"The Hart Trophy (NHL MVP for '05-06) is on the mantle in my dad's house in St. Thomas, Ontario," Thornton said. "I'm more interested in the big trophy. The Stanley Cup is all about sacrifices to be a winning team. That's my goal."
A few weeks ago, I reminded Thornton of that conversation and asked him: How's that team goal going? I wondered if he could see success in his recipe.
"My only thoughts right now are about tomorrow and what's in store for the Sharks -- not the playoffs or anything else two, three months away," he explained. "In the past, we've had good teams here ... but we were always looking too far ahead.
"Successful teams work their tails off in the regular season to be ready for what's coming. That's our mindset here. Each day we go over how we can be ready. How we can be better. When the time comes for the playoffs, we plan on being ready for that, too. But ..."
Yeah, I know, that's too many tomorrows ahead in spite of the fact that the Sharks' first half represented more points than any other team after 41 games since the 1944-45 Montreal Canadiens. But we'll play along with San Jose's one small step for San Jose and one giant leap for the Stanley Cup theory, eh?
What all of this underscores is just how important great coaching can mean to a team that was always very good ... but could never seem to make it to the top.
"You don't know if the chemistry between you and the rest of the guys is going to work," explained defenseman Rob Blake, after he was signed as a free agent last summer. "But from the moment we all got together, it was a lot like that trade to Colorado (where Blake went from Los Angeles to Colorado in 2001 and won a Stanley Cup). You come to the rink expecting to win, pushing to win. It's exciting."
Think about that: Expecting to win.
Down the hallway, Sharks coach Todd McLellan was proving my point of how a great coach with a good message and ability to deliver that speech can make a difference behind the bench and in the heads of his players. What's not to like about McLellan, who says of his coaching staff, "We don't profess that we're smarter than the players. Look, they're on the ice. They have some very good ideas. They have very creative minds. We want them to have a voice, express their opinions. We want them to take more ownership of the team. It's my job as the coach to push this team, push them hard, push them outside their comfort zone. But while I'm doing that, I've got to make sure that they enjoy the process. That's the way championship teams evolve."
McLellan didn't just dream up that theory. It's something he's learned over years traveling on buses in juniors at Swift Current, in the American Hockey League at Houston and in Detroit as an assistant to Mike Babcock after helping the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup last June.
In a half-season filled with a boatload of exciting individual exploits, seeing teams like San Jose and Boston and Chicago and Philadelphia and New Jersey and Washington and Detroit trying to make that last step to be playing in June, the bottom line is the message that great individual skills are much better when they work within the framework of a highly motivated team system.
Changes B-R-U-I-N -- After losing 12-straight games to Montreal, the Bruins have broken the hex with an exclamation point -- beating the Canadiens 6-1 on Nov. 13, then winning 3-2 in a shootout nine days later, before posting a 3-1 triumph on Jan. 13. Captain Zdeno Chara said, "It's amazing how one win can change the direction you are headed. To me, it's all about team. It's all about depth. It's all about playing a system and having fun doing it." Here's a fun fact on the Bruins and their depth: Since Nov. 19, the NHL's leading scorer is Boston's second-line center David Krejci with 39 points. ... It may just only been one game to some, but seeing the irascible Matt Cooke on the Penguins' No. 1 line with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sort of reminds us of an attempt to find the same go-to-the-net grit that Ryan Malone provided Crosby and Malkin last season when Pittsburgh went to the Stanley Cup Final. Cooke was elevated to the top line Jan. 13 and the Penguins offense woke up for a 4-2 victory against division rival Philadelphia as Malkin and Cooke each netted a goal. ... Nigel Dawes has never been considered one of the New York Rangers' top six forwards, yet there he is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the League-high in game-winning goals since Dec. 16 with four -- and that's four GWGs among the five goals he's scored in his last 12 games. The fifth-round pick in the 2003 Entry Draft netted his eighth goal of the season (14 was his career-high last season) to beat the New York Islanders, 2-1, Jan. 13. ... Max Pacioretty's speed and size kind of remind me of Chris Higgins. Maybe that's why Higgins, a free-agent-to-be, is being mentioned in so many trade rumors. ... Getting even? Not quite, but Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo can boast of scoring in each of the three games he's played -- a total of five goals -- against Ottawa since the Senators traded him last February. By the way, wouldn't Corvo look good as that puck-moving D-man the Sens are looking for? ... For those of you who said a new four-year, $16 million contract for Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal is too much for someone who isn't on one of the team's top two lines. Stop. Staal is valuable in so many ways to the Penguins -- and since the signing, Jordan had a goal in each of the three games he's played, including a game-winner.
