“For me the big thing is sleep,” Thornton said. “Being a West Coast team, sleep is very, very important. I really do try to get nine hours per night, if I can, of sleep. I think sleep is just as important, the amount of sleep you’re getting.”
Thornton’s always taken his nutrition and his fitness seriously. But as he’s gotten older, he’s found slumber to be even more vital.
“It’s very strange with the hours you get in, you have to get up and perform the next day,” Thornton said. “You get used to it but also you never get used to it.”
Better sleep habits aren’t the sole reason Thornton has returned to vintage form this year for the San Jose Sharks. They’re just part of Thornton’s constant process of finding ways to stay effective as he ages.
As players from his 1997 draft year continue to drop off and retire, Thornton has remained an elite talent in the NHL. Since Dec. 15 he has the most points in the league with 40. He has some of the best puck possession numbers on his team with a 55.3 CF% and a plus 6.3 CF% rel, meaning his line holds onto the puck more than their opponents and relative to other lines. Thornton’s 56 points in 59 games are tied for the team lead. He's also one of three players 30-or-over to currently rank among the NHL's top 15 scorers -- and he's the only one over the age of 35.
The group has 70 points in 59 games and is firmly entrenched in the Pacific Division playoff picture.
While the Sharks have gone through stretches of refreshing and/or reloading and trying to refigure their identity, Thornton has always remained their best player.
“I think it comes down to his love for the game,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “He’ll put all the work in. He loves being around the rink, he loves being around the guys and he’s having as much fun as I’ve ever seen him and it translates over to his game on the ice. I think he puts that work in because of the love of the game.”
At this stage of Thornton’s career, there are always questions as to when the inevitable decline will occur. Last season he averaged 0.83 points per-game – good for NHL standards but not for Thornton standards, a surefire future Hall of Famer who at that time was nearing 1,300 career NHL points.
It was the fourth-worst points per-game rate of his career. His 65 points in 78 games were his lowest full-season total since 1999-00 when he was a member of the Boston Bruins.
But last season was a strange year for both Thornton and the Sharks. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since his 2005-06 trade to the Bay Area. He was stripped of his captain’s ‘C’ before the season, and the group went with all alternate captains. This led to a distraction around Thornton and the team and in-fighting between Thornton, Wilson and former coach Todd McLellan.
Around this time a year ago, Wilson was receiving questions on whether Thornton or teammate Patrick Marleau had asked to move their no-trade clauses. Now the Sharks, after adding goaltender Martin Jones, defenseman Paul Martin and forward Joel Ward in the offseason, are looking to push for another playoff run rather than trade off assets.
“It’s funny in sports where it’s ‘blow it up’ and ‘this can’t be done’ and this year we’re right back into it,” Thornton said.
“I’m not going to go backwards,” Wilson said when asked about last year’s drama, noting Thornton and Marleau never asked to move their no-trade clauses, “Joe is one of the most important players in this franchise’s history as is Patty.”
One of the most important moves for Thornton was replacing McLellan with Peter DeBoer.
McLellan was a fine coach for the Sharks, going 311-163-66 over seven years. But his message in the room had become stale last season. The group needed someone new, and DeBoer, who made the 2012 Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils, has figured out the pulse of the team quickly.
He’s given the Sharks more days off – which is important for the veteran laden group – and figured the right line combinations.
The team is now center heavy with Thornton, Marleau (who played wing last year), and last year’s second-leading scorer Logan Couture in the middle. This balance has only helped Thornton’s game.
“Guys love playing for him,” Thornton said. “Obviously our record speaks for itself. It’s simple, he just wants you to work as hard as you possibly can. He has a gameplan. We trust it’s going to give us a shot to win every night. The guys do love playing for him.”
DeBoer also scrapped the experiment of putting Tomas Hertl at center. The young Czech has 17 points in his last 21 games as one of Thornton’s trigger-men at wing with captain Joe Pavelski.
“He just added an element,” Thornton said of Hertl. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s moving, but playing with Pavelski, he’s very smart, he loves to hold onto pucks, he loves to make good plays.”
Thornton’s scoring more goals but he can’t figure out why. He’s on pace for 122 shots on goal – a typical number for him, but has scored at a 15.9 percent clip, above his 14.1 percent career number.
“Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t,” Thornton said. “There’s no rhyme or reason.”
Though Thornton’s back to his normal level, he’s still in his mid-30s. All the top-line centers on Western Conference playoff teams are in their late-20s and very early-30s.
Can the Sharks go on a run with Thornton at this stage of his career? Even when he was in his 20s, the Sharks never made it to a Stanley Cup Final. Can this year finally be different for the Sharks?
Wilson doesn’t see Thornton as far as his actual age, but more from a health perspective, which he thinks lends to a different view point.
“To me he’s not a 36-year-old player because of his fitness level and his love for the game,” Wilson said. “He’s big and strong and he’s playing at an extremely high level. I don’t look at age. Age is just a number. There’s some guys who are 36 that are old and some guys that are 36 that are young, and Joe falls into that younger category.”
There’s also a fun factor with Thornton this year. The team is under-the-radar and he’s cool with it. Just look at his beard and it’s easy to tell even the laid back Thornton has decided to care less about perception.
Said Thornton, “I just always have a smile on my face and look forward to the next day.”
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