While he was approaching 1,000 career NHL assists, Joe Thornton said he hadn’t really looked at the names of the other players in history that had reached that lofty mark.
“I think once it hits I’ll kind of peek and see who’s on that list,” Thornton said late last month.
Now, he can finally look. The 37-year-old recorded the secondary assist on Joe Pavelski’s empty net goal on Monday in Winnipeg, helping the Sharks to a 3-2 win. Mark Scheifele scored a power play goal with seven seconds left, so Pavelski’s second score of the night ended up as the game-winner.
On the milestone goal, Thornton seized a loose puck in the defensive zone and slid it over to Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Vlasic pushed it ahead to Pavelski, who wheeled around at the offensive blue line and skidded it into the open net off of the stick of Nikolaj Ehlers at 19:34.
The game was also Thornton’s 900th game in a Sharks sweater. He’s averaged more than a point-per game since a trade on Nov. 30, 2005 made San Jose a perennial contender, with 928 points overall (213g, 715a).
Not surprisingly, Thornton passed on much of the credit on to his teammates in a postgame interview with CSN on Monday.
“I’ve been honored to play with so many good players and so many good scorers,” he said. “I think for me over the years that’s been the key, just staying healthy and playing with so many great players.”
“It's an incredible number, incredible accomplishment,” coach Pete DeBoer told reporters. “It's something that I'll tell my grandkids, that I was on the bench and witnessed it.”
Among the players that have scored the most goals assisted by Thornton, Patrick Marleau is at the top with 120. Pavelski is close behind with 113, while Jonathan Cheechoo (89 goals assisted by Thornton), Boston’s Glen Murray (70) and Brent Burns (50) have also benefited from being on the ice at the same time as the best player in Sharks franchise history.
Logan Couture said: “He finds guys in the slot. Obviously he’s made some tremendous passes over the years, and guys have put it in the back of the net. … The way he’s able to kind of take a quick peek out of the corner of his eye and find someone and deliver it through feet and sticks and all that stuff, it’s pretty special.”
When Thornton has a glance at the all-time assist leaders, he’ll see Joe Sakic directly ahead of him with 1,016. A strong finish to the regular season could move Thornton another place higher.
Others include Wayne Gretzky (1963), Ron Francis (1249), Mark Messier (1193), Jaromir Jagr (1142), Paul Coffey (1135), Adam Oates (1079), Steve Yzerman (1063), Gordie Howe (1049), Marcel Dionne (1040) and Mario Lemieux (1033). All of those players, other than the still-active Jagr, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Thornton is almost surely to join them, reaching 1,000 career assists in the sixth-fewest number of games (1,432). He is just the second player in to debut during the 1990s to reach 1000 career assists, joining Jagr.
Thornton was originally drafted first overall by Boston in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. In 65 games this season, he has 41 points (5g, 36a).