Is there anything he can't do? -- Best do-it-all player? Here's a vote for Philadelphia captain Mike Richards, who has 25 of his 44 points on special teams -- especially on a penalty-killing unit that scares opponents it's so lethal. ... Washington coach Bruce Boudreau recently heaped praise on converted defenseman Thomas Fleischmann as his team's most improved player. The winger's 15 goals are one more than the total he had in 118 previous NHL games in three seasons. ... Capitals defenseman Mike Green's value? Just look at the team's record of 21-8-3 for the first 32 games he was in the lineup this season. ... Trying to find the right balance? That's the case in Atlanta, where the line of Todd White, Slava Kozlov and Bryan Little have been carrying the scoring for the Thrashers. While Colby Armstrong had 8 goals in a 14-game stretch, the Thrashers need more consistency from him to help star winger Ilya Kovalchuk. Maybe moving Little, White or Kozlov to the line with Kovalchuk will improve the offense. ... Call it the net-gain theory. Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg hopes that the play of energetic goaltender Brian Elliott will inspire the rest of his team. In his first three starts, Elliott lost 2-0 to the New York Rangers on Jan. 10 before coming back with a 5-1 victory against Carolina three days later and a 29-save, 3-2 win against Atlanta on Jan. 14. It represented Ottawa's first two-game winning streak since the first week of December. Never underestimate the net effect of a goalie who can make those tide-turning saves at the most opportune time. Yes, even for the Senators. ... When rookie Steven Stamkos was a healthy scratch for Tampa Bay's Jan. 9 game at Anaheim, a red flag popped up. The Lightning said the first pick in last June's Entry Draft was being put on a strengthening program that might cause him to miss some games. I'll buy the strength answer -- it's something all youngsters have to deal with. But here we are in the middle of January, more than 40 games into the season and the Lightning are just getting around to putting Stamkos on a routine to improve his strength? ... Another of those new-year, new-life stories is Toronto center Dominic Moore, who was claimed on waivers from Minnesota last January after bouncing around from the Rangers to Nashville to Pittsburgh and Minnesota. After finding it tough to stick in one place as a defensive player, he now has 8 goals and 13 assists -- a career-high for points in one season. Said Moore, "In college, I was an offensive player and, coming in with the Rangers (who selected him in the second round in 2008) and the millionaire's club there, I had to do whatever it took to get in and that was playing a defensive game. I sort of made a name for myself and maybe I was pigeon-holed after that as a defensive player." ... Here's a stat to chomp on: Alex Ovechkin's 10-shot, two-goal, one-assist performance in Washington's 6-3 triumph against Pittsburgh on Jan. 14 was his seventh game with 10 or more shots this season. Among the shot leaders in the NHL this season, no one else has more than one 10-shot game.
The legend of Bobby Lou -- Vancouver captain Roberto Luongo's return Jan. 15 against Phoenix could not have come at a better time for the Canucks after the team was bedeviled by more bad goaltending in a 5-3 loss to New Jersey on Jan. 13. For the record, the Canucks were 9-12-3 with Luongo on the sidelines with a groin injury. ... Erik Cole is proving that the first 33 games of this season were not the true gritty power forward we had seen for so many years with Carolina. In his last nine games with Edmonton, Cole had 7 goals and 4 assists. A big part of the turnaround was playing off the energy he got from playing with youngsters Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano. ... When Columbus traded captain Adam Foote last year, Jackets management wondered where they'd get the grit and leadership from the defense without Foote. In the offseason, GM Scott Howson traded for Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman, but the less-heralded free-agent signing of Mike Commodore has been the best addition for the team. Commodore, who played about 19 minutes a game with Carolina before he was traded to Ottawa, where he played only 16 minutes a game. With the Jackets, the 29-year-old d-man has played more than 22 minutes a game and has contributed 18 points, plus his 109 hits is second among NHL defenseman to the 159 hits by Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik. ... We all know that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg are going to get their share of goals in Chicago. But the biggest news during Chicago's eight-game winning streak at United Center of late has been the play of the line of Martin Havlat, Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland. Bolland, a second-round pick in 2004, had 8 goals and 16 assists and a plus-14 rating while centering this unit. Mark down that name. ... No one is ever going to confuse Dallas' threesome on defense of Nicklas Grossman, Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley with Montreal's Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. But on Jan. 12, those defenseman all scored goals for Dallas in a 5-4 overtime win against Detroit. It was the first time all season that the Stars had more than one goal from the blueline in any previous game. That ranked the Stars defense tied for next-to-last in the NHL with St. Louis with seven goals. Buffalo d-men had only five goals. ... Anaheim rookie winger Bobby Ryan's 16 points on 8 goals and 8 assists in a recent 12-game span tied him with New Jersey's Patrik Elias for the most points since Dec. 19. ... Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne improved his season record to 10-5-0 with a 2-0 shutout win in Toronto on Jan. 13. Rinne is the second rookie goaltender to reach double-figures in victories for the Predators in one season. The first was Tomas Vokoun, who had a 12-18-4 mark as a freshman in 1998-99, Nashville's inaugural season. ... There are only seven players in the NHL with as many as 10 power-play goals this season -- and, bet you didn't know that St. Louis has two of them. Brad Boyes has 11 PPGs and Keith Tkachuk 10. ... Johan Franzen continues to score important goals. He netted his sixth game-winner in Detroit's 4-3 win against Anaheim on Jan. 14. Eleven of his 19 goals have come in the third period. ... Pavel Datsyuk's recent stretch of 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 15 games has been remarkable. He's had 15 multi-point games this season, causing teammate Dan Cleary to say, "He is playing the best hockey of his life right now. He's the best player in the world right now."
A hat for a Jacket -- It was just his second game in Columbus after netting 8 goals in seven games for Russia in the recent World Junior Championship. In just nine minutes and 59 seconds, Nikita Filatov made the kind of impact that scouts thought he might before the Blue Jackets picked him with the sixth choice in the first round of the 2008 Entry Draft. He had six shots and three goals, as Filatov became the first rookie in Blue Jackets history to record a hat trick in a 4-2 victory against Minnesota on Jan. 10 (and, at 18 years, 230 days, he became the second-youngest player in NHL history to have a hat trick, falling just short of Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal, who was 18 years, 153 days old).
Coach Ken Hitchcock raves about Filatov's quick release, saying, "Nikita's a scorer, and he looks like a scorer on the ice. He gets shots through to the net. He's a smart, smart offensive player. He positions himself really well. He finds holes other people don't even look for on the ice."