When the San Jose Sharks pulled the trigger on acquiring Joe Thornton during the 2005-06 season, they were cemented near the cellar of the Western Conference. After going winless for 10-straight, they were desperate for a shakeup. Then on the eve of Nov. 30, 2005, everything changed. When Thornton entered the scene, he single-handedly turned a tanking team into a contender en route to a Hart Trophy and Art Ross-winning season. Very few have the ability to elevate the players around them, but his presence in the Sharks lineup did exactly that. Despite not winning the Stanley Cup that has eluded him throughout his career, his play dictated the standard of Sharks hockey for generations to come. The story of the Sharks’ historic 2005-06 season tells the tale of how he changed the franchise forever.
Joe Thornton and the Art of the Pass
The moment Thornton donned a teal uniform, he brought new meaning to the art of the pass. In perspective, he made himself a regular Picasso of dishing the puck to his teammates. Thanks to his 96 helpers, Thornton led the Sharks to an improbable playoff birth in the 2005-06 season. In fact, the last time a player registered 90 or more assists was when Thornton posted 92 for the second straight season in 2006-07. To this day, only three players, Thornton, Mario Lemieux, and Wayne Gretzky, have recorded back-to-back 90-assist seasons. Pretty elite company for a guy who was somehow left off the NHL’s Top 100 list. But that’s an entirely different discussion altogether.
By reviving the art of the pass, Thornton raised the Sharks from the depths of the Western Conference to a fifth-place finish. That included making a Rocket Richard winner out of the most unlikely 56-goal scorer in Jonathan Cheechoo on the road to a Western Conference Semifinals appearance. Defenses knew he would pass, yet, they couldn’t stop the inevitable. In turn, the more No. 19 teed up his teammates, the more dangerous the Sharks became.
Thornton’s greatest criticism of not shooting the puck ended up being the Sharks’ greatest gain, turning any winger into a top-line scoring threat. Thornton became a one-man wrecking crew by attacking teams with his passing the same way Alex Ovechkin strikes with his blistering slapshot from the top of the left faceoff circle.
Seizing Control of the Play
‘Jumbo Joe’ didn’t wait for the play to happen, as he created the play. No. 19 was a puck-possession wizard who took matters into his own hands by slowing down the play. Though not the fastest skater in the world, he never had to be. By controlling the puck with his ‘Jumbo’ 6-foot-4 frame and elite stick handling, Thornton forced the opposition to play at his pace. He dared you to confront him to open up the slightest of seams that only he could thread. When he had control, everyone else in teal was the most dangerous player on the ice. His superb vision and quick hands took care of the rest.
A World-Class Personality and the Legend of ‘Jumbo Joe’
While few, if any, had the ability to dish the puck like Thornton, even fewer can couple that with a world-class personality. His humility and off-ice character are among the most prominent presences around the NHL. That’s just a small part of what made him so special and perhaps one of the most underrated superstars in NHL history. But don’t take my word for it. Ask former teammate Logan Couture, who was a primary recipient of Thornton’s playmaking abilities for almost a decade.
“He’s been a special player for two decades and i still believe that he’s underrated,” Couture said in a 2019 postgame presser after Joe Thornton had passed Gordie Howe for ninth on the all-time assist list.
Aside from being the Sharks’ all-time leader in assists with 804 and second in points with 1,059, Thornton currently ranks seventh all-time in assists (1,109) and 12th all-time in points (1,539). Though he falls shy of the 500-goal mark with 430, his self-proclaimed desire to pass is largely to blame for keeping his severely underrated shot at bay. He dedicated his life to serving his teammates with his precision passing and team-first mentality. It’s that same selfless mentality that has left a permanent impression on the hearts of fans, teammates, and the NHL as a whole.
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