#19 | Left Wing
Height: 6’4” | Weight: 220 | Born: July 2, 1979
Birthplace: London, Ontario, Canada | Acquired: Free Agent; Signed: August 13, 2021
Assets: Possesses great on-ice vision and creates numerous scoring chances for his linemates. Uses his reach to make things happen. Has terrific size, strength and control with the puck. Is at his best with his intensity level is on high. Is also good defensively.
Flaws: Doesn’t score as many goals as his talent suggests (he usually chooses to pass instead of shooting the puck, even when the shot is the best option). Has been thrown off his game in critical spots in the past, and is often criticized for a lack of clutch ability.
Career Potential: One of the elite passers in NHL history.
Why You Should Know Who He Is: Thornton is the active leader in playoff game appearances among those participating in this year’s postseason (186), which is hardly surprising since he will also be the oldest player to participate in this year’s postseason. Thornton also ranks fourth among active players in postseason points (134).
That might be the good news with regard to Thornton’s postseason history. He has often gone dormant in the playoffs when compared to his regular season history. In 18 postseason trips prior to this season, he has a career high of four goals in a single postseason (in 19 games in 2018-19 with San Jose) and a career high of 21 points (in 24 games with San Jose in 2015-16). And since that 21 points in 24 games effort in the 2016 postseason, he has only five goals and 13 points, with a minus-10 rating, in 30 playoff games over three postseason trips. He has never averaged more than 1.00 points per game in any of his 18 playoff seasons (he had 11 in 11 games with San Jose in 2006-07). His career 0.72 points per game ranks 48th among 372 active players in the NHL. And that matters because his scoring matters. In 92 playoff games in which he had at least one point, his teams went 62-34. In the 90 games he went without a point, his teams went 27-63.
Thornton also brings with him the worst postseason plus-minus rating of any player in this years’ playoffs and by a wide margin (minus-35 compared to Dallas’ Ryan Suter’s minus-25). Florida might be deep enough to bear whatever shortcomings Thornton might bring to the postseason, based on his history. What might make it easier to bear is that his role is not nearly as prominent with the Panthers as it was in his previous stops (his 11:04 in average ice time in the regular season was the lowest of his career since his rookie season with Boston in 1997-98 (8:05).
How the Caps Can Stop Him: Thornton has been a “pass-first” sort of player just about all of his career. That argues for limiting his options by being disciplined in defensive systems and keeping close track of players away from the puck. There cannot be holes or lapses in coverage; Thornton can find them and exploit them. It also argues for pressing him to keep him from making decisions on his terms. He is certainly a veteran who has seen just about every strategy to prevent him from setting up teammates (at least in the regular season), but that should not keep the Caps from reducing time and space to make those decisions. It would also help if the Caps were on the good side of possession to make a 42-year old play some defense. He can’t make plays if he doesn’t have the puck.