Joe Thornton: Goat or scapegoat?

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jumbojoe2.jpgOne of my general rules of life when it comes to less-than-concrete debates is “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” A great example of this logic comes in the case of Joe Thornton’s playoff “choking.” On one hand, I think that he’s the victim of circumstance and his numbers aren’t that bad. Then again, there is that feeling that maybe he could give more; it’s probably the typical reaction that comes with seeing such a big, talented player be so quiet at times, but it’s hard to ignore that instinctive urge to question his efforts. Even if he’s probably trying too hard.

John O’Connor of the National Post wrote the typical “step it up, Joe” type column.

The playoffs are a different kind of hockey beast, an annual rite of spring that is far more life and death than the 82-game preamble. April, May and June are set aside for greatness. The stakes are high, expectations are elevated, and the best players are supposed to find that extra gear.

But you never seem to change gears, Joe. While everybody else is stepping up you always seem to take a step sideways. Or worse, back.

That is what happened last year when your Sharks captured the President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season and then face-planted in the opening round of the playoffs. You had one goal and four assists in six game. You were a playoff bust. You always have been.

Look, I understand that 5 points in 6 games might not match Thornton’s regular season averages, but that’s still close to a point per game and hockey players – even the stars – tend to see a dip in production in the playoffs. Someone might bring up Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but there’s two counter-points to that argument: 1) they play in the Eastern Conference/against weaker, less defensively sound opponents and 2) it’s probably fair to say that Thornton is a rung lower on the elite ladder. Not far from those two, but there’s a gap.

O’Connor critiques Jumbo Joe for only having two points in four games so far but conveniently fails to mention how infrequent scoring has been in the Sharks-Avalanche series. Aside from a 6-5 anomaly that was Game 2, the series scores were: 2-1 Colorado, 1-0 Colorado in OT and 2-1 Sharks in OT. Overall San Jose only scored 9 goals in four games with 2 of those coming after regulation. Naturally, one could say that San Jose needs Thornton to step up and that’s true, but it’s clear that he’s in contests where goals are a precious resource. No one is putting up big numbers.

Does that completely excuse Thornton when his team could lose to an eighth seed for the second year in a row? No, it doesn’t. I just think that his problem might be style more than heart. He’s one of the most transparently pass-first players in the league, so maybe in a 7-game series a team can devote more time to learning his tendencies and cutting off his wingers.

It’s unfair to say that he chokes in the playoffs, but is it unfair to say that he needs to make more of an impact? Either way, that perception will be a part of his legacy until he either “snaps out of it” or finally gets lucky.

John Gibson has been terrific since the start of 2017

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 09:  John Gibson #36 of the Anaheim Ducks protects the net during the season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on October 9, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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By trading Frederik Andersen to Toronto, the Anaheim Ducks were essentially crowning John Gibson as their starting goaltender, but he didn’t get off to such a hot start.

Gibson dropped his first three decisions of the season and it took a while for him to look comfortable as the go-to guy for the Ducks.

It’s not totally unexpected that a 23-year-old goalie would struggle to find consistency in his first full year as a starter, but Gibson and his team were able to weather the storm and it’s paid off in a big way.

He’s been terrific since late-December and that continued on Sunday, as he made 24 saves in a 1-0 shutout win over the rival Kings.

Since Dec. 27, Gibson has put up a 1.98 goals-against-average and a .934 save percentage. Both those numbers are tops in the NHL. He also leads all goalies in shutouts after Jan. 1 with four.

“This time of the season, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Gibson said after the win over Los Angeles, per NHL.com. “Going into the playoffs and towards the end of the year, games are going to be tight. There’s not much room for error, so you have to be pretty good.”

Anaheim is currently in third in the Pacific Division with 72 points in 60 games. They have the same amount of points as second-place Edmonton, but the Oilers have a game in a hand. Both the Ducks and Oilers trail the division-leading Sharks by five points.

If Gibson can continue playing the way he is right now, he’ll give his team a shot at the division crown or at least home ice advantage.

