Deciding How To Feel About Joe Thornton

It doesn’t feel that long ago that Joe Thornton was being drafted first overall. The expectations with which he entered the NHL could hardly have been higher. In many ways, he has met so many of those expectations, but at the age of 35, and with the final chapter in his career reaching its conclusion, it seems that “Jumbo Joe” will just always be something of a divisive figure.

It was hardly more evident than with the recent storyline around the aggravation between Thornton and San Jose Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson. Thornton took issue with comments made by Wilson about his time as captain and how he “couldn’t handle it”. Thornton’s reply was essentially to tell his GM to “shut it”.

On the one hand, Thornton is such a likeable person and his career achievements so respectable that it feels unprofessional for Wilson to share comments about his former captain’s weaknesses - even if it was in a relatively enclosed fans’ forum. On the other, it was hard not to acknowledge that Wilson did have a point. Hasn’t there always been something missing from Thornton’s leadership capabilities? Hasn’t there always just been something missing from his game overall? Thornton has ridden the line between high quality player and champion throughout his career.

It now feels like the two-time captain, Sharks’ all-time leading scorer and one-time league MVP will not go down as an all-time great. His profile, his career and the crucial eye test just don’t quite add up to that.

It starts with the captaincy. Somehow, Thornton has always gravitated towards leadership roles. He is generally well-liked and respected by his team mates, he has been one of the best, if not the best, players on every team he has played on. Yet, as much as he seems to be a natural candidate for the role, Thornton has never quite met expectations as a captain.

He was heavily criticised in Boston, where he was captain from 2002-2005, for being too lazy, too relaxed and for failing to step up and lead his team when it mattered most. In San Jose, opinion was left unanimously negative, but the team’s leadership structure was considered a point to review after a San Jose became only the fourth team to lose a playoff series after leading 3-0. Thornton might comment that the problems obviously run deeper than leadership given the team’s poor performance this season.

The problem is that the perception that Thornton’s teams have generally underachieved in the postseason is backed up by data. The final evaluation of players comes down to how they play when it really counts. Being the top offensive player and captain on a team that is underachieving will bring you under the microscope. Thornton’s play has never quite lived up to those expectations.

Captaincy
Thornton’s Regular Season Performance
Team Regular Season Performance
Thornton’s Postseason Performance
Team’s Postseason Performance
Bruins 2002-03
101pts in 77 games
7th East
3pts in 5 games
1st round loss 1-4 NJ
Bruins 2003-04
73pts in 77 games
2nd in East
0pts in 7 games
1st round loss 3-4 MTL
Sharks 2010-11
70pts in 80 games
2nd in West
17pts in 18 games
Conf Finals loss 1-4 VAN
Sharks 2011-12
77pts in 82 games
7th in West
5pts in 5 games
1st round loss 1-4 STL
Sharks 2012-13
40pts in 48 games
6th in West
10pts in 11 games
2nd round loss 3-4 LA
Sharks 2013-14
76pts in 82 games
4th in West
3 pts in 7 games
1st round loss 3-4 LA

There’s nothing in this table that jumps out as especially poor and with the possible exception of the 2004 loss to Montreal, there’s no shame in any of San Jose’s playoff defeats. However, there’s also nothing outstanding. Overall, the Sharks are 8-9 in playoff series since Thornton joined the team. Again there’s nothing “shameful” in that. However, only one team can lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the season - teams and individuals have to find some way to excel, some way to be better than everyone else.

There is a discrepancy between Thornton’s postseason and regular season performances.

Games
Goals/G
Assists/G
Points/G
Regular season
1275
356 (0.28)
900 (0.71)
1256 (0.99)
Postseason
132
24 (0.18)
76 (0.58)
100 (0.76)

It’s worth noting that Thornton’s points per game for San Jose in the playoffs is higher than his career average at 0.85. However, the picture is still relatively clear. Big Joe doesn’t come up big (at least on the scoreboard) when the games matter most.

A lot of it has to do with Thornton’s style of play. He excels at holding and cycling the puck, and picking out teammates with passes. He has a good shot and big body, but he has long frustrated with a refusal to use his shot more and he’s toned down the physical element of his game during his career. Under San Jose head coach Todd McLellan, he has become a better two-way player, but for the most part that has been Thornton’s game.

900 assists and 1256 points in the regular season suggest that it’s pretty effective. Thornton is likely to finish his career somewhere - if not in - the NHL’s top 10 all-time assists leaders.

However, when the hockey gets faster, more physical and tighter, it appears that Thornton’s brand of hockey is a little less proficient. Offenses are awarded in the playoffs for crashing and driving the net, getting bodies and pucks at goaltenders and playing with a higher level of offensive instinct (as opposed to calculation).

At 35 years old and with two years remaining on a contract that will pay him $6.75 million annually, it’s hard to know “where next?” for Thornton. The clock is definitely ticking on his chances of winning a Stanley Cup.

All reports suggest that Thornton has no desire to leave San Jose and that he loves the city (who can blame anyone for enjoying California). However, with San Jose set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001, changes are to be expected. It will surely be the “last straw” for McLellan and players like Patrick Marleau and Thornton will surely be asked to waive whatever NTCs they have for the betterment of the team.

Maybe the organization will elect to ride it out. Maybe they’ll give the team one more chance to succeed, or maybe they’ll hope that a different coach will create different results. Either way, it appears that Thornton’s image, as an NHL player, will always be as someone who never quite lived up to his talent. He’ll always straddle that line between the talented and likeable player and one whose production dropped in the playoffs.

Perhaps he has been slightly unlucky as well. San Jose have twice reached the conference finals and their last two series defeats have come to an incredibly strong LA Kings team. The Sharks have always had a strong roster, but they’ve also always probably had a piece or two missing - particularly on the blue-line.

Thornton has two seasons left on his current contract. He probably doesn’t have many more than two seasons left in his career. It’s not clear whether his final seasons will be spent for the Sharks. His best chance of erasing the Cup goose egg from his resume might be elsewhere. Either way, it looks like Thornton’s career will never quite live up to the expectations that he approached the draft podium carrying.