Friday, May 20, 2016

Joe Thornton: The best passer in the game

By Larry Wigge

Joe Thornton is always thinking pass.

To set the scene a little bit. The San Jose Sharks are ahead 2-0. To everyone except Thornton there is no pass to make.

But ...

He sends a bullet-like pass to linemate Tomas Hertl's stick behind the net. Hertl corrales the puck and walks in front to score.

"He is such an amazing passer,” marveled Hertl. “I'm just waiting. I saw him looking at me. I was waiting for the pass ..."

"Just one of those instances where I just saw the blade," said Thornton. "You try to aim for it. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesnt'.

"It's my job to get these guys the puck."

Hertl's goal gave the Sharks a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues for a 2-1 advantage in San Jose's lead in the Western Conference final.

Two assists on goals by Hertl in the game gave Thornton 10 assists to go along with three goals in the 15 playoff games played.

That Thornton, at age 36, is still playing at an elite level does not surprise him in the slightest.

"I love to play," he said. "I feel good playing with who I'm playing with, our team.

"I feel good -- yeah, really good about my game. I feel good about my linemates' game, our whole team game. I'm just really, really comfortable with it."

Joe Pavelski, Hertl and Thornton formed one of the hottest line in the NHL at this point.

Thornton just had his best regular season in years, amassing 82 points in 82 games while going plus-25 and driving puck possession.

"This guy plays as honest a game as anyone I've coached," San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. "In general, Joe as a player is probably underappreciated just because he spent his entire career, most of his career, on the West Coast.

"If this guy's playing in Toronto or Montreal or New York or one of those markets, he's a living legend. He's that good and he's that impressive a guy."

Did DeBoer, who spent all of his NHL coaching career in the Eastern Conference until he replaced long-time Sharks' coach Todd McLellan before this season, already know this about Thornton?

"I had an idea, but I didn't have an appreciation for how honest a player he is and how hard this guy works away from the puck and how badly he wants to win," DeBoer said.

And since Thornton has 1,442 points in the NHL, including 111 in 145 playoff games, that is saying something.

St. Louis boss Ken Hitchcock, who was on the coaching staff when Team Canada won an Olympic gold medal with Thornton in 2010, said the forward from St. Thomas, Ontario, is more dangerous after switching to wing from centre this season.

"Because they read off each other so well, he's able to leave the defensive zone early," Hitchcock said of Thornton's tricks. "He’s able to have the freedom to move into the neutral zone, where he's so dangerous.

"I think as an older player, when you're allowed to have this type of freedom, now your hockey sense and smarts take over. He's always been one of the guys with the highest IQ in the league ... and now he has that freedom. To me, he's a more dangerous player now than he's ever been in his career."

With an Olympic gold medal, he is a sure-thing future Hall of Famer. But after 18 seasons, Thornton has still never laced up his skates in the Cup final.

Thornton has been through this drill multiple times since being traded to the Sharks in 2005. But he says he doesn't remember.

"I've got a bad memory," Thornton said.

No, he doesn't.

"Uh, I know we beat Calgary and I think we beat Detroit," Thornton said. "And then we lost two to L.A."


"I know it's great when you win them and brutal when you lose them," Thornton said.

Also correct.

"So hopefully, we're on the good end tomorrow," Thornton said.

That would be an enjoyable story to write.

Thornton is not the longest active NHL player without a Stanley Cup ring. He's fourth on that list, behind Jarome Iginla of Colorado, Shane Doan of Arizona and the Sharks' own Patrick Marleau, who should also have been in a final by this point. Iginla, at least, has been to the Cup finals once. The other three haven't, including Thornton.

There something about Thornton and Marleau and their leadership.

"When you break in with the Sharks," Logan Couture says. "You meet Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and they shake your hand like your their long lost relative ..."

Not like your just meeting them for the first time ... "It's like your their friend forever. The two of them are such treasures."

And their not bad hockey players.

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