"I wouldn't be playing myself right now if I were making the lines."
- Blue Jackets left winger Raffi Torres on struggling after coming back from injury. Torres has managed only two assists in 10 games this season.
"I wouldn't be playing myself right now if I were making the lines."
- Blue Jackets left winger Raffi Torres on struggling after coming back from injury. Torres has managed only two assists in 10 games this season.
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.
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Eric Staal. Image by: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
– With MATT LARKIN
Patrik Laine. Image by: Getty Images
The origins of Patrik Laine’s lethal shot lie buried in his family’s backyard. And imagine, if it weren’t for his father, Laine would still be stopping pucks instead of shooting them.
It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of five centuries for aluminum to decompose. That means there are 490-odd years left for some archaeologically inclined Finnish hockey fans to get their hands on some precious pieces of memorabilia. The dig site is a backyard in Tampere, Finland, and soda can shrapnel is the treasure. Those fragments of old aluminum cans, bashed, battered and burst to bits by six ounces of hard-charging vulcanized rubber, are a reminder of where Patrik Laine began his path to becoming one of the most fearsome rookie scorers ever.
Laine’s shot, used to blast soda cans apart years ago, has been the talk of the NHL this season. It’s lethal, both in strength and accuracy, and it didn’t get that way overnight, which is to say it’s not Laine’s gift so much as his passion project. In his backyard, on the ice and in every moment he could spare, Laine would shoot. And when he was tired, he would shoot again. He’d shoot until his hands bled, as they did while training this past summer, and then he’d shoot some more.
“I had a net in our backyard and I spent many hours there every day, just shooting,” Laine said. “When the coaches would blow the whistle and everyone would get water, I stayed and took shots to improve it.”
Laine has long since graduated from obliterating soda cans in his backyard, moving on to dominating the SM-liiga in Finland and now to destroying the already high expectations put upon him as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL. On his first night in the league, Laine showed off the skills built in his parents’ backyard with a laser wrist shot from the left point that sparked a Jets come-from-behind victory. He called his first NHL goal “the best moment in the world,” made more special with his family there to see it. Days later, he had a hat trick in a showdown against Toronto Maple Leafs phenom Auston Matthews – the only player drafted ahead of him last June – capped off by an overtime snipe that sent the MTS Centre into a frenzy. At the season’s midway point, only Sidney Crosby had more goals than Laine, and he and Matthews were on pace to be the first teenaged rookies to score 40-plus goals since Eric Lindros in 1992-93.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that Laine came close to spending his entire career trying to stop pucks. If Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t sent Laine’s father, Harri, a thank you card yet, he may want to get out his finest stationary and draft up something special, because if it weren’t for him, Laine might still be plying his trade as a goaltender somewhere in Finland. He didn’t give up the position until he was 12.
“I would have kept going but then my dad decided for me, and I went being a forward all the time,” Laine said. “I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
That position change came only six years ago. Imagine what Laine could be capable of had he focused all his energy on scoring goals instead of stopping them from the outset. But there may be something to the connection between Laine’s goaltending days and his current goal-scoring ways. Facing Laine’s shot hundreds of times already in practice, Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson made note of a trait Laine has that few players, be it rookies or veterans, possess – the ability to use a goaltender’s understanding of a shooter’s tendencies against them.
“He doesn’t just pick the top corner every time,” Hutchinson said. “A lot of kids, especially at 17 and 18 with a shot like that, want to come in and just shoot the puck as hard as they can and try to go bar down and blow one by the goalie every single time. He’s not like that. He has no problem shooting for a rebound to get his teammates a goal, shooting for five-hole or picking a low corner over the pad. That’s maturity beyond his years.”
And impressive maturity given how swift his progression has been from goaltender to goal scorer. Laine is used to progressing quickly, though, because his six-year rise to becoming one of the world’s best teenage players was preceded by a year-long skyrocket up the draft rankings.
“I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
In The Hockey News’ Future Watch and Draft Preview issues in 2015, Laine was nowhere to be found among the projected top 10 for 2016. Instead, a panel of scouts deemed the likes of Logan Brown and Kieffer Bellows as top-10 selections, with fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi considered the shoo-in second-overall pick behind Matthews. By the start of 2015-16, however, the winds of change were blowing fiercer than a blustery chill at Portage and Main. Laine had vaulted up the charts, projected to go as high as fourth, with Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun often separating Laine from the top three. It was following the 2016 World Junior Championship that Laine completed his rise up the draft board.
“A year ago him and Jesse Puljujarvi were more or less even,” recalled NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb. “But after Christmas, and after the world juniors, Laine just took off and was unbelievable.”
Laine had seven goals and 13 points in seven games at the world juniors en route to winning gold with Finland. He then returned to the Finnish League and scored at a torrid pace, dominating the post-season with 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games as Tappara, his hometown team, captured the league title with Laine taking playoff MVP honors. His unpredictable rise continued at the World Championship in May, where he scored seven goals and 12 points in 10 games on his way to a silver medal and yet another MVP honor.
