Joe Thornton is two assists away from becoming the 13th player to reach the 1,000-assist milestone, and it should have him considered among the greatest playmakers the league has ever seen.
Two assists. That’s all Joe Thornton needs to hit 1,000 for his career, and there’s a chance he could be celebrating the milestone helper in less than one week, earning an undeniable spot as one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen.
When he reaches the milestone mark, and there’s no question he will, it only stands to add to what are some already stellar Hall of Fame credentials. Thornton has a Hart Trophy and Art Ross to his name, a first all-star team nod and two times he was voted to the league’s second all-star club. But forget the awards and look past the nearly 400 goals, because reaching the 1,000-assist milestone is the most impressive of all of Thornton’s feats. It’s a statistical achievement the likes of which has seldom been recorded.
It may seem like the 1,000-assist mark wouldn’t be so rare given there are two assists handed out for every goal scored, but there are only 12 players to have hit 1,000 assists for their career. By comparison, 19 players have at least 600 goals and there are 45 with 500 or more tallies in their career. The all-time assists leader, as one would expect, is Wayne Gretzky, with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Jaromir Jagr among those who round out the 12-man 1,000 assist club.
That’s indicative of the type of savvy playmaker Thornton has been throughout his career. His puck distribution skills have been and remain some of the best in the league, and that he’s still managing to dish out perfect tape-to-tape passes as he inches closer to his 38th birthday is telling about the dedication he has to his craft. This season, only 15 players have more assists than Thornton, and the list includes a number of the league’s current greats, from Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby to Brent Burns and Duncan Keith.
It’s not as if Thornton has maneuvered his way to 1,000 assists by way of being in the right place at the right time, either. Some contest that he’s racked up a boatload of secondary helpers over his career, but stats.HockeyAnalysis.com has data on primary assists over the past 10 seasons. No one has registered more overall assists than Thornton’s 548, and no player has more first assists than the 314 Thornton has compiled.
But with Thornton close to the end of his career, it’s worth wondering how far up the all-time assist chart he can rise. Once he hits the 1,000-assist milestone, he’ll be 16 back of matching Joe Sakic, 33 behind Lemieux, Marcel Dionne will sit 40 assists ahead and Howe 49 up on Thornton. Realistically, he could make a dent in the chase to tie Sakic by the time the season ends, possibly by as much as another 10 to 12 assists. That would put Thornton up to 1,010 in his career. What happens next season, though?
First and foremost, the concern has to be about returning to a lineup where he can produce. There has been speculation that Thornton, a free agent come July, wants to hang around for at least another couple seasons, playing into his 40s and possibly beyond. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, especially with him continuing to contribute, and we’ve seen the likes of Jagr, Shane Doan and Matt Cullen contribute as they enter the “over the hill” stage of their career. If Thornton does come back, as it seems he will, the question then becomes the rate at which he is actually able to contribute.
At his current rate, he’s registering .57 assists per game, down from last season’s .77 rate and slightly down from his .63 rate during the 2014-15 campaign. Over the past three seasons, that’s a pace of .66 assists per game, which means over the course of an 82-game season he’d register roughly 54 helpers.
It’s likely, though, that Thornton’s assist rate drops as he continues on. Let’s say he nabs 43 assists in 2017-18, 39 in 2018-19 and 34 in 2019-20. That’s a consistent dip of .05 assists per game from his current rate over the next three seasons. It’s only an estimation, of course, but that would net Thornton another 116 assists over the following three seasons. Add that to the 1,010 he projects to have by the time the post-season rolls around, and Thornton would have 1,126 assists in his career. He would sit seventh all-time, ahead of Adam Oates and Steve Yzerman and only slightly behind Bourque and Paul Coffey.
The thing about the all-time list, though, is that it doesn’t take into account the era the player’s career occurred in. The first seven seasons of Thornton’s career came in the low-scoring pre-lockout years, and he’s spent 12 in the post-lockout, more free-flowing game that we see today. Scoring isn’t up all that much, however. Thankfully, Hockey-Reference has done the legwork in adjusting scoring for the separate eras, and on that list, Thornton is already top-five all-time. The only players he trails are Gretzky, Howe, Jagr and Ron Francis.
