SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Thornton tested the free-agent market last summer before ending up back in San Jose on a one-year, $8 million deal.
If Thornton has his way this off-season, he’ll sign with the Sharks again before hitting the open market, even if it has to be on another short-term deal.
"It’s no secret I’m a Shark," Thornton said Tuesday. "I bleed teal and I want to come back and I know I’m going to be healthy when I come back. I’m sure we can figure something out, but I want to come back."
Thornton spoke as the Sharks packed up for the summer following a second-round loss to Vegas. Thornton missed that series with a major right knee injury that had sidelined him since Jan. 23 but expects to be fully recovered by next season.
Thornton turns 39 in July but still was performing at a high level before tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee in January. Thornton had a similar injury to his left knee late last season and played four playoff games before off-season surgery but wasn’t able to make it back this year.
"I don’t think there’s a player that I’ve met in 40 years in this business that I respect more than Joe Thornton," general manager Doug Wilson said. "He’s incredible. … I look forward to sitting down with Joe and his agent very quickly. He’s an inspiring man, what he’s done to this organization. He was playing really well prior to getting hurt, and even his leadership after, being around the guys and what he does. He’s a special, special guy."
Thornton said he’s willing to sign a one-year deal again and would be willing to take less money if it helped the team acquire other players.
While Thornton started slowly this season as he worked his way back from surgery in April 2017, he was back to his usual form by late November. He had 11 goals and 15 assists in his final 28 games before the injury.
Thornton has been a leader ever since arriving in San Jose in 2005 and is the greatest player in franchise history. He ranks 12th in NHL history with 1,030 assists and is 16th with 1,427 points. With seven more games, Thornton will become the 19th player to reach the 1,500-game mark for a career.
"I think we’re all blessed to play with a guy like that on the ice, off the ice," defenceman Brent Burns said. "He’s one of the legends of the game, statistically, on-ice talent and what he does for everybody off the ice. He’s definitely the best teammate I’ve ever played with. We’d be lucky to have him."
Thornton’s pending free agency is just one of the key decisions the Sharks will have to make this off-season. Midseason acquisition Evander Kane also can hit the market this summer. If he signs, they owe Buffalo a first-round pick in 2019. If he leaves, that pick becomes a second-rounder.
Kane provided a major boost when he was acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline in February. He had nine goals and five assists in 17 games, providing needed speed and physicality on San Jose’s top line.
That carried over to the first round when he had three goals and an assist in a sweep against Anaheim but Kane wasn’t nearly as effective against Vegas as he played through injuries to his knee and shoulder.
"I think he’s a difference-maker," Wilson said. "He came in here, and I talk about our leadership and our culture, I think he really appreciated that. We appreciated him. I think it was a good fit for him, it was a good fit for us."
Eric Fehr is another potential free agent who could be back, while forwards Joel Ward and Jannik Hansen are expected to leave this summer. San Jose also must reach deals with restricted free agents Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney, and can begin negotiating extensions with captain Joe Pavelski and centre Logan Couture in July.
The Sharks have plenty of projected salary cap room to make those moves and also could look to add a big-ticket player like John Tavares of the New York Islanders if he hits the open market.
"I’m excited for this team," Thornton said. "A lot of guys made big leaps this year. I’m sure teams are always adding new things or trying at least to add new things. But if you’re a Shark fan, you’ve got to be excited for this team still."