What We Learned: The ageless wonder of Joe Thornton

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What We Learned: The ageless wonder of Joe Thornton
What We Learned: The ageless wonder of Joe Thornton

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Take a look at the points leaders on Sunday morning and you will see some fairly incredible things.

Yes, Patrick Kane is a mile ahead of anyone else in an era when no one can score, Erik Karlsson is tied with Tyler Seguin, Sidney Crosby has overcome his slow start to pull up to a point a game, and Johnny Gaudreau is close to it despite being on a rotten team.

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But down in eighth in the league, a point behind Crosby and Gaudreau, sat Joe Thornton. That's 36-year-old Joe Thornton. That's almost-got-traded-a-while-ago Joe Thornton. That's might-be-able-to-do-this-forever Joe Thornton.

Among the great number of things you can say about another amazing season from Thornton is that he's not in any way a power play specialist, even now. His 2.46 points per 60 minutes of full-strength hockey is seventh in the league among players with 500-plus minutes. His score-adjusted possession number of 56.2 percent is 27th. His share of high-danger chances of 63.8 percent is first. Commensurately, his goals-for percentage (72.2 percent!!!!!) is also first. Basically, when he's on the ice, the Sharks annihilate their opponents at levels typically unseen in the NHL.

In fact, Thornton's current goals-for percentage is the eighth-best seen in the last nine seasons, and if all you're looking for in a player is the ability to outscore an opponent, that'll just about get it done.

And when I mentioned that stuff about not just being a power-play specialist — which you often see for high-quality playmakers as they age into their mid-30s — well, he's still 14th among forwards in power play points per 60 as well, meaning that he hasn't lost that touch either. In fact, the Sharks' goals per 60 minutes of power play time when he's on the ice is seventh-highest in the league.

So the fact that Thornton does so many things well really ought to have him in the MVP conversation, at any age, let alone with him pushing 37. This is, in fact, one of the absolute best all-around seasons of Joe Thornton's entire career, which is saying something given that he's a 100 percent surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. But again, you have to consider his age as a majorly impressive factor in all this.

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When you turn 34 or 35 in the NHL, the wheels are liable to come off at any minute. Every summer you choose to come back is a huge gamble, because you might find that, even if you're under contract, you no longer belong in the NHL. You'll occasionally see guys try to gut it out and end up looking really bad for it (Martin St. Louis's final days in New York, for example). And sometimes you see guys give it one last go and decide they just can't go any more (Brett Hull in Phoenix).

Thornton has had two such summers already and approaches his third looking like an All-Star. In all, there have been only 237 age-35-plus seasons in the NHL since 2007-08, and among those players, Thornton is understandably elite. Of that number, a little more than half (126) are from forwards.

And really, it's a weird group. You have some high-level players that were still playing because they were still extremely productive (Rod Brind'Amour, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin St. Louis, Mats Sundin, Jaromir Jagr) and others who were just grinders eking out a few more paychecks (John Madden, Tomas Holmstrom, Stu Barnes, Mike Grier). There isn't a whole lot in the middle, as you might expect. As such, Thornton's performance this season is a head and a few shoulders above that group as a whole.

We know by now that Thornton just doesn't score goals. Mostly because he doesn't shoot the puck. Mostly because he never has to. Among these 35-plus NHLers, Thornton's individual shot attempts number (96) is the third-lowest out of all 126. Now, he's also played just 64 games versus the full seasons enjoyed by everyone before him, but if the pace doesn't change he'll finish with about 123, which would still be in the bottom-15 or so.

But again, it just doesn't matter. His impact on shot attempt generation is incredible, especially considering he takes so few himself. On a per-60 basis, San Jose takes almost eight more shot attempts when Thornton is on than when he's off, which is a fairly significant number (but it's also only 38th among forwards; Brad Marchand's plus-14.01 paces the league). And along a similar level, it's important to note that Thornton is generally a wondrous player when it comes to buoying his team's shooting percentage.

As an elite playmaker, Thornton puts his teammates in a position to deposit the puck into an open net with far greater ease than most, and as a result his on-ice shooting percentage is almost always going to be higher than the league average. His 9 percent number in this regard since 2007 is fairly illustrative of that, because a .910 save percentage at 5-on-5 would rightly have most goaltenders stapled to the bench. That he does this against everyone over almost 680 games is telling in a way that it isn't for other players. We know that in general, the vast, vast majority of players have little influence on shooting success over a long period of time, but Thornton is one of those for whom the eye test alone tells us, “He is not bound by such convention.”

