Joe Thornton sat in front of a room of reporters after the Sharks won Game 3 of the conference finals over the Blues to draw within two wins of the Stanley Cup Finals, trying to recall if this was the closest he’s ever been to a championship.
Thornton exhaled slightly, stared straight ahead and said, rather nonchalantly, as media members helped him out:
“I think we got swept against Chicago [in 2010], and then what was Vancouver [in 2011]? Was it 4-2 or [it was] 5? So yeah, it’s the closest I guess.”
It was as if he wanted to give off the sense that annual early postseason departures were not something he thought about regularly. But that would be hard to imagine.
It’s amazing to think that a player of Thornton’s stature — one of the most accomplished, gifted players in NHL history — has never had the chance to play for hockey’s Holy Grail. This postseason may be his best chance yet, with the Sharks and Blues deadlocked at 2-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals.
Though the Sharks missed an opportunity to take command of the series on Saturday — falling 6-3 and giving back home-ice advantage to St. Louis — nothing has ever come easy for the Sharks in the playoffs, a stigma that is perhaps the only blemish on Thornton’s legacy.
Thornton ranks second among active players in points (1,341) — second only to the immortal Jaromir Jagr — and 28th all time. He is the Sharks’ all-time leader in assists with 941, again trailing just Jagr for most among active players. He’s won an Art Ross Trophy and a Hart Memorial Trophy, not to mention 11 All-Star Game appearances in an 18-year career.
He is 36 years old and was drafted one year after Kobe Bryant entered the NBA — but Thornton’s spectacular career is not close to coming to an end.
Thornton put up 82 points in the regular season, his highest mark since the 2009-2010 campaign. He has been an indefatigable force in the postseason, centering Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl on the Sharks’ first line that has produced nightmares for opponents.
Pavelski spoke about Thornton’s impact:
“He means a lot to the team, to the line. He’s a big body out there, protects the puck so well. Makes a lot of little plays. We’ve got some chemistry out there, and we’ll try to keep that going.”
Not much has changed in Thornton’s game since he was the MVP of the league in 2006, the season he was traded to the Sharks from the Bruins.
His “big body” is omnipresent. He makes his living in the offensive zone, making those subtle moves — the dropback passes, the slight delays to get a better angle, and, on occasion, the spectacular assist the makes jaws drop, such as a near-impossible dish to Hertl in the third period of Game 3 that went off the back boards, right to the tape of Hertl for a point-blank goal.
Giving Thornton room to work is like leaving Stephen Curry open for three.
Which is why, when asked about whether he was surprised by the way he has continued to succeed at this stage of his career, Thornton left no room for debate:
“No, I know I’m a great player.”
He laughed — with Hertl and Martin Jones beside him and the assembled media — but he wasn’t joking.
“I love to play. I feel good playing with who I’m playing with on my team. I just feel really good about my game. I feel good about my linemates’ game and our power play. I’m just really comfortable with it. It’s good fun.”
What makes Thornton special is that he makes linemates look special with his playmaking ability, skewing their goal tallies way to the plus side. Just ask Jonathan Cheechoo, Devin Setoguchi or Dany Heatley, to name a few. Or Patrick Marleau, who has no doubt been the beneficiary of more than a few Thornton dimes over the years.
Or Hertl, who has the luxury of starting his career with Thornton as a linemate:
“He’s an amazing passer. He’s just looking every time, spreading around, and I’m just waiting.”
Thus presents the enigma that is Thornton, with the elephant in the room: If he is a superstar who makes his teammates better, then why hasn’t he won it all?
He’s won everything, it seems, but a Cup. It’s not like he hasn’t had the chance, either. Fourteen of his 18 seasons in the league, Thornton’s team has been in the playoffs. But time after time, often with him as the best player, his team has come up short.
The Sharks’ inability to win with Thornton as the centerpiece has had lasting ramifications. They’ve fired two coaches — Ron Wilson and Todd McLellan — solely because of postseason failures, and General Manager Doug Wilson has been on the hot seat countless times.
Maybe the answer is that Thornton’s pass-first mentality is not built to carry a championship team. Maybe he’s better as just one of the core pieces — rather than the piece.
That’s been a working formula this season. The Sharks have their most-loaded team in years; veterans mixed with youngsters, strong checking lines, and a solid cast of defensemen, led by Brent Burns. Symbolically, the fact that Pavelski took over the captaincy from Thornton this season and immediately led the team to uncharted waters cannot be overlooked.
“[The core guys] were not the problem. It was filling in behind them. We’ve got those type of people here now. The guys at the top feel that and are feeding off it.”
“Everybody’s been saying our depth, our depth. I really believe our depth is strong. None of our forwards play 25-26 minutes. They all play 17-18 minutes a night. The depth is just incredible this year.”
Which brings up a question: if the Sharks exorcise their demons and finally bring home the Stanley Cup, but with Thornton surrounded with more talent than ever before, does it take away from his legacy as a superstar and all-time great? Will people question why he wasn’t able to win when in his prime?
Regardless, the Sharks are six wins away, and a Stanley Cup would bring a lot of closure to Thornton’s career. The stats are there, the skill level and highlight reel plays are there to replay and marvel at, but a championship will distinguish Thornton from being just great player and a true legend.
And it would mean he could stop struggling to remember those times he “almost” won.