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Joe Thornton: Goat or scapegoat?

Apr 22, 2010, 3:20 PM EDT

jumbojoe2.jpgOne of my general rules of life when it comes to less-than-concrete debates is “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” A great example of this logic comes in the case of Joe Thornton’s playoff “choking.” On one hand, I think that he’s the victim of circumstance and his numbers aren’t that bad. Then again, there is that feeling that maybe he could give more; it’s probably the typical reaction that comes with seeing such a big, talented player be so quiet at times, but it’s hard to ignore that instinctive urge to question his efforts. Even if he’s probably trying too hard.

John O’Connor of the National Post wrote the typical “step it up, Joe” type column.

The playoffs are a different kind of hockey beast, an annual rite of spring that is far more life and death than the 82-game preamble. April, May and June are set aside for greatness. The stakes are high, expectations are elevated, and the best players are supposed to find that extra gear.

But you never seem to change gears, Joe. While everybody else is stepping up you always seem to take a step sideways. Or worse, back.

That is what happened last year when your Sharks captured the President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season and then face-planted in the opening round of the playoffs. You had one goal and four assists in six game. You were a playoff bust. You always have been.

Look, I understand that 5 points in 6 games might not match Thornton’s regular season averages, but that’s still close to a point per game and hockey players – even the stars – tend to see a dip in production in the playoffs. Someone might bring up Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but there’s two counter-points to that argument: 1) they play in the Eastern Conference/against weaker, less defensively sound opponents and 2) it’s probably fair to say that Thornton is a rung lower on the elite ladder. Not far from those two, but there’s a gap.

O’Connor critiques Jumbo Joe for only having two points in four games so far but conveniently fails to mention how infrequent scoring has been in the Sharks-Avalanche series. Aside from a 6-5 anomaly that was Game 2, the series scores were: 2-1 Colorado, 1-0 Colorado in OT and 2-1 Sharks in OT. Overall San Jose only scored 9 goals in four games with 2 of those coming after regulation. Naturally, one could say that San Jose needs Thornton to step up and that’s true, but it’s clear that he’s in contests where goals are a precious resource. No one is putting up big numbers.

Does that completely excuse Thornton when his team could lose to an eighth seed for the second year in a row? No, it doesn’t. I just think that his problem might be style more than heart. He’s one of the most transparently pass-first players in the league, so maybe in a 7-game series a team can devote more time to learning his tendencies and cutting off his wingers.

It’s unfair to say that he chokes in the playoffs, but is it unfair to say that he needs to make more of an impact? Either way, that perception will be a part of his legacy until he either “snaps out of it” or finally gets lucky.

  1. Arik - Apr 22, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Normally I’d agree, but in this case, there’s a reason Joe Thornton is getting less TOI than the Clowe, Setoguchi, and Pavelski line. He’s just not all there. I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t step up in the playoffs, it’s that he takes a step back.

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