What is indisputable is that Joe Thornton is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, whatever that means in the NHL, and had one of the best pairs of hands and some of the best vision in the game for about 15 years. One can’t rack up 1109 career points without having unique gifts. Wherever anyone goes beyond that though has an argument. Because even with being one of the best players of his generation, there are those who will say it wasn’t enough because of a lack of team glory, and thus he couldn’t have been that good or didn’t quite measure up to what he should have. If that’s even possible given his totals. On the other side, the Sharks always had their flaws outside Thornton. On a different team…
Maybe it’s just that Thornton was never quite exactly what fans in two cities wanted for his entire career. He was the No. 1 overall pick for Boston in 1997, for a Bruins team that is a charter franchise in the league yet had been a little bit of an afterthought for a while upon his arrival. And it was hard to not look at that 6-4 frame with those skills and think that this guy should dominate games in every way. Certainly Thornton wasn’t granted the patience that an 18-year-old jumping right into the middle of the hilt of the clutch-and-grab era of the NHL needed. It’s a better league for teenagers now than it was then.
But Thornton never had a snarl to him that Boston kind of requires of its stars. He was never going to be Phil Esposito, who remains to this day one of the angriest men on the planet. He was never Cam Neely, running over every defender in his way, even on one leg, to pour in 50 goals in 50 games before he had to put his leg in cryo freeze for a week, like he did at the end of his career. Thornton was never built that way, and his smile-heavy, goofy persona wasn’t ever going to align seamlessly with a Bruins atmosphere that prioritized putting Habs blood on its cereal every morning while bitching about traffic.
That doesn’t mean Thornton wasn’t great for the Bruins, because he was. Once he got the hang of the league, and filled out his frame a bit, he was at least a point-per-game player for four seasons at a time when those were hard to find in the NHL. While Thornton didn’t power through defenders and out of the corners, he’d stick that big ass out and couldn’t be knocked off the puck. He could be an obelisk, but an obelisk with the softest hands and eyes that could see angles no one else could. He turned Glenn Murray into a dangerous scorer. He turned Anson Carter into a dangerous scorer. He put up 101 points in 2002-2003 with defenders hanging off of him every night, which was third-best in the league. The Bruins spent so much time complaining that Thornton wasn’t what they envisioned that they missed when he did become.
Which led to what is still one of the worst trades in NHL history. The Bruins got away with it because Patrice Bergeron was around to erase it from the history books, but the Bs giving up on Thornton less than halfway through the first season out of The Great Bettman Lockout II for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm should have sank the city into the sea. Read those names over and over and see if you can comprehend how that amounted to a package worthy of a surefire Hall of Fame player.
In San Jose, Thornton flourished, partly because Northern California doesn’t require the level of bile and anger that New England does, partly because the rules out of the lockout made life far easier for a player like Thornton to light teams up, and partly because none of the expectations of a #1 pick were weighing him down there.
It’s still stupefying that Thornton put up 92 points in just 58 games with the Sharks after the trade, winning his only Hart Trophy. But Thornton’s arrival and performance launched the Sharks into Cup contenders…and they obviously never cashed in. That first year they were beaten by a #8 seed Edmonton Oilers. The next year it was the far more equipped Red Wings. And on it went.
What Thornton was never able to outrun was the idea that he just didn’t measure up when it counted most in the spring. It started in 2009 when Ryan Getzlaf kind of pasted him all over the rink as the #1 seeded Sharks were undone by the #8 seed Ducks in six games, the second time the Sharks had spit up all over themselves to an #8 seed. The next season, Jonathan Toews erased him from the conference finals in a definitive sweep. The Canucks waxed the Sharks the next year in the same round too, though Thornton played very well even if the narrative was that Ryan Kesler had turned him into goo like the others had.
Thornton was still the #1 center in San Jose when the Kings overcame a 3-0 deficit against them with Anze Kopitar starring. Two years later, the Sharks made their only Final appearance, but ran into Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The story with Thornton is that as good as he was, in the playoffs he would run into someone who was just better than he was. Toews has three rings, Kopitar two, Crosby three as well, and they all got in the way at some point.
Still, one wonders how many of those guys could have gotten Jonathan Cheechoo 56 goals, as Thornton once did. Or Devin Setoguchi to a 31-goal season. Thornton carried a fair amount of trash to a lot of money.
Thornton racked up far too many points to say that they didn’t matter. The Sharks were too good for too long to say that Thornton’s numbers were just in the shadows. There were too many passes that only he was capable of to deride him as a misplaced luxury. The Sharks weren’t ever quite as well constructed as those teams they lost to were.
Many will say that Jumbo Joe lacked something that those centers who got the best of him in the playoffs had. Certainly didn’t help his cause that all of Crosby, Toews, and Getzlaf passed him on the depth chart on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team, something of the gold standard up there not just for the sport, but their entire society. But it’s really hard to argue he lacked a mythical grit or determination after playing over 1700 games in the league. Thornton was what he was, which is one of the greatest players of all time. Whatever else didn’t happen for him really shouldn’t take away from that.
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