The foursome belongs there for physical reasons. But in reality, Thornton stands above them and everybody else on the Sharks.
How has he earned this place?
In previous years, his offensive output could’ve been a factor. But this year, Thornton’s assists (a team-leading 49) was his lowest in nearly a decade. And his points (second on the Sharks with 70 and amongst the National Hockey League’s top-25) were his fewest since he had 73 in 2003-04.
But in 2010-11, there were two other reasons that put Thornton on the catbird seat.
|San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton celebrates after scoring the winning goal against the Los Angeles Kings during overtime of Game 6 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Los Angeles, Monday, April 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) |
First, a statistically noticeable commitment to defense. Thornton led the League with 114 takeaways. His defensive play through the second half of the season helped San Jose win 27 of its last 37 games en route to their fourth consecutive Pacific Division Championship.
“Takeaways shouldn’t be underrated,” left wing Ryane Clowe
said. “They’re not easy to get. To pick pockets the way he does shows he’s tenacious on the puck. He wants the puck. He’s saying, ‘It’s my puck and I want to take it back.’ It’s probably the first time he’s led the League in that category.
“One thing the stat shows is Joe has the puck a lot more,” Clowe added. “That’s obviously going to help our team.”
“When you steal the puck,” Patrick Marleau
, Thornton’s linemate, said, “you get the puck more than the other team. It’s on his stick. Good things happen when he’s got the puck and he’s able to make plays and score goals. The other team may be coming in on a line rush and if you steal the puck then, it’s good defense.
“You want the puck on his stick so he can find the open guys,” Marleau continued. “He just has a knack for attracting the puck. He uses his big frame and that big long reach.”
But to be considered as a serious candidate for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the forward who excels defensively, it’s more than just about the numbers.
“He’s really worked hard defensively this year, especially on the backcheck” defenseman Jason Demers
said. “It’s good for D men when you’ve got forwards who come back that hard. It allows you (defense) to stand up the opponent. He’s done a great job and it’s fun to see him develop that part of the game even more.”
“He takes pride in playing at both ends of the rink,” said Devin Setoguchi, Thornton’s linemate at the right wing. “That’s what the coaches have been prodding him on in the last couple of years. He’s worked on all three zones of his game and he’s been getting better and better. All of us have, including myself.”
Back in February, Thornton admitted he did a few things to change his overall game. “I’ve always prided myself on being a good two-way guy and maybe I’ve tweaked my game a little bit,” he said. “You just work on moving your feet and little things like winning board battles, winning faceoffs and positioning with your stick. Every year, you change your game a little bit to adapt to the way the game is being played. My game, as a whole, is getting better.”
|San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, right, scores the winning goal past Los Angeles Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell during overtime of Game 6 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Los Angeles, Monday, April 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) |
The second reason? His leadership. Most noticeable was his series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against Los Angeles.
“It showed, especially in Game 6,” Demers said. “He took a hold of the game.”
Some media-types were proclaiming that goal as the biggest of his career. Some of these folks are the same ones who’ve easily criticized Thornton for not having won the biggest prize in the NHL.
Fair or unfair? “It comes with the territory,” Setoguchi said. “Hockey is a team sport. When things come down, obviously it’s going to be him who takes a lot of the heat. But it’s still a team thing. When everyone isn’t collectively doing it together, then we all take the heat, just not publicly.”
“They (media) think that because it’s the playoffs,” Clowe said. “That (the goal’s stature) will depend on what happens this year. It could be the biggest goal. You’re not going to determine that yet. Joe probably feels like he’s got some bigger goals down the road. Up to this point, I could see them saying that. But I don’t think Joe would tell you that it is.”
Making big plays at crucial times gets you that “leader” tag. But in reality, there are other ways which earn a player that moniker.
Back in September, Thornton was named as the eighth full-time captain in Sharks history. According to his teammates, Thornton has more than earned the “C” on his sweater.
“He’s done a great job,” Demers said. “He’s taken on a bigger role this year with the captaincy. It’s fun to be out there now and he makes every day at the rink a fun time.
“He’s easy to talk to,” Demers added. “You can go up to him with anything you want and he’s always there for you. It’s good to see that in a captain because it gives you more confidence to go out there and play for him and the team.”
“He’s not too concerned with what other people are saying about him,” Clowe said. “He’s confident in himself and in the team. He’s proud to be captain of this team.”
And Thornton shows that pride every day in many ways.