In hockey, everybody loses sometimes.
The 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, the consensus best single-season team in NHL history, lost eight times. Wayne Gretzky, the best player in league history, was on the wrong side of 586 regular-season games and 12 playoff series during his 20-year NHL career.
In hockey, everybody loses sometimes. Except Father Time.
Father Time is the only opponent that no team, or no player, has ever beaten, no matter how hard they’ve tried.
It’s in that spirit that Peter DeBoer made the most important decision of his first season as Sharks head coach, when he approached Joe Thornton about taking a step back.
At the time, Thornton was mired in an early-December slump in which he had scored only two points in 11 contests and clearly was pressing. And after a 2014-15 season where he netted just 65 points – still excellent, but his lowest in a full season in 15 years – it was looking like Thornton had lost a step in the race with Father Time, which in its quest to claim another victim seemed to be closing in on San Jose’s leader.
That is until Thornton was approached by DeBoer to take a step back – miss some practices, spend more time with his family, not focus on hockey all the time – and time itself was halted in its tracks.
“I think just getting away from the rink sometimes and getting some rest, not coming in, I think you get more relaxed,” Thornton, who turns 37 in July, said. “Before, I was 24/7 hockey. Now I stay home and play with the kids and relax a bit. I think it’s translated to play more relaxed and when you’re at the rink you just focus a little bit more. It’s been nice. When I’m here, I’m 100 percent focused. When I’m at home, I’m 100 percent focused there. It’s been a nice change. This late in my career, I can still change things up. It’s worked, so I’ll stick with it.”
Boy, did it work.
Although Thornton’s aging process is still readily apparent in the color of his facial hair, it hasn’t been in his energy level, which was rejuvenated by his new coach’s most astute decision of the season.
Since December, Thornton’s played as he did 11 years ago, when he arrived in a midseason trade with the Boston Bruins and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP in 2005-06. He finished the 2015-16 season fourth in the NHL with 82 points, behind only Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn and Sidney Crosby; his 63 assists were second in the league to Erik Karlsson’s 66.
|SEASON ||POINTS ||GAMES ||POINTS PER GAME |
|2005-06 ||92 ||58 ||1.59 |
|2006-07 ||114 ||82 ||1.39 |
|2015-16 (post-adjustment) ||66 ||53 ||1.25 |
|2007-08 ||96 ||82 ||1.17 |
|2009-10 ||89 ||79 ||1.13 |
|2008-09 ||86 ||82 ||1.05 |
|2011-12 ||77 ||82 ||0.94 |
|2013-14 ||76 ||82 ||0.93 |
|2010-11 ||70 ||80 ||0.88 |
|2012-13 ||40 ||48 ||0.83 |
|2014-15 ||65 ||75 ||0.83 |
|2015-16 (pre-adjustment) ||16 ||29 ||0.55 |
What these stats show is this: Since joining the Sharks in December 2005, Thornton’s two least productive seasons were last season and the first half of this season, prior to his conversation with DeBoer.
Since making the alteration to his daily routine, Thornton’s been at his most productive in nine years, when he roared onto the Western Conference scene and was the league’s MVP.
Back then, Jonathan Cheechoo was the beneficiary of Thornton’s playmaking excellence. These days, Thornton’s triggerman is Joe Pavelski, who scored 25 of his 38 goals in the four months since Thornton became a league MVP candidate once again.
“I think his ability to pass speaks for itself,” Pavelski said of Thornton in a recent interview with Jeremy Roenick and Billy Jaffe. “But the one thing people don’t realize is how well he protects the puck, and how well he can strip a guy and get it.
“It becomes more about you working to get open. I think this is about the third year together where we’ve spent quality time on the ice and power-play time. There are definitely areas where you know he wants the puck, where you know he’s coming to get it. And you’re working to get it to him and get open. Then you just have to be ready because he’ll read your moves, whether you got a guy and you’re trying to shake him and get open. He’ll wait that extra second and protect the puck until you get open and put it there.”
Will Thornton win the Hart Trophy again this season? Maybe not, what with Patrick Kane’s banner year in Chicago and the pace Sidney Crosby set in Pittsburgh.
Hart Trophy or not, Thornton is, however, the Sharks MVP. He’s the player, no longer the captain but still its inspirational leader, whose personal success drove San Jose back to the playoffs.
And in the process, put Father Time in timeout.