As far as catching the foursome at the top of the adjusted assists list goes, it’s not going to be easy. He sits 87 back of Francis, and it’s going to take much of the rest of Thornton’s career to surpass him, and there’s about no chance he reaches the same heights as Jagr, Howe or Gretzky. Even still, that’s company even more exclusive than the list of players with 1,000 assists. Being mentioned alongside arguably the three greatest offensive players in the league’s history, and three veritable legends of the sport, would put into perspective the type of assist machine Thornton has been.
Thornton’s chase to the 1,000-assist milestone is something to pay attention to and worth even more recognition than it’s sure to get. While the Stanley Cup may have eluded Thornton to this point, the longer he plays, the more he cements his legacy as one of the greatest set-up men the league has ever seen. And when the time comes, he’ll be more than worthy of enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Maple Leafs suddenly have as much as $15 million to work with at the trade deadline which they could use to make a big deal; Avalanche stars could stay put.
The rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs are among this season's most-improved clubs. After finishing at the bottom of the standings last season, the Leafs are jockeying for a post-season berth in the Eastern Conference.
Despite this improvement, the Leafs still have some roster weaknesses to address. Their most-pressing need is a skilled puck-moving defenseman. With the playoffs in sight, perhaps the Leafs could address that need by the trade deadline.
That possibility increased when Sportsnet's Chris Johnston last week reported the Leafs quietly placed injured players Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve. The moves give the Leafs flexibility in the form of an additional $15 million in salary-cap space.
With that kind of space, the Leafs have room to pursue a big-name player at the trade deadline. They've been linked in recent weeks to St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Despite the Blues' recent resurgence, TSN's Darren Dreger claims the 28-year-old Shattenkirk remains in play.
The asking price for Shattenkirk is thought to be at least a first-round pick and a top prospect. While the Leafs have the depth to meet that return, they could be unwilling to do so unless Shattenkirk, who's eligible in July for unrestricted free agency, is willing to sign a long-term extension.
If Shattenkirk proves too costly for the Leafs, more affordable options include Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and New Jersey Devils rearguard Kyle Quincey. If they want additional depth at forward, Johnston suggests Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Brian Boyle, Dallas Stars right winger Patrick Sharp or Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal.
DUCHENE, LANDESKOG COULD STAY PUT IN COLORADO AFTER DEADLINE
The Colorado Avalanche reportedly continue to entertain offers for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. While the notion of one or both moving before the March 1 trade deadline provides a much-needed spark to the trade-rumor mill, they could still be with the Avalanche when the deadline passes.
It's not as though there isn't any interest in the pair. For several weeks, the 26-year-old Duchene was linked to the Montreal Canadiens. Reports out of Boston earlier this month suggested the Bruins could make a push for the 24-year-old Landeskog. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports there's talk the Senators kicked tires on both players.
As always, the issue is the asking price. It's believed the Avs seek a good young defenseman, a first-round pick and a top prospect for either guy.
In a recent mailbag segment, CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty said the Bruins shouldn't give up a promising young blueliner such as Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy for Landeskog. TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has no intention of sacrificing his future. His colleague Pierre LeBrun believes the Sens interest in Duchene is pretty much dead unless the asking price is reduced.
LeBrun suggests the Carolina Hurricanes possess considerable depth in young blueliners and need a scoring center. However, he's not convinced Hurricanes GM Ron Francis will pony up for Duchene. LeBrun suggests Francis try to tempt the Toronto Maple Leafs into parting with William Nylander.
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic apparently isn't under pressure to move Duchene or Landeskog before the deadline. It's expected he'll wait for the off-season, when general managers usually have more salary-cap room and a willingness to deal.
FLAMES COULD LOOK AT GOALIES AGAIN
Prior to the 2016 NHL draft, the Calgary Flames created a stir when it was reported they contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The discussion apparently ended when the Pens asked for the Flames first-round pick (sixth overall). Calgary used that pick to select left winger Matthew Tkachuk.
The Flames eventually acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues, but he's failed to play up to expectations as a starting goaltender. With Chad Johnson also struggling of late, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reports the Flames could revisit their interest in the 32-year-old Fleury, who's lost his starter's job to rookie Matt Murray.
