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Thornton's passes making those around him better @NHL

There is the supremely gifted playmaker, the newest "Russian Rocket," a "Super Sophomore," "the Star" and "Mr. Perfect."

You'll find all five passing the puck out West, darting tape-to-tape passes through traffic to set up their teammates. In the continued effort to preview the 2008-09 season, here is's look at the Western Conference's top five passers.

1. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks -- How effective has Thornton been for the Sharks? Well, considering nobody in the NHL has more assists in the past three seasons, we'd have to say pretty darn effective.

Thornton led the League with 67 assists last season, giving him 231 since 2005. In that same span he's helped on 110 power-play goals, and is nearly as good at home (137 assists) as he is on the road (118). Since 2002, Thornton has dished out fewer than 60 assists in a season only once; he twice has surpassed 90.

When Devin Setoguchi was playing on Thornton's line last year, he wound up with seven goals in his first nine NHL games. When Thornton arrived in San Jose from Boston in 2005, he turned Jonathan Cheechoo into a 50-goal scorer.

Joe Pavelski, Milan Michalek, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe also have benefited from Thornton's uncanny ability to find the open man.

2. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings -- The 1998 sixth-round pick has set the bar quite high after posting 66 assists and 97 points last season, both career highs. Datysuk's 66 assists were second in the League to Thornton.

He won the Selke Trophy for the first time in his career last season, so it's obvious Datsyuk generates a lot of his offense off his superb defense. He has the ability to pick-pocket anybody on the ice and turn it into a transition play.

Since Datsyuk joined the NHL in 2001, his point total has risen every season except for one (back-to-back 87-point seasons). Except for a one assist drop from his second season to his third, his assists have gone up, too. Since the lockout he's gone from 59 to 60 and now to 66 assists.

With the potential of playing with Marian Hossa this season, don't be shocked if he gets to 70.

3. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings -- Mike Babcock said it best about Lidstrom last season when he told, "He is so professional that he tapes his stick better than anybody I've ever seen. He does everything better, and it's without effort."

It's been proven time and again that nobody, at least among defensemen, is better than Lidstrom. Assists is just another statistical category that proves the point.

Lidstrom's 173 assists since 2005 are the most among any blue liner in the NHL, and it's not even close -- Sergei Gonchar is second with 153. Lidstrom had 60 assists last season after doling out 49 in 2006-07 and a career-high 64 in 2005-06.

He's one of the most effective power-play quarterbacks in the NHL. In fact, 29 of his 60 assists last season came on the power play, which was fifth in the League. Among defensemen, only Pittsburgh's Gonchar (38) had more.

4. Mike Ribeiro, Dallas Stars -- Ribeiro broke out in a big way last season as he and Brenden Morrow became one of the best tandems in the NHL.

Ribeiro scorched his way to 27 goals and 56 assists for 83 points, shattering his previous career bests of 20 goals, 45 assists and 65 points, all set in 2003-04. His 56 assists put him in the top 10 in the League for the first time.

Morrow, who benefited with a career-high 32 goals, and Ribeiro were the perfect example of how opposites attract. Morrow is the gritty, in-your-face, go-hard-to-the-net type, while Ribeiro is the slick playmaker with the smooth moves.

Ribeiro wasn't a regular-season wonder, either. He continued his strong play with 14 assists in 18 playoff games last season; Morrow had 9 goals.

While some may wonder if Ribeiro can do it again, others are saying that at 28, he's just now entering the prime of his career, and another 50-plus assist season wouldn't be a surprise.

5. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks -- The No. 1 pick of the 2007 Entry Draft darted into his NHL career in style, putting up 51 assists and 72 points to take home the Calder Trophy.

That Kane is just getting started is a scary proposition; that he put up 51 assists at the age of 19 is even scarier. Nicklas Backstrom led NHL rookies last season with 55 assists, but he played more than half the season with Alexander Ovechkin on his wing. Kane didn't have even as much as a 40-goal scorer to play with, yet he still had 51 assists.

You can bet the Blackhawks want to see more than 21 goals from Kane this season, but don't expect much, if any, drop-off in his assist total. Provided he avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, it's not farfetched for the Hawks to expect 25-30 goals and close to 60 assists from the soon-to-be 20 year old.
Contact Dan Rosen at

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