Time to end those lazy Joe Thornton narratives once and for all

Scott McLaughlin
May 25, 2016 - 11:44 pm

Joe Thornton and his magnificent beard are heading to the Stanley Cup final. (Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports)

The San Jose Sharks are going to the Stanley Cup Final and Joe Thornton is one of the biggest reasons why. The most common narrative will be that they have finally broken through after a decade-plus of postseason failure.

That criticism may fit the Sharks as an organization. They have had many really good teams over the years but this is, in fact, their first trip to the Cup Final.

It most certainly does not fit Thornton, though. This is not a turnaround for him. It’s not some late-career breakthrough. He hasn’t suddenly learned how to win.

What Thornton has done this spring is the same thing he has done pretty much every year throughout his Hall of Fame career. He’s played really well, controlled play and put up points -- 18 in 18 games, tying him for fifth in playoff scoring this year.

The idea that Thornton is a great regular-season player who comes up short in the playoffs has never been fair, or accurate. We know where it started -- 2004 in Boston. That’s the year Thornton posted zero points in seven games as the second-seeded Bruins got upset in the first round by the hated Canadiens.

With no context, that was indeed a terrible showing for Thornton. You can’t really blame anyone who ripped him while that series was unfolding. But we found out after that series that there was some important context. Thornton had been playing with torn rib cartilage. That may not totally excuse the performance -- he was still OK enough to play 21 minutes a night -- but it was obviously a pretty significant factor.

Unfortunately for Thornton, the damage to his reputation had already been done, and the narrative stuck. It didn’t matter that Thornton had posted 18 points in 22 postseason games from 1999-2003 during his age 19-23 seasons. It didn’t matter that he was one of the best young players in the league.

And rather amazingly, it didn’t matter that Thornton went right back to producing in the playoffs as soon as he got to San Jose after being traded. Just look at his postseason stat lines with the Sharks: nine points in 11 games in 2006, 11 in 11 in 2007, 10 in 13 in 2008, five in six in 2009, 12 in 15 in 2010, 17 in 18 in 2011, five in five in 2012, 10 in 11 in 2013. He has made a positive possession impact in seven of eight playoff trips since Corsi started being tracked in 2007-08.

It took until 2014, his ninth season in San Jose, for Thornton to have another postseason in which he wasn’t at or near a point per game. For reference, Thornton has averaged 0.98 points per game in the regular season in his career.

But the Sharks didn’t win it all, or even reach a Cup final, so far too many people continued to act like Thornton shrank when it mattered most. It was easier to let the narrative live on than dig a little deeper and separate Thornton’s individual performance from his team’s postseason disappointments.

There are -- and will continue to be -- those who view this postseason as something dramatically different for Thornton. But is 18 points in 18 games this postseason really all that different than 82 points in 97 playoff games over the previous 10 years?

The story isn’t that Thornton is finally getting it done in the playoffs at age 36; it’s that he’s still getting it done at age 36. After finishing second in the NHL in assists and tied for fourth in points this regular season, he’s first in assists and tied for fifth in points this postseason. He’s still one of the best playmakers in the world, and he’s still centering one of the most dominant lines in the league.

Thornton will go down as one of the best players of his generation, and he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer three years after he retires. If some people still want to use lazy narratives in an effort to lessen his accomplishments instead of just appreciating what we’ve gotten to watch for the last 19 years -- and what we’ll get to watch for at least four more games this year -- that’s their loss.