Earlier this month, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said he's open to dealing Fleury but prefers retaining him as insurance for the playoffs. Unless Fleury, who carries a modified no-trade clause, asks to be dealt, he could finish the season in Pittsburgh.
The Flames also nearly had a deal in place last June to acquire Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they can't pry Fleury out of Pittsburgh, maybe they can once again look into the 30-year-old Bishop's trade status.
Bishop's an unrestricted free agent this summer and isn't expected to be re-signed. If the Lightning put Bishop on the block, they could seek a young defenseman in return. It's doubtful, however, the Flames meet that price unless they get assurances that Bishop will re-sign with them.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
Claude Julien's off the board as a free agent coach, but there are several other out-of-work bench bosses vying for the job with the Golden Knights. But who should Vegas choose?
The Vegas Golden Knights are coming together quickly, and are just a couple weeks (and an important payment to the NHL) away from even being able to make trades. They have a lot of front office pieces in place except for one notable addition still to be made -- the coach. And given the number of high-profile coaches who have recently become unemployed, the Knight appear to have a decent pool of candidates to draw from.
So here are our picks for who should be the first coach in team history. Turns out only two stand out above the rest.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee said he’s open to looking at all options for Vegas’ first coach, but the sense is he’s leaning towards a more experienced, veteran coach who can come in and instantly establish himself in the dressing room. Hard to think of a coach who brings with him more clout than Hitchcock, who’s two wins away from becoming the third winningest in league history. Were it not for some shaky goaltending, he’d likely be in position to coach for the Stanley Cup this season, but Hitchcock’s bad luck could be the Golden Knights’ good fortune.
Strategically, there’s not a better coach available than Hitchcock, and he has the ability to take a ragtag group assembled through the expansion draft and put them into a place to compete for a playoff spot in their first season. It’s not an easy task, but one made that much easier by nabbing the best coach available on the market. (Jared Clinton)
I know Habs fans will probably groan at this answer, but Therrien would give the Golden Knights instant credibility and years of NHL coaching experience. Look at some of the most successful expansion teams of the past and you'll find an old hand behind the bench: Minnesota and Jacques Lemaire, Florida and Roger Nielsen, St. Louis and Scotty Bowman (who took over midway through the first season from the also-experienced Lynn Patrick), to name a few.
It's not fun and yes, it's kinda boring, but Therrien has been to a Stanley Cup final and gone on numerous playoff runs. His act may have worn thin in Montreal, but Vegas will need a strong personality right off the hop and Therrien can be that guy. I'm not saying he's the long-term solution – ideally Vegas finds their Al Arbour or Fred Shero once the Knights get settled in after a few seasons – but he's a great option to get the ball rolling. (Ryan Kennedy)
It’s pretty simple, really. Ken Hitchcock has worked for three GMs in his NHL coaching career – Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong. It’s important that he have a good relationship with his GM and, guess what? He and George McPhee happen to be pretty good friends. And despite Hitchcock’s pronouncement at the beginning of the season that this would be his last as a coach, he has backed off on that and is believed now to still be considering his options. All of which makes Vegas the perfect landing spot for both him and the Golden Knights. Look at it this way, this team is not going to be tanking off the hop because the talent the NHL is making available will make it impossible to do so. They’re going to get two very good NHL goalies and the team will be stocked with mid-range forwards and defensemen, good players at the NHL level who have character, compete and experience. They may have trouble scoring, but they’ll also be a bugger to play against. Now is that the perfect template for a Ken Hitchcock team or what? It should happen, it must happen and we’re betting heavily that it will happen. (Ken Campbell)
Michel Therrien is my pick. He has lots of recent experience with veteran-laden clubs, having guided the Montreal Canadiens through some decent regular seasons and several playoff series victories. Therrien isn't known for leaning on his youngsters, which is fine – as the Vegas squad will take a few years to stockpile draft picks and line its system with legit young prospects. The expansion draft should give the Golden Knights a bunch of bona fide NHLers, creating the need for a coach to merely keep a veteran squad relevant and prevent it from embarrassing itself in front of an unpredictable fan market. The Ken Hitchcocks and Gerard Gallants of the world have shepherded young teams in recent seasons, and those are the types of coaches the Golden Knights might prefer two or three years from now. (Matt Larkin)