San Jose Sharks: Why Joe Thornton Must Drastically Alter His Game

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San Jose Sharks: Why Joe Thornton Must Drastically Alter His Game
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks will once again finish amongst the top teams in the NHL when the regular season comes to a close.

And barring a huge drop off, the Sharks will have finished top-two in the Western Conference for the third straight season.

This frequent placement amongst the league leaders every year has their season defined by one thing and one thing only: playoff success.

But a team doesn't necessarily have to win the Stanley Cup to enjoy playoff success.

Playoff success simply means playing to the level expected of such a talented squad. And a team with the talent of the Sharks has no business being eliminated before the Western Conference Final.

If they can get there, (even if they play their best hockey), a younger and faster Chicago Blackhawks team may simply be the better team.

However, the Sharks owe it to themselves, their organization, and their fans to play at the level they have shown during the regular season, come playoffs.

And that starts with the face of the franchise in perennial All-Star center and Gold Medal recipient Joe Thornton.

Despite averaging over a point per game in his regular season career (1.02 points per game), Thornton only averages .69 points per game during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now when the Boston Bruins traded the play-making center to San Jose back in 2005, it was these lackluster playoff performances that made him available. Not once in his career had Thornton performed at or better than his regular season level come the postseason and that trend has continued in San Jose.

In other words, unlike most star players who play their best when it matters most, Thornton plays his best when it matters least.

Speaking of which, when compared to other NHL stars, Thornton's playoff point rate is dramatically worse. 

Thornton's points per game drop by .33 come the postseason.

However, Sidney Crosby's points per game drops just .07, Alexander Ovechkin's increases by .06, Ryan Getlzaf's drops just .10 and Henrik Zetterberg's drops by merely .04.

Now what accounts for this discrepancy in Thornton's playoff performances against similar NHL caliber stars?

That's simple, Thornton's style of play does not cater to playoff success.

In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, hockey is played at a much faster pace than in the regular season.

Time and space to maneuver is cut down and physicality is increased as the games become that much more important.

Most of the great NHL stars realize that the game changes in this fashion and they adapt accordingly.

Unfortunately, Thornton doesn't change his game. A player who makes his regular season living on having time and space to maneuver, doesn't change his game to match the increased speed of the playoffs.

During the postseason, there is no time to consider passing options, or handle the puck free of any pressure. Plays need to be made instinctively and at faster speeds.

More specifically, shooting opportunities become much less frequent in the postseason when teams tighten up defensively and limit that time and space of their opponents.

Consequently, teams can ill afford their players passing up opportunities to shoot the puck. 

The bad news for San Jose is that Thornton has made it a habit of passing up brilliant shooting opportunities.

Two instances in particular show Thornton's trend of failing to shoot the puck in clear shooting situations.

First came during last year's playoffs when Thornton had the lone Anaheim defender beat to the net. Thornton essentially had a breakaway but instead of trying to score himself, he tried to pass the puck back through the defender (who was a half step behind him) and over to line-mate Devin Setoguchi.

Needless to say, the pass wasn't tape to tape and Setoguchi wasn't able to get a good shot away.

It is one thing to look to pass first, but passing in obvious shooting situations is unacceptable and in the playoffs, these mistakes are magnified.

Additionally, there was a sequence of two beautiful Dany Heatley goals set up by Thornton earlier this season against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Both goals were scored in similar fashion on two on one rushes where Thornton delayed for seemingly an eternity before passing to Heatley who redirected the puck into a gaping net.

Sounds all fine and dandy right?

I mean the Sharks scored two goals on those two plays.

But the time and space to make those types of plays don't come around in the playoffs. A two on one rush in the playoffs has to be executed quickly and at a high speed. If they are slowed down, the defense will force a bad pass or a bad shot.

These types of "cute" passing plays don't work in the playoffs. No ands, ifs, or buts about it, they don't get the job done.

Therefore, Thornton has to change his approach. In order to play at his regular season level come the postseason, Thornton needs to re-invent himself.

No more slowing things down and no more drop passes to Douglas Murray when a perfect shooting opportunity stares him in the face. 

And it's not like Thornton doesn't have a good shot. In fact, Thornton has one of the best shots in the game, one that is more than capable of scoring 35+ goals per season. Yet "Jumbo" has only done so twice in his career, both instances coming in his days as a Bruin.

However, nowadays it seems inevitable that Thornton will continue this current trend of passive play in the postseason, and because of it the Sharks will once again be sent home earlier than their talent level suggests they should be sent home.

While the whole team needs to play at the top of their game, Thornton is a player that will be critical in setting the tone. As the saying goes "your best players have to be your best players, especially when it matters most."

If the Sharks want to enjoy playoff success this season, Thornton is going to have to lead the way by constantly moving his feet and shooting the puck in obvious shooting scenarios.

These qualities aren't what Thornton's known for but change is certainly needed.

After all, Einstein's definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Perhaps a drastic change can get Jumbo and the Sharks a different result. You know, something that isn't considered "an early playoff exit".

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