“I’ve been able to play with some great scorers,” said Thornton. “I think for me, over the years, that’s been the key. Staying healthy and playing with all of these great players.”
Joe Thornton is a Hall of Famer. Save the Stanley Cup ring discussion for a world that hasn’t already been made safe for dominant setup men without a championship to be Hall of Famers, which is what happened when Adam Oates was enshrined. With Jaromir Jagr pending and Mark Recchi waiting, every player in the top 20 assist leaders in NHL history is in the Hall of Fame. They’re not going to Andreychuk him.
But as Jumbo notes, longevity was a factor. But during his run in the NHL, there isn’t contemporary close to his assist totals, even with similar longevity:
Where things get interesting, of course, is when you start breaking that down into per-game ratios.
Joe Thornton’s career assists-per-game average: 0.698.
Jaromir Jagr, during that span: 0.656. (Keep in mind that Jagr took that three-year sabbatical in Russia.)
Now, Jagr isn’t usually the go-to guy for “best passer of his generation” debates with Thornton. It’s Sidney Crosby. So, through Tuesday night’s games, what’s the assist-per-game picture for these two players, during Crosby’s career?
Joe Thornton: 923 games, 739 assists. That’s an 0.80 assists per game average.
Sidney Crosby: 765 games, 635 assists. That’s an 0.83 assists per game average, with a smaller sample size.
Now, you might argue that Thornton has had the better personnel surrounding him. That’s fair. It’s also fair to note that he’s been able click with literally every winger he’s had, while the Penguins have had to go shopping (or digging) for the right player on Sid’s wing several times during his career.
So if this is a “best playmaker of his era” debate, I think Thornton wins it.
But what about all-time?
From Hockey-Reference.com, here’s the all-time list for assists per game:
Thornton is … lower than expected? Granted, he spent several years in the dead puck era rather than the go-go 1980s – and unlike Craig Janney, didn’t play with Brett Hull – but we figured he’d be at least top 20.
The good news for Jumbo is that every retired player ahead of him on this list is in the Hall of Fame, save for Craig Janney. And Thornton will likely join them, if the Selection Committee has half the hockey sense that Joe displayed on those one thousands assists.
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