The last time a potential Joe Thornton trade was even conceivable was back in 2014. The San Jose Sharks had finished second in the Pacific Division and met the rival Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. San Jose dominated the early part of the series, winning the first three games and outscoring the eventual champs 17-8 in that stretch.
But then the Sharks lost the next four games in a row. It was the second year in a row the Sharks were eliminated by the Kings and, despite a decade-plus of regular-season dominance that included six division titles, San Jose still had not gotten to a Stanley Cup Final. After the latest humiliation, legitimate questions were being asked about the leaders of the group and whether or not the Sharks could break through as they were built. Thornton was the face of the team and its most important player, but also had a no-trade clause. He was in control of the situation, but you could see cracks in the foundation — the reverse sweep could have been a turning point.
“If he felt the fans didn’t want him in San Jose, he might re-think things,” Joe’s agent and brother, John, said at the time. “He’s perfectly happy there right now. He wants to stay there and win the Cup. He believes they still have enough talent.”
Thornton wasn’t traded, of course, and two years later the team made it to the Stanley Cup Final. That was the best result the team had.
Today, Thornton is playing out his third-consecutive one-year deal with the Sharks. It’s obviously where he prefers to be, but he’s also 40 years old and time is running low in his quest to win his first Stanley Cup. This time, San Jose is well out of the playoff picture, so it might make sense for Thornton to waive his no-movement clause to go to a contender for a run. He’d be in complete control of whatever happens.
So if Thornton would be willing to join a contender, where would he fit best? Here are some potential landing spots:
The Avs are in the thick of the Central Division title race and have stayed there despite dealing with a number of key injuries. The latest two are huge: Mikko Rantanen out weeks with an upper-body injury and Nazem Kadri out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
The second one of those is what makes Colorado an intriguing potential landing spot for Thornton. He may no longer be a top-six forward, but you’d be pretty pleased to have Thornton has your third-line pivot. Colorado has JT Compher, who is a fine second-line fill in for Kadri, and Thornton would be a fantastic fit on the third line. If everyone gets healthy, head coach Jared Bednar would have lots of options on how to utilize his forwards and Thornton would still stick on at least the second power-play unit. The cost should not be prohibitive, either.
This would be the best place for Thornton to go, as far as storylines are concerned. Drafted first overall by the Bruins in 1997 and traded away during the 2005-06 season, Thornton could find a home again on his original NHL team, which definitely qualifies as a legit contender.
There isn’t a dire need for centres in Boston, as Charlie Coyle currently occupies the third-line spot in that position. But with Thornton, Coyle could slide back to the wing and perhaps even on Thornton’s wing.
This time of year, depth is the name of the game, and in Thornton the Bruins would add a solid piece and a hungry veteran. Plus, it could keep him away from one of Boston’s direct competitors…
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
While Thornton isn’t going to reach 100 points anymore, or be one of the top assist players in the league, he’s not going to be a hole in anyone’s lineup. On a terrible Sharks team this year, Thornton’s 51.91 Corsi For percentage is one of the best marks and his 23 assists are still third-most on the team. He was never a fast player, so age doesn’t hurt him so much in that regard. The most important thing is that he still thinks the game well and his playmaking ability still translates to today’s game, especially if you lower the expectations and bring him in as a third-line centre.
“The players that can think will survive a long time,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told The Athletic. “(Thornton) has an extremely high hockey IQ. And he knows where to stand. And he knows where to be on the ice. He’s got exceptional skill. So with the size and the stick that he has, he’s a hard guy to play against. That’s how he’s had this longevity, how he’s been as effective as he has been. There has been part of his game that’s slowed down a bit, but he makes up for it with his brain.”
The Lightning are, of course, stacked. Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli are the team’s top-two centres and Cedric Paquette would need to be unseated as the third-liner for Thornton to fit. Most importantly, there would be minimal hurdles to fit Thornton’s $2 million AAV under the cap — according to Cap Friendly the Lightning have approximately $7.2 million in deadline-day space.
The Oilers are currently leading the Pacific, but in such a tight race just making the playoffs is not a sure thing. And, even if they get there, it would be a stretch to label Edmonton as one of the top contenders. Because of these factors, consider this the longest shot of any team listed here to actually land Thornton.
But you can see how he would be a good fit. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been moved from centre to the wing position on Leon Draisaitl’s flank, and it’s been such a good fit that, even with Connor McDavid out of the lineup, RNH hasn’t been moved back down the middle. In McDavid’s absence Riley Sheahan or Gaetan Haas act as the second-line pivot, and while Thornton is no longer at his peak, he’d be an upgrade over either.
With McDavid, Thornton could slot in as the third-line centre and the Oilers would be left with much better depth on the wings (by keeping RNH there) and down the middle than they currently do. On paper it’s a good fit, but in reality, the Oilers may not be enough of a contender for Thornton to go to.