PHT Morning Skate: ECHL jersey retirement ceremony goes embarrassingly wrong

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–Coming into this season, not many people thought of Sidney Crosby as a goal scorer. But if you look at the numbers closely, you’ll see that he can fill the net with the best of them. How does he do it? His wrist and snap shots are deadly. He scores 47.4 percent of his goals on those two shots. (Sports Illustrated)

–Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat dropped to the second round because of size (he’s 5-foot-9), but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up incredible OHL numbers. Even though he’s small by NHL standards, his former junior teammate, Connor McDavid, has no doubt that he can succeed at the next level. “He knows where the net is. He finds a way to score basically every night. He’s got a great shot. He’s one of the feistiest guys I’ve ever played with. It’s really remarkable about what he’s been able to do.” (CSN Chicago)

Charlie Coyle‘s 88-year-old grandma got to watch him play Xcel Energy Center for the first time and she was thrilled about it. She joined the Wild broadcast to talk about her grandson. FYI, this sweet lady went skydiving for her 80th birthday! (NHL.com)

–The beauty of the NHL is that anybody can beat anybody on any given night and the Detroit Red Wings proved that on Sunday with their big 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. You can watch the highlights of that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Retired pilot Ron Daley is 80 years old, but he still manages to play ice hockey. The “veteran” goalie plays in a suburb of Montreal every Monday afternoon and he’s having a blast. “Everybody I know who plays hockey loves the game, just like me, and would love to play as long as they can. If they let them play on crutches, they’d probably still be playing.” (Montreal Gazette)

–Gare Joyce of the New York Times wrote a great piece about the challenges of being a scout in the NHL. They log a lot of miles, watch a lot of games, but they can quickly get lost in the shuffle over the years. Joyce writes about a scout named Fred, who worked hard, won a Stanley Cup, but couldn’t find work after he was let go by his team. (New York Times)

–Be careful what you predict in a newspaper. One KHL reporter learned that the hard way after he predicted that Dinamo Minsk wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs. Once they secured a spot in the postseason, the reporter sat down and ate the article he wrote. Seriously. (Yahoo)

–The ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets retired Colin Chaulk’s number prior to their game on Saturday night. That’s a very special honor for any player at any level, but this jersey retirement ceremony went terribly wrong. The banner was unveiled upside down, but the team decided to go ahead with the ceremony anyway. General manager David Franke referred to it as “the most embarrassing thing I’ve been part of in 27 years with the club.” (BarDown)

Johansen is a ‘little disappointed’ the Blue Jackets didn’t recognize him in return to Columbus

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 19:  Ryan Johansen #92 of the Nashville Predators skates against Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period at Bridgestone Arena on January 19, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Ryan Johansen played 309 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets before a blockbuster trade to Nashville last January.

On Sunday, he finally made his return back to Columbus as a member of the Predators. However, he did not receive any sort of tribute whatsoever from the team that originally selected him fourth overall in the 2010 draft, and that is something that apparently bothered him.

“I am a little disappointed they didn’t put anything on the Jumbotron and say ‘thank you’ or anything like that,” Johansen told the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “I think we all know who made that call, but whatever.”

While Johansen enjoyed some productive seasons with the Blue Jackets, his time in Columbus, particularly his final months, were dogged with contentious headlines about his contract negotiations with the club and then his working relationship with coach John Tortorella.

Johansen, now 24 years old, has nine goals and 40 points in 58 games this season for Nashville. Currently in the final year of his three-year, $12 million contract, he’s a restricted free agent at the end of this season.

Make that four straight wins for the Bruins

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Brent Burns turned in a dominating performance. But Brad Marchand had the last laugh.

Marchand scored his 25th goal of the season and, more importantly, the overtime winner for the Boston Bruins as they defeated the San Jose Sharks 2-1 on Sunday.

That’s Boston’s fourth consecutive win since the controversial coaching change — which took another twist earlier in the week when the rival Montreal Canadiens fired Michel Therrien and hired Claude Julien. Off a defensive zone faceoff, Marchand bolted up the ice for the breakaway pass, on what appeared to be a set play, beating Martin Jones through the legs.

The Bruins move back into third in the Atlantic Division, and are now only four points back of the faltering Habs for first.

Meanwhile, the Sharks were unable to fully capitalize on another freakish Brent Burns outing. He’s been dubbed ‘an unstoppable force’ in recent posts at PHT — a defenseman possessing great size at six-foot-five-inches tall and 230 pounds, but no shortage of mobility and offensive talent with 27 goals and 64 points in 60 games. Um, and did we mention he’s a defenseman. . . ?

Against the Bruins, he had 20 shot attempts — by far the most of any player in this game — in just over 26 minutes of ice time.

Given the final score, that probably doesn’t mean much to Brad Marchand.