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Has Joe Thornton really ever been a ‘choker’ since he came to San Jose?

May 22, 2011, 12:10 AM EDT

Joe Thornton AP

More than a few people will be shocked to learn that Joe Thornton is currently tied for the playoffs scoring lead with 17 points. A lot has been made about Thornton destroying previous old notions about his supposedly inferior postseason play, but a breakthrough at this level still must raise a few eyebrows.

It’s not wrong to say that he’s dispelling old myths, but here’s the rub: those notions were shaky – if not totally inaccurate – in the first place.

Yes, it’s true that Jumbo Joe struggled in a few series earlier in his career with the Boston Bruins. Going pointless in two different series will give critics plenty of firepower and Thornton’s care-free attitude probably didn’t help matters. That weak-in-the-playoffs perception ultimately polluted any good feelings the Bruins held about the over-sized playmaker, leading to the lopsided deal that sent him to San Jose.

Since then, he’s actually been quite strong in each playoffs run with the Sharks, unless your only barometer for success is a Stanley Cup victory.

Thornton has been a steady playoff performer since being traded from Boston.

The Sharks were a middling bunch in their first post-lockout season until Thornton came along and powered them to a powerhouse level with his peerless passing. While linemates and opponents have changed over the years, two things haven’t: the Sharks/Thornton are still without a Stanley Cup victory and people still assume that Big Bird goes Fun Size in the postseason.

There’s little doubt that the 2011 playoffs have been the greatest, most demonstrative set of postseason games in Thornton’s career, but the difference is subtler than one might expect. Thornton has 12 goals and 52 assists for 64 points in 72 playoff games with San Jose, with the only “troubling” number being his -16 rating. (I think his 24 power-play points dulls the bitterness of some of that 5-on-5 play, anyway.)

Sure, Thornton seems more comfortable on the ice this year, but he’s also getting some fortunate bounces (for once?) and can rely on his teammates for more offensive support this time around. His increased luck might be best exemplified by the goal he scored against Roberto Luongo in Game 1.

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Now it’s true that Thornton’s playoff numbers typically pale in comparison to his regular season pace, but most high-scoring players see their averages drop in the playoffs. That’s what happens when every goal is much more crucial, defenses key on your tendencies and players clog up lanes by blocking shots with much greater frequency.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to take anything away from how special this postseason has been for Thornton. My point is simple: his improvement hasn’t been nearly as drastic as many would believe.

In the long run, it might come down to how we perceive his body language. To some, it would seem like a playoff monkey has been lifted off Thornton’s back. Then again, when it comes to the way people depict Thornton, it really has been all about perception. Perhaps we’ve just been imagining that monkey the whole time.

  1. lovesthebj - May 22, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    This article is very poorly thought through. Total points per game / number of games in no way considers how Jumbo Joe has come up small in critical games for years. He’s had quality defence, high scoring wingers, great goaltending and good health for years, and can’t deliver.

    64 pts in 72 playoff games glosses over his performance in big games against tough opponents, when your team needs your top line center to produce. For example, 2009 playoffs against Anaheim. 6 game series and he finished with 1 goal, 4 assists and a -3. But the goal in 2 of those assists were in game 5, and the rest of the series he was invisible, including game 6 where he didn’t register a point.

    And then last year against Chicago, 4 game sweep by the Blackhawks where Thornton had 1 assist and was a -4 for the series.

    Regardless of how many points he puts up against 8th seed 1st round opponents when the Sharks could pile up the goals, when it’s really counted you couldn’t count on Thornton. And that’s the definition of ‘choker’.

    • James O'Brien - May 22, 2011 at 12:40 PM

      You can selectively isolate a bad set of stats for almost any player who played a lot of playoff games, though.

      Let’s look at the other “selectively choosing two series to make a point instead of looking at the big picture” perspective.

      In two series against the Detroit Red Wings – the best franchise in the NHL/far from an eighth seed – Thornton put up these numbers:

      Six points in seven games in 2011; Eight points in five games in 2010. That’s a whopping 14 points in 12 games against a team that features Nicklas Lidstrom. If that counts as choking, then I’d love a roster full of Thorntons.

      Again, you can manipulate stats all you want, but in the end his playoff numbers are strong. Some people just really want to hold onto the belief that he’s a choker. That’s fine, it just ignores the big picture.

  2. bcjim - May 22, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    “Choker” may or may not be the right term but the fact is the Sharks, like the Caps in the east, have been tearing up the regular season and flopping in the postseason. Unlike the Caps stars, Thornton has been in the league since what 98? 99? You seem to be on a crusade to pump of Jumbo Joe’s image for reasons unknown, but only a finals appearance (at least) is really going to help him. No one denies he is a great player and any team would welcome him but he has a distinct lack of postseason hardware.

  3. tommytd - May 22, 2011 at 6:07 PM

    Looks like they’re about to choke again but at least they’re still playing! The Blackhawks are on the golf circuit! LOL

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