And with this in mind, while we must acknowledge that Thornton's goalscoring is only going to continue dropping just as it does for everyone else, it's unlikely that his assist numbers would do the same. As long as he can distribute the puck, there's no reason to believe these trends are going to reverse themselves:


Yeah, Thornton isn't going to keep racking up points like he did when he was 28 and 29 — when he led the league in assists, with 92 (what?!?) and 67, respectively — but let's put it this way: The 92-assist season was actually only his fourth-best assists-per-60 campaign since 2007. This year is his second-best, and and 2013-14 was No. 1. The fact that he's still up above 2 points per 60 at this age is ridiculous, and after a rather down year in on-ice shooting percentage last season, he's back cruising again. Basically, he's not going to ever set up goals like he did a decade ago, for a lot of very obvious reasons, but his production has plateaued, and at nearly 37, that's actually a good thing.

Again, you never know with summers after the age of 35, but Thornton might just be one of those rare guys who is able to sustain production, like a Jaromir Jagr, for as long as he chooses to keep playing. One hopes so. The game will be poorer for having lost Thornton at some point in the next several years.

But he shouldn't go anywhere any time soon.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are now first in their division, and Bruce Boudreau has never in his NHL career coached a full season without finishing first in his division. Give the guy the Jack Adams already.

Arizona Coyotes: The idea of Alex Tanguay scoring twice in a game is bananas. He hadn't done it in more than two years.

Boston Bruins: Yo this pass by Brad Marchand is pretty good.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres are apparently going to try to acquire a wing for Jack Eichel this summer. That'll be fun. Well, not for opposing defenses, but you know what I mean. 

Calgary Flames: If I know anything about the Calgary Flames, this win means they're good again.

Carolina Hurricanes: With the way the Bolts have been playing, Carolina should be glad to have even rescued a point on the road in this one. 

Chicago: This is just the thing we have to get used to now, right? Older veteran with a long injury history comes aboard at the deadline and we root for him to win a Cup?

Colorado Avalanche: Looks like the Avs are gonna miss the playoffs again. Big shock. Big, big shock. 

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets won't look at tape of their ugly loss on Saturday. Not like that might be instructive or anything. 

Dallas Stars: Vern Fiddler is up to 800 NHL games? Jeez I'm old. 

Detroit Red Wings: Well, that's one way to put it.

Edmonton Oilers: This is one of about 200 fascinating “What will Chiarelli do this summer?” storylines to monitor closely.

Florida Panthers: Crazy to think the Panthers are only one point clear of third place in the Atlantic. I wonder if... that's their actual ceiling.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are 9-9-1 since Jan. 20. The Ducks are 18-1-1 in the same stretch. That'll do it. 

Minnesota Wild: The Wild are winners of four straight. That playoff spot is starting to finally look comfortable. Good luck against Chicago or Dallas or St. Louis, by the way.

Montreal Canadiens: But what if Michel Therrien doesn't give any meaningful time on ice to those important young players? That's a legitimate question that has to be asked all the time, over and over.

Nashville Predators: The Preds haven't lost in regulation in their last 12 games, which is good for the ol' playoff certainty. Why is everyone on these insane streaks?

New Jersey Devils: Well, RIP

New York Islanders: This seems to address some of the team's more critical long-term problems. 

New York Rangers: If they keep using Eric Staal as their No. 3 center, well, that's terrifying for other teams. 

Ottawa Senators: Imagine considering yourself lucky for beating the Leafs? Yeesh.

Philadelphia Flyers: Hahahaha.

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is truly embarrassing.

San Jose Sharks: Bet this feels familiar for ol' James Reimer.

St. Louis Blues: This week the Blues play Chicago, Anaheim, and Dallas. Should separate some wheat from chaff with that stretch.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Time will, in fact, judge us all

Toronto Maple Leafs: This is a heck of a shot for your first NHL goal.

Vancouver Canucks: Wow, Dan Hamhuis is good. Can't believe no one wanted him at the deadline.

Washington Capitals: They're at 100 points with 17 games left. The Rangers won the Presidents' Trophy last year with just 113.

Winnipeg Jets: Mark Scheifele with his first career hat trick, and now he's up to 20 goals on the year. Not a bad player at all.

Play of the Weekend

This goal from Nick Schmaltz was pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Gold Star Award

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Bruce Boudreau, fastest coach to ever hit 400 wins. He's real good, folks.

Minus of the Weekend

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

What's great about coach's challenge is nothing.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “DougGilmour93” is the big winner this week, baby.

To Tor: Strome, Hamonic, 4th (Min)

To Min: Kadri, Percy

To Nyi: JVR, Brodin

Signoff

More important than money? Who IS this?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.) 

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