In late November 2005 the San Jose Sharks were in a nose dive. A team with playoff expectations had gone 10 straight games without a victory. The season looked like it was going to be flushed down the toilet when, out of nowhere, arguably the biggest event in franchise history took place. Boston Bruins star center Joe Thornton was traded to San Jose in exchange for three role players in Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau.
Thornton instantly turned the Sharks season around, leading San Jose to a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference. In doing so, Thornton won the Art Ross Trophy for most points with 125 and was named the Hart Memorial Trophy winner as the league MVP. At the time Thornton was 26-years old, the usual prime age for hockey forwards. There is no doubt, this was his career year, right? No way could he be a better player 10 years later at 36? In actuality, that answer isn’t so clear.
Thornton’s 125 points in 81 games in 2005-06 comes out to 1.47 points-per-game rate. “Jumbo” found himself on the scoresheet for 47% of the Sharks 265 goals that season. Keep in mind though that first year after the 2004-05 season lockout saw a huge increase in goal scoring throughout the league. In 2005-06, the median scoring team (average/middle of 30 teams) scored 3.04 goals per game. Here in 2016, the median scoring team scores 2.63 goals per game. Roughly 40% of a goal less per game on average is pretty substantial. The point to be had is that goal scoring is down significantly since 2005-06 with far better defensive systems and goaltending.
This season, Thornton is neck and neck with Joe Pavelski for the team lead in points. Currently Big Joe is one point behind his linemate for the team lead in scoring with an astounding 60 points in 62 games. That is a PPG rate of .967, right on pace with his career average of .978. That in and of itself is amazing. At minimum, at 36-years old, Thornton is having a prototypical Thornton-like season despite it being much tougher to score in today’s NHL than it was in his more youthful days. That said, is this his best season overall? There is a pretty strong case that 2015-16, not 2005-06, is the best overall performance of his career.
Now 1.47 PPG in 2005-06 compared to 0.97 PPG in 2015-16 is essentially a 50% difference in production if all else were equal. However, in reality, 26-year old Thornton was not a 50% better offensive producer than the current 36-year old version. If Thornton were factoring in on the same percentage of Sharks goals this season that he did back in 2005-06, he would have 87 points. Eighty-seven through 62 games would be a points per game rate of 1.40.
In theory though, with a deeper team around him, and increased defensive systems around the league, it is hard to imagine that if you morphed the 26-year old Thornton onto the current Sharks, that he would factor in on that many goals. Chances are that 47% number would likely be around 40 at best. At that rate, the younger Thornton would have 74 points in this defensive era of hockey. Seventy-four points through 62 games is a 1.19 PPG, still really really good, but much closer to the 36-year-old Thornton’s .97 PPG rate. This is a more realistic comparison when you consider that the league’s offensive surge 2005-06 included a huge uptick in power play opportunities. Ten seasons ago Thornton finished with 51 power play points. Here in 2015-16, he is on pace to finish with just 27, despite the fact San Jose’s power play has actually been more successful percentage wise than in 2005-06 (18.2 vs 22.3).
Back in 2005-06, Thornton led the league in points. This season, he isn’t that far off, still in the top-10 in scoring, currently eighth overall. Certainly the younger Thornton was better offensively than the older one even when adjusting for overall scoring and the difference in game play 10 years ago to today. However, relative to his peers, the older Thornton is still an elite offensive machine and the eye test suggests he is a far better defensive player at 36 than he was at 26.
Unfortunately, the difficulty in statistically comparing the defensive impact of Thornton from 10 years ago to the Thornton of today is that advanced statistics like Corsi, Fenwick, GF/60 and GA/60 weren’t tracked back in 2005-06. These are the types of stats that give a far better indication on overall player effectiveness. And this season, Joe Thornton has been among the top-5 forwards in the game in pretty much all of these categories.
In terms of GF/60, Thornton is fifth best among all NHL forwards who have skated over 750 even strength minutes this season. The Sharks score 3.51 goals for every hour of five on five ice time with Thornton on the ice. As for GA/60, Thornton is third in the league among forwards with a miniscule 1.33 mark. These two numbers combine to make Thornton the No. 1 forward in the league in even strength goals-for percentage at 72%. In other words, no other forward in the league accounts for a greater positive difference in even strength scoring for his team than Thornton.
If you’re not a fan of goals for numbers, Thornton’s Fenwick-for percentage (unblocked shot attempts) is fifth best in the league among forwards at 57.3. If we include blocked shots for Corsi, Thornton is slightly lower at 19th in the league among forwards. One could make the case though that Fenwick is a better measure of overall effectiveness though since it is much more difficult to record a shot on goal or wide of the net than it is to have a shot blocked.
Anyone who has watched Thornton play on a regular basis will tell you he has worked harder away from the puck in his mid-30s than he did in his mid-20s. This year in particular he has appeared to take that defensive work ethic to an even higher level by most people’s eye tests. Ten years ago, it was common to hear local Sharks followers as well as national pundits refer to Thornton as being lazy defensively. This year, absolutely nobody is calling Thornton lazy. He is playing like a man possessed in all three zones, with and without the puck. The exact opposite of lazy. One could make the case he deserves Selke consideration as the best defensive forward in hockey.
So while Thornton may have put up the sexy 125 points in 2005-06, in terms of overall performance, yours truly firmly believes we are witnessing the best year of his career here in 2016. In my eyes, a top center being eighth overall in scoring while being a defensive dynamo is more valuable than being No. 1 in scoring with a poor defensive reputation.