With a little less than two months remaining in the National Hockey League regular season, the San Jose Sharks are in a very familiar position. Sitting second in the Western Conference, currently just one point behind the Calgary Flames, the Sharks are well on the way to earning another playoff berth, which would be the team’s fourth in the last five seasons.
For well over a decade, much has been made about San Jose’s ability to prove its dominance during the winter months and its inability to hoist the Stanley Cup when the weather gets warmer. While the end goal is always hoisting the greatest trophy in professional sports, the franchise has remained a model of consistency during that time, despite a significant turnover when it comes to both players and personnel. But one consistent for the last 14 seasons has been center Joe Thornton. Acquired by San Jose from the Boston Bruins in a blockbuster trade early in the 2005-06 season, it’s a move that’s still talked about, at least in Boston, to this day.
The Sharks were just a year removed from a loss to the Flames in the Western Conference Finals and Thornton was believed to be the final piece to the puzzle. Meanwhile, the Bruins were struggling to find an identity and make a deep postseason push and accepted left winger Marco Sturm, center Wayne Primeau and defenseman Brad Stuart – a solid haul, though none were around when the franchise eventually won the Stanley Cup in 2011. What Boston gave up turned out to be one of the greatest players in league history, an underrated talent who deserves to be mentioned amongst the all-time greats.
Earlier this month, the 39-year-old player nicknamed “Jumbo Joe” became ninth on the all-time assists list, passing one of the game’s greatest, Gordie Howe. Now in his 21st season, Thornton has 1,051 assists in 1,544 games as the London, Ontario native sets his sights on Steve Yzerman (1,063) and Adam Oates (1,079), both of which he could potentially catch this season. Thornton has never been known for his goal scoring, tallying just 410 goals – including Monday night’s hat trick, his first in almost a decade – during his career but, rather, for elevating the performance of those around him. One example is Jonathan Cheechoo.
After coming over in the trade from Boston, Thornton was placed on a line with the right winger, finding immediate chemistry. Cheechoo went on to pot 56 goals in 2005-2006, while Thornton finished with a career-high 96 assists and 125 points en route to winning the Hart Memorial Trophy, as the league’s most valuable player, and the Art Ross Trophy, as the league’s top points getter. Cheechoo’s stock quickly dropped, scoring 72 goals over the next three seasons before being part of a trade with the Ottawa Senators that brought in left winger Dany Heatley. Many believe Cheechoo, who was demoted to the American Hockey League after just one season in Ottawa, was a product of Thornton. And in his almost 14 seasons with the Sharks, there are plenty of other players who have benefited from Jumbo Joe.
Thornton isn’t just good – he’s innovative. At 6-foot-4 and about 220 pounds, the San Jose forward was the next progression in the evolution of the big man, coming on the heels of Eric Lindros. Not only does Thornton have great vision on the ice but he has an uncanny ability to use his size to his advantage, especially when it comes to puck possession. If he’s in the offensive own and holding the puck, even now at his age, it’s almost impossible to get him off of it.
Sometimes overlooked, due to his lackluster goal scoring stats, is Thornton’s career points. At 1,461 points, Thornton recently passed Teemu Selanne for sole-possession of 15th on the all-time points list, putting him just six points behind Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita. Every other name in front of Thornton is in the Hall of Fame, which is exactly where the former first overall pick will be going sometime within the next decade. However, while retirement might be looming for most at his age, who knows when Thornton will slow down, as evident by his stats this season: 13 goals, 21 assists and 34 points in 51 games. And with some nagging injuries the last few months, he’s getting healthy just in time for the playoff push. He’s likely to play one or two more years, so it’s time for the Sharks to win it for Thornton, because that’s really the only thing missing from his accomplishments at this point.
But Stanley Cup or not, Thornton shouldn’t just be considered the greatest Sharks player of all-time, but one of the NHL’s greatest players of all-time and a man who changed the landscape of the sport.