There haven’t been many teams in the NHL that have surged up the standings as strongly as the San Jose Sharks over the past few months. A team filled with relatively older star players wasn’t expected to accomplish much, especially after missing the playoffs last season.
Yet the Sharks are just six points off the division lead and tied for the third-best goal differential in the Western Conference, while Joe Thornton has been leading the NHL in scoring the last half of the season.
Thornton is a truly unique player in the NHL. He’s a giant centre who wins almost every battle he gets into because he’s so strong, but he also plays a finesse game that relies more on his deceptive speed (he looks slow, but he is not) and extraordinary hockey sense than his physicality. That style of play has led to tons of criticism over the years, yet the 36-year-old has more than 1,300 career points and is nearing 1,000 assists.
As great as Thornton has been this season, he’s been even better the past 30 or so games, especially his passing in the offensive zone.
Overall this season, in terms of successful high leverage passes, Thornton is basically twice as good as the average NHL forward at even strength - but since late December, he’s been even better than that level.
When you combine this data with Ryan Stimson’s passing project, which tracks passes that lead directly to shot attempts (what he terms ‘shot assists’) where Thornton was the best in the league among those with 200 or more minutes tracked, and you can guarantee two things when Thornton is on the ice: the puck is going to be moving into high danger scoring areas, and the players receiving the puck from him are, more often than not, in a good position to shoot.
Thornton isn’t the only great player on the Sharks this season, and while it would be unfair to ignore the greatness that is Joe Pavelski, the guy I want to focus on is Brent Burns.
When I looked at which players should fill out the roster for Team Canada, it was evident that Burns was a very high-risk/high-reward defenceman. He had the highest relative turnover rate among Team Canada hopefuls and the highest on his team, but it’s because he is always trying to make great plays.
While Burns turns the puck over a lot, he also dominates everywhere on the ice.
Whether it’s driving possession and transitioning the puck up the ice (something San Jose’s defence doesn’t do very well), winning battles and getting to loose pucks, generating scoring chances, or removing the puck from opponents, Burns is the best defenceman the Sharks have.
It’s appropriate with the shaggy beard he keeps that Burns is a beast all over the ice. He may give up the puck a lot, but he’s going to be right back on it, with his huge 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame. He’s fast, imposing, extremely skilled, and willing to take risks to get his team ahead.
Burns and Thornton have been heading up a resurgence of the Sharks that could make them a real problem for anyone come playoff time.