Joe Thornton is a Dude. Not strictly in the gender sense, but in the way he carries himself. He likes his women and beer, but not in a sleazy way. He generally treats people well, he’s generally happy and likeable, and, well...he’s just a Dude. That’s the best way I can think to describe him.
As someone who’s grown up around hockey players, I’ve come to love guys like him. They’re well-liked, quick to smile and they joke without malice. Everything seems to come easy, and for the most part, it does. “Dudes” aren’t used to having it any other way.
While that dudedom seems to define the public perception of him - he’s too casual, too easy-going, doesn’t care enough - it never seemed to be something that bothered Joe all that much. He’s always known how good he is and how much better he makes his teammates, and you have to wonder if he didn’t just assume that at some point, a Stanley Cup would come his way.
But here we are: at 34 and quickly approaching 35, Thornton is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and as the cornerstone of so many teams, he’s yet to see the Stanley Cup Final. I’m sure he’s well aware of how that looks.
Each year his well-built San Jose Sharks teams have lost out, it’s seemed to hit him harder than the previous season.
From his post-game stare…
To his post-game comments…
...You can’t help but start to feel a bit bad for him. The playoff failures look like they’re starting to take their toll.
The label of “chokers” has chased Joe and the Sharks around, and fans want everything from the coach fired to the roster blown up and beyond. That’s all silly, of course - this is a quality team that contends every year, and you never know what can happen beyond that.
So what can we expect from Thornton going forward? Does he need to feel so despondent? Will he have the ability to contribute? Will he have the opportunities to shake the choker label?
Well, this year he finished just under a point-per-game with 76 in 82 in the tough Pacific Division. He was second in the NHL in assists, where he’s always feasted, with 65 (yes, he only scored 11 times this year).
The thing with Thornton is that there’s no reason he can’t continue to be a 60-plus point player through the end of his contract (2016-17) because of the way he plays. He’s never been fast. He’s never been a heavy shooter. Thornton uses his big body, vision, and soft hands to get the puck to his linemates in dangerous areas. There’s no reason to think he’s suddenly going to go into the gutter.
The Sharks also have Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic locked up through the length of Thornton’s deal. That’s a playoff team every year if you fill it in with beer leaguers, especially as Tomas Hertl joins the core with two more years left on his entry-level contract and an RFA deal to follow.
While Thornton seems to be growing weary of the early playoff exits, his less-than-physical style - the very thing that makes fan think he doesn’t care - is going to benefit him. He might be better off in the role he seems destined for, where he isn’t The Guy.
The Sharks are leaning less on him to create. At this point, that pressure should shift to Pavelski, Couture, and possibly Hertl before too long. I think he’s more suited to a role where he and his dudedom can lurk around and quietly help make those players great.
That’s three more years where the Sharks should reasonably be among the home-ice playoff teams to finally get their breaks one year. Just one time. With all the tough luck they’ve had in the past, they’re due that.
You’re only a choker until you win, and I’m convinced Thornton’s not done yet. I’m rooting for the guy and his calm, dude-like demeanor to pick apart enough teams one year to win a Stanley Cup.
You don’t have to like how things have gone for him in the past to recognize there’ll be chances to rectify his public reputation in the future. The Sharks are still going to be in the hunt for awhile, and when they do finally win it all, I imagine they’re going to throw one awesome, awfully laid back beach party. It would only be fitting.