Why Jumbo's legacy is secure with or without Stanley Cup

Sharks' Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton fell short of his stated goal for his 23rd NHL season.

The Sharks legend left San Jose last fall to sign a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the prohibitive favorites in the NHL's one-and-done North Division for the league's second season in as many years altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Thornton told reporters in October he "[needed] to win a Stanley Cup," but the Leafs' season ended in heartbreak seven months later. 

Toronto lost Monday in Game 7 of its first-round series, blowing a three-games-to-one lead against the rival Montreal Canadiens. For the 23rd time in 23 seasons, Thornton's year ended without the elusive Cup.

Any disappointment the 41-year-old felt two mornings after the Leafs' early exit is understandable, as is the empathy any number of his fans in the Bay Area currently feel. Thornton's latest shot very well might've been his last, even though it feels like the same could've been said about any point since the Sharks' 2014 first-round collapse against the Los Angeles Kings.

Yet any of those feelings should start and end on Thornton's behalf. There certainly shouldn't be any in Thornton himself, nor in him for not winning a Stanley Cup in San Jose.

Thornton needs a ring to fulfill his own dreams and expectations, not anyone else's for him.

No matter what the NHL said in its centennial season, Thornton is one of the top 100 players in hockey history. He's seventh all-time in assists (1,104) and 14th in points (1,529). Thornton's sixth (1,682) in Hockey-Reference's adjusted points -- which allows more accurate comparisons across eras -- and fourth in adjusted assists (1,210).


Only Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr are ahead of him on the latter list, and Gretzky, Howe, Jagr, Mark Messier and Ron Francis are the only ones who top him on the former.

Thornton won Olympic gold in 2010, and World Cups in 2004 and 2016. In a testament to his longevity, Thornton and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester were the only players to appear on both rosters.

The Sharks didn't lift hockey's Holy Grail during Thornton's 15 years in San Jose, but it was through no lack of trying. His Sharks never truly had the right mix of depth and goaltending, and San Jose usually just lost to the better team.

During Thornton's 12 playoff runs with the Sharks, San Jose lost four times to the eventual Stanley Cup champions and two other times to a Stanley Cup finalist. In the years the Sharks didn't lose to one of the last two teams standing, San Jose once lost to a team that was a year away from winning a Stanley Cup (2006-07 Detroit Red Wings) and twice to a team that had won a Cup within the previous two years (2008-09 Anaheim Ducks, 2013 Los Angeles Kings).

Thornton, a 0.96-point-per-game scorer in the regular season with the Sharks, was a 0.8-point-per-game scorer in the playoffs. You can say he Didn't Raise His Game, or whatever, but you could also look at his playoff shooting percentage falling by about three percentage points (8.4 percent) and say he didn't get the bounces.

Why, in the supposed ultimate team sport, any one player's legacy has been tied to the success of their team is beyond me. But by all reasonable and unreasonable standards, Thornton's legacy is secure with or without a Stanley Cup, and it has been for quite some time.

So if Thornton decides to play a 24th NHL season and once more pursue a Stanley Cup, he'll do so for himself. As is the case with any other all-time great, being along for the ride is more than enough for the rest of us.