Where does Joe Thornton’s legacy stand?

Updated: March 21, 2015 at 3:41 pm by Cam Lewis

In a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs earlier this week, San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton recorded the 900th assist of his NHL career, becoming the 19th player ever to do so. This accomplishment got me thinking about Jumbo Joe’s career and where his legacy will stand after he retires. Despite the fact he’s put up consistently great numbers throughout his career — in a relatively low scoring era with one and a half lockouts nonetheless — Thornton’s name doesn’t seem to be one that comes up with the game’s all-time greats. 

As we all know, this is because he’s had limited success in the playoffs, and whether it’s valid or not, he’s been labeled as a choker when it matters most. 

Where will Jumbo Joe end up on the NHL’s all-time scoring list? How much of his legacy is intertwined with his playoff success? What will his legacy by once he retires? Even though he hasn’t won anything, it’s completely valid to say he’s one of the best playmakers ever to play the game. Jumbo may actually finish his career as the greatest NHL player to never win a Stanley Cup. 

In an interview with the Toronto Sun last week, Thornton suggested that he wants to remain a Shark for the rest of his career. He said that he definitely sees himself at least finishing the rest of his contract (which has two years left at a $6.750 cap hit) and then continuing on with the Sharks if he still has the legs for it. Thornton’s deal has a no-trade clause, and due to San Jose’s struggles and drama this season, some speculate he may be asked to waive so the team can move in a different direction. 

Speculation is speculation. Thornton says he wants to stay in San Jose, the team may be looking towards a house cleaning, and even if their management wants to move him, they may not be able to because he holds the cards. Regardless, it’s fair to assume that Thornton’s best shot at winning a Stanley Cup, since he turns 36 in July, will be as a member of a different team. 

Does the cup really matter though? Obviously the goal of the game is to win, and the biggest red flag in Jumbo’s legacy is his lack of playoff success. But would winning a Stanley Cup as a secondary piece on a contending team really change the way the entire bulk of his career is perceived? Thornton was never able to win in his prime, but regardless of what happens, whether he remains a Shark, or wins a Cup somewhere else, Joe Thornton should be remembered as one of the greatest forwards, and most dominant playmakers in NHL history. 

Thornton currently sits 36th in all-time NHL scoring with 1,256 points and 19th with 900 assists. As he suggested, he’ll certainly be playing two more seasons, with the possibility of more after that. His production has remained consistent over the past five seasons, averaging 0.88, 0.94, 0.83, 0.93, and 0.93 points per game since 2010-11. Assuming he keeps this pace up the next two seasons, he’ll easily join the 1000 assist club, and land somewhere between 13th and 6th in all-time assists, and around 20th in all-time points. 

And that’s only considering two more seasons. 

Who knows, Thornton could pull a Jagr and keep going until the end of time. As he suggested, as long as he has the legs for it, he’ll keep playing. And with his slowed down style of play, there’s a good chance we could see Jumbo Joe play into his 40s. Of course, his ~0.85 points per game pace over the past few seasons certainly wouldn’t keep up if he did. Conservative estimates suggest Thornton will easily hit 1000 career assists and top 20 in all-time scoring. 

Those stats are really impressive, Stanley Cup or not. The most impressive part of Thornton’s production is the fact he’s done it through a relatively low scoring era. When you adjust stats for different factors, including scoring environments and roster sizes, Jumbo sits 11th with 991 career assists and 21st in points with 1,389. Right around him are few guys with similar legacies as great forwards who never won a Stanley Cup — Adam Oates (1,396), Mats Sundin (1,410), and Marcel Dionne (1,493). All three of those guys are Hall of Famers. A few notable players who sit behind Thornton on the adjusted points list — Jean Beliveau, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Doug Gilmour, and Bobby Hull to name a few —have also been inducted to the Hall. 

Thornton is really interesting, and in my opinion, underrated player. He’s been one of the most dominant forwards of this era, and when it’s all said and done, he’ll very likely be towards the top of the NHL’s all-time assist and points list, and he’ll be even higher on the adjusted scoring list. A Cup would be great for Thornton’s career and his legacy, but even if it doesn’t happen, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame and should be remembered as one of the best play makers ever to play the game. 

Thanks to Hockey Reference for the stats.