SAN JOSE – It was Dec. 15, the Sharks were hovering right around .500, and Joe Thornton couldn’t find the scoresheet.
The 36-year-old had just two points in his previous 11 games headed into that night’s tilt at Bell Centre. He accumulated just 16 points in 29 games through the first third of the regular season, and although that’s a respectable enough total for many, Thornton was going to have to dramatically pick up the pace in order for the Sharks to legitimately contend.
Thornton registered a secondary assist that night in Montreal in a 3-0 win, and from that point on, no one had more than his 66 points through the end of the season. Sidney Crosby also had 66, while Chicago’s Patrick Kane tallied 60. He finished the year tied for fourth in the NHL with 81 points, and was second in assists with 63.
It’s why Thornton’s name has been mentioned in recent weeks as a legitimate candidate for the NHL’s Hart Trophy as league MVP, 10 seasons after he won it in 2005-06 in his first season in San Jose. Or, he could just as easily be a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best two-way forward, after finishing the season with a goals-for percentage of 70.7 percent, first in the league among players that skated more than 300 minutes.
Is he aware of the chatter?
“No, but it just means you’re playing with good players and you’re on a good team,” Thornton said last week. “That’s all that means to me, I think. You’re just a byproduct of what your surroundings [are].”
“Stuff like that is out of your hands. You don’t worry about it. But, obviously it’s nice. I had the opportunity to win [the Hart Trophy] before, and it was pretty cool. It’s pretty neat.”
There was some early concern this year that Thornton’s un-Thornton-like start was perhaps a result of hitting his head twice in the first few weeks. On Oct. 22, Los Angeles’ Jake Muzzin hammered him into the glass and Thornton was unable to skate in a straight line on his way back to the bench. On Nov. 7, it was a check by Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano that knocked Thornton over, and he was slow to get up after his helmet squarely struck the playing surface.
Thornton, though, indicated that it was a change in the team’s playing style, instituted by coach Pete DeBoer, that took some getting used to before he fully found his game.
“For me, it was just the way we forechecked," Thornton said. "It was a little bit different than previous years. Once I got the hang of that – now, all I want to do is forecheck. … It was just a little adjustment, but once it kind of sunk in, I felt great.”
DeBoer was encouraged with how Thornton would approach the season after his first sit-down with him after being named head coach. DeBoer wanted him to get in on the forecheck, and Thornton was more than willing to do it.
“The first meeting I had with Joe last summer when I took the job, that was one of the comments he made to me,” DeBoer recalled. “We talked about what type of team we wanted to be, and he was the first guy that said ‘that’s exactly how I want to play.’ … I was prepared to have to try and sell it to him, and it wasn’t a sell at all.”
Thornton indicated he was never worried about his early struggles. He was simply adjusting.
“Eventually you knew it was going to turn. … It kind of took me awhile to understand Pete’s system. Once I got the hang of it, I got comfortable and I love playing it.”