by PuckStopsHere on 11/07/09 at 03:57 PM ET
I like to try to pinpoint the time in a player’s career when he cements himself as Hall of Fame player. This is the point where his Hall of Fame credentials are strong enough that anything that does or does not happen in the remainder of his career cannot threaten his value as a Hall of Famer. Today, I believe that Joe Thornton has made it to this level.
With the year 2010 less than two months away, it is natural to start looking at the results over the decade 2000-2009 (some might chose decades as 2001-2010 or to correspond with the start and end of NHL seasons but the results remain about the same). It is clear that Joe Thornton will be the highest scorer in the NHL over the 2000-2009 decade. He has 783 regular season points so far. This puts him ahead of a Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson tie for second place with 712 points. Jaromir Jagr is fourth with 671 points and is no longer playing in the NHL. It is clear that Thornton will be the top scorer in this (2000-2009) decade and extremely likely that he will be the top scorer in the 2001-2010 decade (he currently has an 80 point lead).
When you couple the fact that Thornton is the clear top scorer in the decade with a Hart Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy, one first All Star team, two second All Star teams (the most post season all star teams of any active centreman in the NHL today) and six NHL All Star games played you have a Hall of Fame decade. Thornton is definitely the most dominant offensive player in the regular season in the last decade. That does not necessarily make him the best player in the decade, for example a defenceman (Nicklas Lidstrom), a goaltender (Martin Brodeur) or a forward with more playoff success (Joe Sakic perhaps) could be ranked ahead of him, but it is enough to secure a Hall of Fame spot. Any player good enough to be the top scorer (by a rather large margin) in a decade and win several individual awards along the way is a Hall of Fame player.
The criticism that Thornton has not had significant playoff success is partially valid (with the expansion in the number of teams in the NHL this criticism is more and more common of potential Hall of Famers). He has never made it beyond the second round of the playoffs. His San Jose Sharks teams of the last couple years have probably been the only teams that have been heavily favored to go further than they did - though with some luck there have been both Boston and San Jose teams he has played on that could have gone further. Thornton has 53 points in 76 career playoff games. This is a clear dropoff from his slightly better than point per game scoring rate in the regular season. This discrepancy largely goes back to his Boston days (he had two playoff years with a total of 13 games where he failed to score any points). Since arriving in San Jose he has 35 points in 41 playoff games and has been the sharks top playoff point scorer in that time frame. It is not reasonable to blame him for San Jose’s lack of success (though a bit of blame may exist in Boston - although Boston never had as good a team as San Jose). It certainly would improve Thornton’s case if he led San Jose on a successful playoff run, but that isn’t necessary. He has put up sufficient credentials to make a Hall of Fame case without it.
In a thirty team league, one in thirty players wins the Stanley Cup each year. This is nine more teams than in the 1980s and 24 teams since the original six days. The number of players without significant playoff success is bound to increase with the number of teams. More and more Hall of Famers will have limited playoff success as a result of expansion.
Joe Thornton is a Hart Trophy winning player who has been the clear top scorer in the league for a decade. That is the resume of a Hall of Fame player. That is why I include him on my list of currently active Hall of Famers. Here is the list:
There are some players on this list who are not actively playing in the NHL anymore and Brendan Shanahan is not playing anywhere yet this season, so I expect we may see some retirements in the near future. As hockey is played this season, we will likely also see growth in this list.
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