Can Joe Thornton Return To Form and Become The Albert Pujols Of The NHL?

Andy BenschSenior Writer IJuly 18, 2009

ST. PAUL, MN - DECEMBER 31:  Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks skates in warmups before a game against the Minnesota Wild December 31, 2008 at the Xcel Energy Cen19\ter in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

If anyone were to compare a NHL player to baseball's No. 1 star, Joe Thornton wouldn't be amongst the group that fans would choose when trying to find Albert Pujols' equal.

Fans around the league would probably come up with the standard names of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterbergand perhaps Jarome Iginla.

But you will be hard pressed to find a fan outside of San Jose to compare Thornton to the great Pujols.

However, it shouldn't be to far-fetched of an idea. Thornton is just three years removed from winning the Art Ross Trophy (for most points) and Hart Trophy (MVP) and yet his standing amongst the great players in the league seems to have fallen and fallen hard.

Whenever a team comes to play San Jose, its fans still consider Thornton as a force to be reckoned with but no longer in the upper-upper echelon of great players.

So what exactly happened? Why isn't Thornton included in the upper echelon of talent in in the NHL? Why isn't he comparable to the great Albert Pujols?

Perhaps the continuous playoff disappointments have lowered his status. Not only have the Sharks become known as the biggest chokers come playoff time but the face of the franchise has been just as piss-poor with his individual playoff numbers.

In 41 playoff games as a Shark, Thornton has registered just 35 points, much lower ratio of points per game than during the regular season.

During his career year of 2005-06, "Jumbo Joe" put up 125 points in 81 games between Boston and San Jose. In 2006-07, he backed it up with a 114 point performance and became just the third player to record back-to-back 90 assist seasons.

However, the last two seasons have seen Thornton's production drop drastically. In 2007-08 he recorded just 96 points and only 86 this past season. The 86 total is the one that jumps out because just two seasons prior he registered more assists alone than total points last season.

Thornton has only recently turned 30 and should still have a good two-three years left of his prime but he is currently nowhere near the top elite players in the game.

But Thornton has the capabilities to have a bounce-back season and prove all the doubters wrong. Currently the Cardinals' first-baseman is on track to lead the league in home runs, RBI and perhaps even average for the first baseball triple crown in over 30 years.

Now in fairness, Thornton has a lot more competition than Pujols but in reality has equal talent to win a triple crown in hockey.

Thornton's goal should be to lead the league in goals, assists, and therefore points. There is no denying the pure talent and ability to achieve this goal. Will it happen? No, of course not but Thornton needs to realize he has talent to achieve it if he wanted to prove that he is still one of if not the best player in the NHL.

At 6' 4" 235 pounds, Thornton has the physical size and strength to dominate any game he chooses but his passive style of slowing down the play and making crisp passes has been figured out by opposing defenders.

However, there are two things that Thornton can do in order to return to a triple digit point finish.

1) Shoot the puck.

Not many people know that outside of Ovechkin, Thornton might have the best shot in the NHL. Whether it be his snappy wrister or rocket-hard slap shot, when he fires the rubber to the cage its going top-corner with speed.

But unfortunately for Thornton, he always looks to pass first even in clear cut shooting situations. If Thornton can learn to be a bit more selfish, he could easily put up a 40 goal season, something he has yet to do in his career.

2) Attack with speed, stop slowing things down.

The reason Thornton's never been able to crack the 40 goal mark in a season is more than just looking to pass first, but that he prefers to slow down the game. If Thornton takes it upon himself to use his speed through the neutral zone more frequently and then take the puck to the net, the goals will come in bunches.

With his size and strength, imagine if he attacked the net like Ovechkin attacks the net, nobody would want to get in his way.

Clearly Pujols has a better chance for the triple crown than Big Joe, but Thornton should have just as good of a chance at winning two of the three categories as Pujols does.

Leading the league in assists and points would be a huge bounce back season for Thornton and this is the season to do it.

His teammates Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov are on the last years of their contracts and this may be the last shot for the current group to break the streak of early post-season exits.

If Thornton can put up more goals this season, the point numbers will increase significantly because everyone knows his assists will come one way or another.

He has the capability to put up another 100-plus point season but not only does he need an improved regular season performance but he also needs to perform in the playoffs or it may be the end of the road in San Jose.