by PuckStopsHere on 05/02/09 at 03:32 AM ET
The San Jose Sharks have failed to make it past the second round of the playoffs in the four years that Joe Thornton has been with them. In a lot of people’s minds, that alone is sufficient proof that Joe Thornton is a choker who is unable to win the big game. This argument is clearly too simplistic to prove anything. Let’s look closer at the issue.
A couple days ago James Mirtle listed the best playoff performers since the lockout. Despite a lack of any deep playoff runs, Joe Thornton places 16th in total points with 35 points in 41 games played. He is the only San Jose Shark to make the lists for top forwards, defencemen or goalies. Those offensive numbers Thornton has are certainly respectable numbers. They are down from his regular season scoring rate, in part because there is less scoring in the playoffs than the regular season, but they are good numbers.
In fact Joe Thornton has been the top scorer on the Sharks in the playoffs for each of the past three years. Instead of disappearing come playoff time he is their biggest leader offensively.
Most likely one can explain part of his offensive drop to bad luck. His shooting percentage has significantly dropped in the playoffs from the regular season each of the past four years. He has averaged a 14.5% regular season shooting percentage in the regular season and a 6.5% shooting percentage in the playoffs. It is generally a good rule of thumb to assume that a given player will have a roughly constant shooting percentage from year to year. If he sees a significant rise or fall in his shooting percentage, it probably is due to good or bad luck and cannot be sustainable. This drop in Thornton’s shooting percentage is and example of such a drop. If Thornton had his regular season shooting percentage, he would have 13 playoff goals. He has only six. If he scored goals at the same per game rate as he does in the regular season he would have 11 playoff goals since the lockout. In fact he is getting more shots per game in playoff time, but those shots are not going in. A lot of that is likely attributed to bad luck and nothing else.
The San Jose Sharks as a team have played seven playoff series post-lockout. They have won three and lost four. In that time the only teams to win more than three playoff series are Anaheim, Buffalo, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Detroit. That puts San Jose is some pretty elite company. The problem is that playoff success is not generally measured in that way. San Jose has failed to have a deep playoff run in that time. This is very likely just a problem of small sample size. There is one playoff per year and merely by luck some good teams will not have deep runs and other weaker teams sometimes will. In order to try to explain the unpredictable outcomes we establish concepts like “clutch players” and “chokers”, when the problem is that our predictions were wrong and instead of admitting that we try to explain it in a largely untestable theory about the character of the player. Anyone who has been a hockey fan long enough recalls reading stories about how Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or others could not win in the clutch. They were written regularly until the player in question won his first Stanley Cup. They were wrong.
My feelings on clutch play and its opposite choking are well summed up in this Bill James quote:
Since this elusive “clutch play” has no particular statistical dimension, it has become popular within the discussion as a bullshit dump. All discussions have bullshit dumps; we need them. Our logic, whatever it is that we are talking about, can never be completely worked out; all subjects worthy or discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right or wrong, justice or injustice, accuracy or inaccuracy, reason or madness, moderation or extremity.
Calling Joe Thornton a playoff choker is largely done to explain away our predictions that San Jose would go deep in the playoffs, when they do not. It is not our predictions that are wrong. It is some innate, unquantifiable flaw in Joe Thornton that is wrong. Thus this discussion proceeds into the bullshit dump of clutch play and choking. Don’t expect to go mining a bullshit dump and pull out diamonds very often.
By luck alone we know that some teams will underperform their expectations in the playoffs. San Jose is one of those teams. They have failed to have a deep playoff run despite having three playoff series victories since the lockout (which is an umber few teams can surpass). Joe Thornton is the best player on that team. Therefore he gets a large share of the blame when they fail and praise when they win. Thornton has been a pretty good player in playoff time. He has led the Sharks in playoff scoring for three straight years. He has some good offensive numbers from the past four years. There is evidence that he has been unlucky during that time and should likely have even better numbers.
So has Joe Thornton choked in the playoffs? If we define choking as failing to live up to our expectations then yes. If we define choking as being some innate character flaw in Thornton that is predictable into the future (i.e. he is incapable of meeting our expectations in big games) then he is not a choker. He is a player who has been good in the playoffs, while being a bit unlucky as well. With better luck he would have probably had some great playoffs.
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