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Thornton’s 1,000th assist set to put him in exclusive company

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 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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