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.

Devils’ Merrill undergoes shoulder surgery, out four months

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 04: Jon Merrill #7 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Detroit Red Wings at the Prudential Center on January 4, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Red Wings defeated the Devils 1-0.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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New Jersey d-man Jon Merrill, who struggled through an injury-riddled campaign, has undergone successful shoulder surgery with an expected recovery time of four months, the club announced on Wednesday.

Merrill, 24, only appeared in 47 games this year, first missing time with an arm injury, then suffering a shoulder ailment late in the year.

There was no clear indication if the two ailments were related, but Merrill’s arm injury was on the right side, and surgery was on his right shoulder.

A former University of Michigan standout taken 38th overall in 2010, Merrill enjoyed solid rookie and sophomore campaigns in New Jersey. His second year was especially solid — 14 points in 66 games, averaging over 20 minutes per night — and he boasts good size, going 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.

Based on the four-month timetable for recovery, Merrill will likely miss parts of New Jersey’s training camp and preseason action.

Max Talbot mulling European options for next season

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After a 10-year career with over 700 games played and one Stanley Cup, Maxime Talbot could be done in the NHL.

Per RDS, Talbot — who’ll hit unrestricted free agency on July 1 — has “some options in Europe” for next season, and is contemplating a move overseas.

In his prime, Talbot was a gritty, hardworking forward with decent touch around the net. He scored double-digit goals four times, including a career-high 19 in ’11-12.

The 32-year-old split last season between Boston and its AHL affiliate in Providence, scoring seven points in 38 games at the NHL level.

Talbot did acquit himself very well with the P-Bruins — 21 points in 26 games — and has some experience playing abroad, having suited up for Finnish League club Ilves Tampere during the lockout.

Based on how things went last year in free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Talbot land in Europe.

The likes of Maxim Lapierre, Curtis Glencross and Marcel Goc all failed to score NHL contracts last summer — Lapierre and Goc proceeded to sign overseas, while Glencross opted to retire.

 

Ex-‘Hawks coach Suhonen takes Austrian national team job

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13:  Thomas Raffl #5 of Austria celebrates with his teammates after Thomas Hundertpfund #27 scored a goal in the first period against Tuukka Rask #40 of Finland during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group B game on day six of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 13, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Alpo Suhonen, who became the first European-born NHL coach in over 50 years upon taking the Chicago gig in 2000, has been named the new bench boss of the Austrian men’s national team, per IIHF.com.

Suhonen, 67, takes over from former NHL defenseman Dan Ratushny, who was splitting duties between Team Austria and Lausanne of the Swiss League.

Suhonen takes over the national team at a critical juncture. Austria finished a disappointing fourth at the 2016 World Hockey Championship Division 1 tournament — meaning the country finished 20th overall. As the IIHF websites notes, that’s the worst finish for Austria in 86 years of WHC competition.

Looking forward, Austria does have a chance to make amends this summer, when it will play a series of contests to prep for Olympic qualification.

Suhonen inherits a roster with decent NHL pedigree as Thomas Vanek, Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner are all eligible to participate.

That said, Vanek was named to Team Europe’s initial 16-man roster for the World Cup of Hockey, and it remains to be seen how that will impact his national team commitments.

Datsyuk’s agent acknowledges offer from KHL’s SKA, but no deal yet

Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) celebrates his empty net goal against the Edmonton Oilers in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit Monday, March 9, 2015. Detroit won 5-2. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Gennady Timchenko, the billionaire chairman of KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg, reportedly believes there’s a “good chance” that Pavel Datsyuk will be playing for his team next season.

But according to Datsyuk’s agent, Dan Milstein, there’s only been an offer from SKA. Nothing has been signed yet. There could still be offers from other KHL teams for his client to consider.

And at any rate, Milstein insisted once again that Datysuk won’t be making any decisions until he speaks with the Detroit Red Wings in mid-June, after the 37-year-old returns from a family vacation.

Milstein passed along that update to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press, plus a few other Wings reporters.

Related: Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options’