with Thornton? The knock on him out of town with Boston was that he’s too easygoing to lead and he didn’t have the mentality to take a team far in the playoffs.
"I asked myself if Joe Thornton could lead us to the Stanley Cup, and my answer was no," former Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell told the New England Hockey Journal in 2011. "Do you want to rebuild around a player that has character but not the championship character you're looking for?"
Since the Sharks haven’t won a Cup with Thornton, this stigma has stuck.
In San Jose, you’ll hear grumblings about how Thornton’s exit from Boston ruined his rep, but nobody will publicly say anything negative about Boston media and how they treated Thornton on his way out of town.
“I always want to have good memories of everywhere I went, so I have great memories of Boston and I do cherish my time there,” Thornton said. “It helped me through so much. I don’t know. I’m just in general a happy-go-lucky guy and I just enjoy coming to the rink.”
Even though Thornton hasn’t won a Stanley Cup with the Sharks, the success he’s brought to the organization has been transformational following his trade there in 2005.
Since his arrival, the team has won the Presidents’ Trophy and gone to the Western Conference Final twice.
It has finished with over 100 points in six of his years there and failed to make the playoffs once.
Thornton turned Jonathan Cheechoo into a 56-goal scorer one year and a 37-goal man another season. Cheechoo wasn’t a bad player pre-Thornton with 28 goals in 2003-04, but he wasn’t nearly the dynamic triggerman he turned into with Thornton as his center.
“Cheechoo always had a good shot and he always could find a good spot,” forward Patrick Marleau said. “Then you add Joe who got him the puck at the right times and the right spot, that’s what happened. He ended up with 56 goals.”
General manager Doug Wilson’s trade for Thornton, where he gave up Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau to Boston has enabled him to perfect his building of the Sharks over the years, and kept the team from the inevitable down cycle. It’s almost like an NFL team with a franchise quarterback.
Not only has Thornton helped his teammates put up bigger totals, he’s made his general manager’s job easier.
“I have tremendous respect for him. The day we acquired him was a great moment for this franchise,” Wilson said. “This franchise is very fortunate to have Joe Thornton.”
Thornton is beloved in San Jose. Fans save their loudest cheers for when his name is called over the loud speaker at SAP Center.
But even Thornton isn’t immune to criticism or trouble in his own area. The Sharks took away his captain’s ‘C’ before the 2014-15 season. This was likely a reaction to San Jose’s ouster the prior playoffs to the Los Angeles Kings where the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead.
This gave the Thornton naysayers fuel that he simply couldn’t get the job done as an NHL team captain, and created a yearlong distraction for the Sharks, who missed the playoffs for the first time since the team acquired Thornton.
Both Thornton and Wilson say they’re over the problem heading into the 2015-16 season. There is a sense of finality that Thornton’s time as captain is probably over.
He has just two years left on his contract, and it may be time to give someone else the ‘C’. This means if the Sharks make a run this year, it’ll be without Thornton as the leader.
“This year, (coach) Peter (DeBoer) said we’re going to have a captain and we have lots of good candidates,” Thornton said. “I’m sure he can pick a number of guys. Whoever it is, he’ll be great.”
In order for San Jose to go deep this season, the Sharks will need Thornton to once again defy the laws of aging. He did see a drop-off in points last year with 65 points – even if his possession numbers were still solid.
He notched two assists in his first preseason game of 2015. In that contest, he was typical Thornton – holding onto the puck and finding the smallest passing lanes to hit the open man with a perfect feed. If there was any slowing down because of age, it wasn’t apparent that night.
“My head says I’m in my mid-20s. My body feels maybe late 20s,” Thornton said. “I feel young and just ready to go."
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