“His understanding of the game is exceptional,” Stubb said. “He always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. What people also forget is he’s also a very good playmaker. It’s not only the shot.”
Laine had come a long way from being that petulant kid sent home from the 2014 Ivan Hlinka tournament following a highly publicized dispute with his coach. Petteri Lehto, Laine’s European agent who has grown to know both Laine and his family the past four years, said the incident was overblown and taken out of context. But instead of stirring up the controversy more, Laine, on the advice of Lehto, stayed quiet in hopes the story would go away. And eventually, it did.
“It was very tough for Patrik and his family,” Lehto said. “But it probably helped him to understand that when you’re a good player, media is a part of it and you better watch yourself.”
Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.
The same passion that got Laine into trouble earlier in his career has now become one of his greatest assets, according to Kimmo Vaha-Ruohola, his former coach. When Laine came under Vaha-Ruohola’s guidance, first in the under-20s and later for two seasons with Tappara, his all-consuming desire to score often led to frustration and distraction. Vaha-Ruohola and Laine would talk honestly about what happened after each outburst, and learning to harness his passion led to a rocky road that required a benching from time to time. Laine grew to understand how he could handle his emotions and channel them to help his team. That continued into the men’s league.
“He had to analyze his game, every game, mental-wise,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “How did it go? Did he lose his temper and at what cost? How did he try to handle it? And so on. That process took two-and-a-half years.”
It’s clear how hard Laine can take the difficult moments, though, as evidenced by his gaffe in a December game against the Edmonton Oilers. Defending in his own zone, Laine inadvertently shot a loose puck into the Winnipeg net, for what ended up being the game-deciding goal. He looked distraught as captain Blake Wheeler comforted him on the bench. It was an impressive show of maturity post-game when Laine sat in his stall and answered questions, owning up to his mistake, but the sight of him on the bench following the goal was a reminder that this dynamic scorer who has set the NHL ablaze in his first few months in North America is still a teenager.
"The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s sometimes forgotten that Laine is still a kid, and it’s easy to see why. At 6-foot-5, 206 pounds, he’s a teen in a grown man’s body. And if it’s not Laine’s size that makes us forget how young he is, it’s his outspoken confidence that does.
In a sport filled with braggadocios boasting about the merits of humility, Laine has never shied away from being upfront about the fact he’s a talented player. He openly stated he believed he had what it took to be the first-overall pick ahead of Matthews, he turned heads with his stick-twirling celebration and he has outright said he knows how good he is. That’s a rare quality found in a small handful of players, and it has only increased his appeal.
It’s all about how Laine expresses that confidence, however. It doesn’t come across as if he’s gloating. There’s a truthfulness in the way he says it, an almost Honest Abe-like inability to tell a lie. It’s more endearing than anything, as are the other aspects of his personality, like his dry, subtle sense of humor.
For instance, Laine calls his father, a plumber, a “beer-league” player in Finland. When asked about his living situation, he glowingly refers to his mother as his roommate, remarking around the holidays how she did the decorating because that’s not really his thing. And he’s more than willing to take playful jabs at teammates. When asked about a scoring drought plaguing Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine’s road roommate and one of the teammates he’s closest to off ice, Laine quipped it was similar to the struggles that haunt Ehlers during their Playstation battles in FIFA. Ehlers shakes his head and chuckles in Laine’s direction when it’s brought up.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice, and he’s a pretty funny guy sometimes,” Ehlers said, later comparing the duo to an old married couple. “We do chirp each other in a healthy way.”
Despite his steady growth both on and off the ice, Laine isn’t a finished product. He understands there’s room to improve, specifically on the defensive side of the puck. Even in Tappara, he was striving to be better defensively, sharpening his skating in order to be in the right place at the right time in his own end as often as he is when on the attack in the other direction.
But outside of his shot, Laine’s other great weapon is his ability to adapt and learn at a rate few others can.
“His development is probably the bigger thing for me as a coach,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “He’s not just scoring goals and being good offensively, but it’s how much he wants to learn and how quick he learns. The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s a skill of Laine’s that Vaha-Rouhola compared to Crosby, adding he believes Laine had the capability to be that kind of two-way forward. And it’s in his playmaking skill and ability to “take you out of your pants” that Lehto, who had a brief stint playing with a rookie Mario Lemieux, sees flashes of a young No. 66. For Stubb, there will always be the parallels drawn between Laine and great Finnish scorers like Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri. And every time Laine unloads a one-timer from the top of the circle on the power play, there will be inevitable comparisons to his childhood idol, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. Yet Laine sees things differently.
“I don’t have to compare myself to anybody,” Laine said.
“Everybody is different, and I want to be me. I don’t have to think about what everybody else has done. People can say what they want, but I just want to be me and create my own path.”
Dale Hawerchuk's letter to Patrik Laine.
Cody Glass. Image by: Marissa Baecker/Getty Images
Winterhawks center Cody Glass is doing a good job of proving people wrong as he develops into an offensive star in the WHL.
