SAN JOSE, Calif. – A year after being stripped of his captaincy, publicly feuding with his general manager and missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Joe Thornton has had a renaissance season.
The 36-year-old Thornton is playing his best hockey in years, combining his creative passes with an increased commitment on the defensive end to help lead the San Jose Sharks back to the postseason, where they will open the first round against rival Los Angeles on Thursday night.
"He just keeps getting better," coach Peter DeBoer said. "Everyone's waiting for him to slow down and he keeps showing up at the rink. He's got great legs, he's playing with a lot of jump. A lot of night he's the best player on the ice on either team for us. He's been fantastic."
Thornton scored 82 points while playing all 82 games for the most productive season by any player 36 years or older since 2007. He scored at least one point in San Jose's final 33 wins in the regular season for the second longest streak in the past 25 years.
Perhaps even more impressively, when Thornton has been on the ice in even strength situations, the Sharks have scored more than 70 percent of the goals for the best rate of any player in the league.
"It's one of those things you come to expect, you've seen him for so long," linemate Joe Pavelski said. "You don't take it for granted, but he shows up, he works, he enjoys it, he enjoys working."
Thornton is one of several older players who could play a key role when the playoffs start Wednesday, along with Florida's 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, 37-year-old Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit and 37-year-old Marian Hossa of Chicago.
Making this season more impressive for Thornton is the fact it comes after such a disappointing one a year ago.
Thornton lost his captaincy after the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead and fell to Los Angeles in the first round in 2014. That led to tension with general manager Doug Wilson that became public at various times throughout last season as the Sharks struggled as a team and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
But with Thornton leading the way this year, the Sharks are back in the postseason and have another chance to give Thornton the one thing missing in his impressive career that has him 28th on the career points list with 1,341.
Neither the accolades or the past playoff disappointments matter to Thornton now as he prepares for another postseason run.
"I don't think you can look to your past successes or failures," Thornton said. "You just have to stay in the moment. That's what I've always done, stay in the present and look forward to today and I'll look forward to tomorrow."
Here are some other players older than 35 who could have a big impact on the playoffs:
Jagr: Jagr entered the league in 1990 before many of today's players were even born, helping Pittsburgh win a pair of Stanley Cups and ranking third on the career points list with 1,868. Jagr's 66 points this season were the most ever by a player his age and are a major reason why Florida won the Atlantic Division.
Datsyuk: This might be the final playoff run for Datsyuk, who said he plans to return to Russia after the season despite having one year left on his contract. While Datsyuk said he could still change his mind, he is focused now on helping Detroit beat Tampa Bay after helping the Red Wings extend their streak to 25 straight playoff appearances. He had 49 points after missing the first month of the season while recovering from ankle surgery.
Hossa: Injuries limited Hossa to his least productive non-lockout season since his rookie year with just 33 points. But he is expected to be healthy for Game 1 against St. Louis and is seeking his sixth trip to the Stanley Cup finals, having won three of the previous ones with the Blackhawks. Only Jagr has more career playoff points among active players than Hossa's 144 as he always seems to play his best at this time of year.
Vincent Lecavalier: His career seemed to be winding down when he had no goals and played just seven games in the first three months with Philadelphia before a trade to Los Angeles gave him a spark. Lecavalier, who turns 36 next week, had 10 goals and seven assists in 42 games with the Kings and looks to add another title to the one he captured with Tampa Bay in 2004.