Only 19 other players in NHL history have accomplished what Joe Thornton did on Wednesday night, scoring 1400 career points. The 38-year-old’s second period assist was his ninth point in 12 games this season, and the eighth in his last eight games.
All things considered, that’s not bad for a player in his 20th NHL season, let alone one coming off of offseason knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL.
Perhaps because of that, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has utilized Thornton a bit differently this season. According to Corsica, Thornton has started 63.27 percent of his even strength shifts beginning outside of the neutral zone in the offensive zone.
Since zone start tracking became publicly available in 2007, Thornton has never started a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone. Kevin Labanc, Thornton’s linemate, is the only Sharks forward that has started a higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone this season.
This makes all kinds of sense. Before his knee injury, it appeared age was starting to catch up to Thornton, if it hadn’t already. His 50 points in 79 games last season were the fewest since he was a 19-year-old in Boston.
The Sharks have taken greater steps to mitigate Thornton’s inevitable decline this season, but it hasn’t led to a true breakthrough at even strength.
Four of Thornton’s nine points this season have come on the power play, as Thornton’s been a bit unlucky at even strength. He has only one primary assist during five-on-five play, in part because the Sharks have scored on only 6.9 percent of their shots with Thornton on the ice in even strength situations.
At the same time, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have only stopped 87.5 percent of the even strength shots they’ve faced with Thornton playing in front of them. That’s not very good, and it likely won’t last much longer.
The Sharks are winning the puck possession battle with Thornton on the ice, routinely controlling the majority of shot attempts. Should that hold, a little regression to the mean in either direction will go a long way towards Thornton getting better results.
That would be good news for Joe Pavelski, who’s scored in each of the last two games, as well as Kevin Labanc, who hasn’t scored an even strength point since Oct. 17. It would also be a welcome development for Thornton, allowing him to move even further up the NHL’s all-time scoring list this season.