How do you like them apples? Excuse the backwards reference, but Harvard won its first Beanpot title in 24 years Monday night, running over Boston University 6-3 in the classic NCAA showdown. The Crimson are an older bunch, but still had a good dose of NHL talent in their ranks. Elsewhere in the prospect world, the Five Nations tourney in Sweden wrapped up, with Team USA taking first. This was a big win for the National Team Development Program, which had struggled for most of the season beforehand (part of that may have been the high bar set by previous editions led by Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel). For a look at some of the players involved in those contests and around the hockey world, let’s dive in to this week’s list.
Cody Glass, C – Portland Winterhawks (WHL): Hot tip for anyone facing Glass in the next decade: don’t take him for granted, because he will burn you. With 79 points through 55 games, he’s one of the highest scorers in the WHL and past slights have spurned him on.
“I use motivation as my key,” Glass said. “I got cut from Team Canada (for the summer Ivan Hlinka tourney) so I used that to push through and prove to people that I should have made it. I just keep trying to prove people wrong, starting as an honorable mention (on NHL Central Scouting’s list) and moving up to eighth.”
It’s impossible to ignore the Winnipeg native now and scouts certainly aren’t underestimating him. They love the kid’s combination of playmaking, hockey sense and hands. Still thin, Glass knows he must get stronger – but his 6-foot-2 frame is very projectable.
Portland is in the thick of the wild card race right now thanks to an 8-2 run in the Hawks’ past 10 games. The team lost a lot of veterans to the pros in the summer, but the return of franchise guru Mike Johnston has helped.
“He’s had a huge response coming back from Pittsburgh, especially him being with Crosby and Malkin,” Glass said. “He brought a lot of good skill development. With his system, with the young guys and speed we have, it helps a lot.”
Glass had just 27 points last season, so his ascent has been meteoric. Based on his skills and potential ceiling, I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the Mark Scheifele of this draft – a player that goes earlier than expected to a team that really covets him. Funny how the new Scheifele could be a Winnipeg kid who only got to see NHL hockey in town recently with the Jets’ return.
“Everyone was pretty ecstatic when they came back,” Glass said. “Getting to see the NHL back in Winnipeg is awesome.”
And it won’t be long before we see Glass in the NHL, making his point…by piling up points.
Alex DeBrincat, RW (Chicago): DeBrincat is wrecking all sorts of Erie Otters records lately, but there’s another milestone coming for the small-but-deadly scorer. DeBrincat is well on pace to hit 50 goals and 100 points in all three of his OHL seasons – quite the rare feat.
Ryan Donato, LW (Boston): The prettiest goal of the Beanpot final came from Donato, who used his slick hands and great elusiveness to bury one for the Crimson. The son of Harvard coach Ted Donato has more than a point per game as a sophomore and the Crimson have won six straight.
Ryan Pulock, D (NY Islanders): The AHL player of the week, Pulock registered six points in four wins – all one-goal games – for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The big blueliner with the rocket shot will almost certainly push for a regular NHL spot in Brooklyn next season.
Brandon Gignac, C (New Jersey): Athletic and skilled, Gignac had the only goal in a great showdown with Halifax on the weekend as his Shawinigan Cataractes maintained their perch atop the QMJHL standings. Gignac has also been great on faceoffs, while tallying 49 points in 45 games.
Steve Michalek, G (Minnesota): Since the calendar flipped over to 2017, Michalek has yet to surrender more than two goals in a game, even in contests where his Iowa Wild were considerably outshot. The rookie AHLer now has one of the highest save percentages in the league at .923.
2017 Draft Stars
Josh Norris, C – U.S. NTDP (USHL): The whole NTDP blew the doors off the Five Nations, but Norris definitely led the charge with seven points in four games. That was best among all skaters in the tourney and the University of Michigan commit has been stepping it up lately in general. Norris is a smart, consistent center who skates well and plays in all situations.
Erik Brannstrom, D – HV71 (SHL): The best defenseman at the Five Nations, Brannstrom had four points in four games for the Swedes, creating opportunities nearly every period. Though he’s on the small side, Brannstrom is an incredibly skilled and smart puck-moving defenseman.
Filip Chytil, C – PSG Zlin (Cze.): One of the better Czechs at the Five Nations, Chytil is a strong, two-way center who does all the right things on the ice. That included netting three points in four games for the squad. He plays against men back home right now.
Mick Messner, RW – Madison Capitols (USHL): The USHL’s forward of the week, Messner had four points in three games, scoring or assisting on the overtime winner in all three matches. The University of Wisconsin commit is a smart, hard-working player who beats opponents with his quick hands right now but must iron out his short skating stride at the next level.
2018 Draft Star
Filip Zadina, LW – Dynamo Pardubice (Cze.): Due to his late birthday, the 1999-born Zadina won’t be draft eligible until next season, but he’s showing off incredible skill already. A fast, shifty shooter with a high-end motor, Zadina killed it at the Five Nations, leading the Czechs in scoring with five points and the tournament in goals with four in four games.
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