When the NHL awards are handed out in Las Vegas at the end of the season, San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton is probably not going to take home the MVP award. OK, there is no “probably” about it. He is simply not going to win.

And if past history is any indication, he probably will not receive many votes. And that will be wrong. Very, very wrong. 

Thornton has received only three top-five MVP votes (total) over past five years even though he has consistently been one of the best players and most impactful players in the league. But because he has been the face of a franchise that has always fallen short in the playoffs, he takes the bulk of the blame (whether it’s actually on him or not). I’ve said it before, but he has become a player that probably will not fully be appreciated for how great he has been in the NHL until 10 or 20 years after he retires and everybody looks back at his career and say, “Wow … that guy really was something special and maybe we shouldn’t have blamed him for everything that went wrong with his team.”

We should start realizing it now in the form of some serious MVP consideration this season. Not necessarily a win. But at least a top-five finish.

When it comes to MVP debates you probably already have your line drawn in the sand. On one side you have the “best player regardless of team success” crowd, which usually goes up against the “most valuable to a team that is going to the playoffs” crowd in a fierce, noisy bar-room argument where nobody ever wins.

No matter what side you fall in, Thornton fits the description of what you are looking for this season. Or at least comes darn close to it.

On the best player side, he is still one of the most physically dominant players in the NHL in all areas even though he is 36 years old. He excels all over the ice and entering play on Saturday is one of the top-eight scorers in the entire league and is tied for second in assists, well on his way to what should be an eighth top-five finish in that category (including four in the past five seasons).

He is doing all of this for a team that is going to the playoffs, returning to the postseason after a disappointing 2014-15 season that was supposed to be the end of their championship window.

When it comes to “value” added to a playoff-bound team, he is also probably the single biggest reason it is returning. Not only is he the driving force behind the Sharks’ turnaround, if you look at the top players in the NHL this season, including the MVP front-runners, you would be hard pressed to find a single player that has made a bigger impact on his team than Joe Thornton.

From a numbers standpoint, the figures are simply staggering. When Thornton is on the ice during 5-on-5 situations for the Sharks they attempt 55.7 percent of the total shot attempts (Thornton is in the top-15 in the league in that category) and outscore their opponents by an absurd 56-22 margin (a goals for percentage of 71.7 percent that puts Thornton at the absolute top of the league). It is worth pointing out that he has spent a significant portion of his even-strength ice time this season with Joe Pavelski on his wing and Brent Burns playing defense. Pavelski and Burns are right behind Thornton in the points race and are having great seasons on their own. Together, they are one of the best trios in the league.

But when you look at what Pavelski and Burns have done in their ice-time away from Thornton, it’s pretty clear that he is the one driving the bus for the group as all of their numbers see a pretty significant drop away from him. Pavelski has spent almost all of his ice-time at even-strength the past two seasons alongside Thornton, and I suspect that has played a sizable role in his continued goal-scoring surge.

When Thornton is not on the ice at all this season the Sharks are simply getting crushed.

Without Thornton they are attempting just 49.3 percent of the total shot attempts during 5-on-5 play, a sign that they are spending way more time defending, while they have been outscored by a 93-73 margin in those minutes without him (a shockingly low goals for percentage of only 43.9 percent). That is a nearly seven percent drop in possession and an almost unbelievable 27.8 percent drop in goal differential. Those shot and goal numbers without Thornton on the ice are pretty much the equivalent of what the Edmonton Oilers do on a nightly basis.

There isn’t a team in the NHL that plays at the level the Sharks do with Thornton on the ice. It is basically two different teams in San Jose this season. One that is an unstoppable force with Thornton on the ice, and one that would be a lottery team when he is not.

When you look at the scorers in the NHL this season, the only other players in that group that have anywhere near that type of impact on their team is Patrick Kane in Chicago and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. And even with them it isn’t that big. When Kane is off the ice for the Blackhawks their shot attempt differential drops 52.5 to 49.2 (a minus-2.6 drop) while their goals for differential drops from 56.4 percent to 41.8 (a minus-14.6 drop).

In Los Angeles, the Kings see a minus-2.1 drop in possession and a minus-14.2 drop in goal differential without Kopitar.

A big difference for sure, but still not the night-and-day difference the Sharks see with and without Thornton. It's been a similar story in San Jose over the previous four years during even-strength play. When you get to the power play, where the Sharks are one of the top teams in the league, Thornton is still helping to carry the offense with 21 points on the man-advantage.

Even though he had a really good year for the Sharks last season (one that went mostly unnoticed because the team stunk), it was one of his lower scoring outputs in recent seasons. He has come back this season in a huge way and is helping to carry his team back to the playoffs. 

He doesn't need to win the award (and again, he isn't going to), but he at least needs to be in the discussion and somewhere near the top of the list.

If he does not get that type of recognition for the season he is having, it will simply because nobody is paying close enough attention to just what is happening with him and the Sharks this season. Because without him having the type of season he is having (which is once again one of the best in the NHL), they would not be anywhere near the postseason.

[Data in this post via Puckalytics, War-On-Ice and Hockey Analysis]

Joe Thornton is carrying the San Jose Sharks back to the playoffs. (USATSI)
Joe Thornton is carrying the San Jose Sharks back to the playoffs.(USATSI)