SAN JOSE, CALIF.—On the outside wall of the Delmas Market, located about two blocks southeast of the SAP Center, there adorns a giant painted mural of Joe Thornton. It’s a classic action shot of Jumbo Joe: right arm bent at a 45-degree degree angle, his hand high up on the hockey stick, his head looking up and searching for the pass.
In hockey, they call players who have high-goal, low-assist totals “Cy Young” guys. Someone with a 22-5 (for 27 points) stat line is a Cy Young guy. Thornton is the NHL’s anti-Cy Young, and don’t just take the mural on the wall at the Delmas Market as proof of that.
After Monday’s thrilling 5-4 Sharks victory over the Colorado Avalanche in which Thornton contributed three helpers, his stat line for the season read: five goals, 35 assists, 40 points. While the 34-year-old center normally scores goals at a pace better than that, the fact is Thornton, by almost all accounts, is playing as well as he ever has.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan tells Bleacher Report, on the afternoon of their game with Colorado. “I played with him before leaving here for a few years, and I come back and there’s absolutely no change in the way he plays, and at such a high level. And what really blows me away is how much fun he still has playing the game. He’s just a big kid still, just playing hockey.”
Brent Burns, who occupies the locker right next to Thornton’s, can only shake his head when asked about San Jose’s most giving star.
“He just makes everyone around him better. It doesn’t matter who plays with him, they’re going to get some great scoring chances,” Burns said. “I mean, I’m living proof of that. I get to play on a line with him. I have the easiest job in the world, just taking passes from Joe Thornton.”
In the dying seconds of Monday’s game, the Sharks trailed the Avs 4-3, with Antti Niemi off for the extra skater. Joe Pavelski tied it up with 19.6 seconds left, but Thornton did all the heavy lifting, keeping the puck alive behind the net, out-faking a couple of defenders and slipping the pass to his linemate.
Besides Wayne Gretzky, perhaps no player in NHL history owns the “office” behind the net as well as the long-armed, whirling, twirling bearded native of London, Ontario.
Other than his looks—the Big Bird, curly blond look of his younger years in Boston has been replaced by the decidedly more auburn, Jeremiah Johnson visage—not much has changed with Thornton’s game over the years. Well, maybe some.
“He has changed over the six years that I have been here, but maybe for the better,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “He’s a little more committed defensively. He plays more of a 200-foot game. He does penalty killing and blocks shots, stuff like that. Not that he didn’t do that before. But for him, it’s not about winning the scoring race or having the most assists or anything about that. It’s about the team, and that’s what we like about him right now.”
Thornton may have to score more goals now, with Calder Trophy candidate linemate Tomas Hertl out possibly for a long while with a knee injury. Pavelski stepped onto the line with Thornton and Burns in place of Hertl, and saw immediate benefit with his late-game heroics. Pavelski isn’t quite the sniper Hertl was, though, so if Thornton has to start thinking more selfishly in getting pucks into the net off his own stick, so be it.
“Pavs and Burnsie know what to do with the puck, so I’m not worried about that, but of course it’s nice to get some goals too, and hopefully a few more pucks will bounce in for me,” Thornton told Bleacher Report. “We just want to get chances as a line and be responsible in our own end.”
Thornton’s contract is up after this season, and he can become an unrestricted free agent if he chooses. While he doesn’t like to talk about the business part of the game much, he has given every indication he wants to stay a Shark, and it would be downright foolhardy of the team to let him go for nothing.
All indications are that general manager Doug Wilson will find a way to lock up Thornton to another multi-year contract, and the fact that the NHL’s salary cap will increase by nearly $8 million over the current $64.2 million will help in that cause. He's currently at a $7 million cap hit for the Sharks.
The only thing missing from Thornton’s sterling career resume, of course, is a Stanley Cup. The Sharks have been the NHL’s version of the Atlanta Braves for a long time now, the team that looks unbeatable in the regular season, only to find a way to lose in the playoffs.
Thornton offers the same “We’ve just got to keep battling for it” shrug he’s had for a few years when the subject of a Cup comes up. The Sharks seem to have as good a chance of making it to the Final as any other top team in the brutal Western Conference. They have size, speed, a mobile, two-way defense and a fine goalie.
Most of all, they have a huge, skilled, durable No. 1 center, a player impossible to get the puck away from. And, one whose love of the game seems to only get bigger as the years go by.
As the morning skate wrapped up Monday and players dispersed back home for their afternoon naps, Thornton emerged from the San Jose dressing room dressed in wrinkled, baggy brown cargo shorts and a gray, striped hoodie.
An autograph seeker stood by the exit doors, nervously extending a photo in Thornton’s direction. Thornton smiled and happily grabbed the man’s pen.
“Thanks Joe,” the man said.
“Happy to help,” Thornton responded.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter at Adater.