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Changing the game of a star? It worked with Thornton

by Larry Wigge
Joe Thornton wants what 13 members of this year's Anaheim Ducks enjoyed just two years ago -- an opportunity to play for and win the Stanley Cup.

The San Jose Sharks' big center has been the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft (1997), he's led the NHL in scoring with 125 points, combined in Boston and San Jose in 2005-06, and he won the Hart Trophy that same year. But ...

Thornton has let anyone who asks know just how important staying in the moment is for himself and his teammates under first-year coach Todd McLellan, who enjoyed the thrill of lifting the Cup while he was an assistant in Detroit last spring.

"The Hart Trophy 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."

This is the 6-foot-4, 235-pound center's fourth season in San Jose, and though the Sharks have had no less than 99 points the past four seasons and a League-high 117 points this season. Still, they have yet to get out of the second round of the playoffs. And that's Thornton's biggest concern, especially trailing 2-1 to the Ducks heading into Game 4 (Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS)

"In the past, we've had good teams here ... but we were always looking too far ahead," Thornton said. "Successful teams work their tails off in the regular season to be ready for what's coming. That's been our mindset here. Each day we go over how we can be ready. How we can be better?"

Call it one small step for San Jose and one giant leap for the Stanley Cup theory, OK?

Thornton proved a good fit with the Sharks from the beginning. It's no coincidence that San Jose has posted a 189-82-33 regular-season mark since acquiring Thornton from Boston in a November 30, 2005 trade -- and that Joe has not missed a game and no player in the NHL has more points than the 388 he has amassed (96 goals, 292 assists) in those 304 games.

Smart. Strong. Deceptive with the puck. Great passer and a force every time he's on the ice.

"All I know is the only time you know he's not going to hurt you is when you see him physically sitting on the bench," St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said late in the season. "He's just so big and skilled with the puck. He's got so much stamina that he can beat you in the first 10 seconds of a shift or the last 15 seconds. That's how much of a threat he is out there."

The only numbers the 29-year-old center is concerned with now is the 16 wins in the playoffs it takes to win the Cup.

Thornton welcomed the changes that McLellan brought with him from the Red Wings -- the puck possession game, the up-tempo, push-the-puck-up-the-ice offense that is designed to force the defense to play your game.

With that in mind, one of McLellan's biggest changes was to Jumbo Joe's game -- moving him from a fixture on the half-wing boards to a more mobile threat on the boards, down low and in front of the net.

Thornton admitted it was a surprise that someone would come in and change his game after all of that offensive success. But then, Joe knew the success McLellan had with a pretty good group of forwards in Detroit named Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Dan Cleary, Jiri Hudler and others.

So ...
"From Day 1, he came and said this is how you're going to play," Thornton said with an appreciative smile, knowing he has been more effective this season. "He showed me video of myself in the playoffs. Then he said, 'This is not how we want you to play.' "

More video. More advice.

"He wants me to drive to the net more," Thornton continued. "Go to the tough areas. He doesn't want me parking myself on the half-wall and dishing from there. He wanted me moving around a lot more and making myself more difficult to play against. I feel more helpful to the team. And I feel a lot better and I'm skating real strong right now."

At first, Joe wasn't sure. But eventually, everything began to click for him.

"It does take a while," Thornton said. "It's something that doesn't happen overnight. You have to have a lot of good teammates, a lot of good coaches, but eventually, if you're a good player, it just clicks one day and a light bulb goes on and you say, 'Hey, this is an easy game. Why make it so difficult?' "

Said McLellan, "He can be a very dominant man when he's playing hard and strong through the middle of the ice going to the net. It was as simple as saying, 'Look what happens when you do this and when you do that. Which player do you want to be?'

"Joe was a little too predictable in my opinion. He was stationary and everything ran through him. Now we have movement around the ice in other areas and that makes a big difference."

The Sharks clearly changed their dynamic when they packaged forwards Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and defenseman Brad Stuart to the Bruins, but they’ve added a lot of pieces since Thornton came aboard, too. In fact, only four players -- Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo and Christian Ehrhoff -- predate Thornton’s arrival.

"The Hart Trophy is on the mantle in my dad's house in St. Thomas, Ontario. I'm more interested in the big trophy. The Stanley Cup is all about sacrifices to be a winning team. That's my goal."
-- Joe Thornton

"I felt it was important to build a team around him," GM Doug Wilson explained. "Steve Yzerman didn’t win until his 12th year. It's a team game built around your difference makers."

"He's the best passer in the League," said Dan Boyle, a defenseman with Stanley Cup experience with Tampa Bay, who was brought in along with fellow d-men Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich with more Cup credentials, plus Cup-winning forwards Claude Lemieux and Travis Moen.

Patrick Marleau, who was No. 2 to Thornton's No. 1 in the 1997 draft, was at his best this season when paired with Joe and second-year man Devin Setoguchi. The threesome combined for 94 goals this season.

Marleau says Thornton hasn't changed from the first time he met him in their draft year.

"He's still happy go-lucky, always having a great time," Marleau said. "That’s just the way he is. He loves the game, he loves to play hockey."

But Thornton's desire and focus have never been keener.

"He's playing with a purpose," Blake told me. "He seems driven to bring the Cup to San Jose."

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