The San Jose Sharks could be active in the player market this summer, with projected cap space as high as $20 million if the salary cap rises to the $80-million range. This could put them squarely into the thick of the John Tavares sweepstakes, should the Islanders star test free agency. At the same time, a signing like that could lead to the Sharks moving on from a pillar of the organization and future Hall of Famer.
We may have seen the last of Joe Thornton in a Sharks jersey. San Jose turned it on post-deadline when they picked up Evander Kane and found chemistry between Kane and centre Joe Pavelski. Logan Couture played the middle of the second line and 23-year-old Chris Tierney took a step forward in his career on the third line, finishing with 17 goals and 40 points.
San Jose lost Patrick Marleau last summer, which was the first step towards moving in a new direction with a younger core. They re-signed Thornton to a one-year deal, which left them with the flexibility to part with another long-time core piece this off-season. Given how San Jose performed without Thornton, who missed every game after Jan. 21 with a knee injury, the Sharks are now in a place to go in a different direction.
To be sure, Thornton still has value around the league. He may not be fast on his skates and in a game that’s highlighting the importance of speed more each passing year, Thornton may not be the best top-six fit for contenders anymore. He is, however, still great at slowing the game down, creating space and controlling the puck, so if he’s willing to accept a reduced role on a third line and still get a fair amount of power-play minutes, he could be a valuable add for a team. Half of Thornton’s points this season came on the man advantage and he was easily the most-used Sharks forward there when he was healthy.
So where could Thornton fit this summer? Entering his age-39 season and coming off a year where he was slowed by injury, there are still some teams that would love to add his talent and skill set.
When the Jets acted as buyers at the trade deadline for the first time under general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, they immediately got positive returns from having Paul Stastny centre the third line, mostly between Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers. Stastny is a UFA this summer and if he decides to leave, the Jets may be interested in filling that gap with another experienced, playmaking centre.
Cheveldayoff isn’t known for making big-splash additions so this might be out of character, but his team is also in a spot it hadn’t previously been in under his watch. If Thornton is available and open to the idea of moving from Wi-Fi hotbed San Jose to wintery Winnipeg, it would be interesting to see him next to a couple of young snipers.
The Jets will have a lot of cap space this summer, but have a number of their own free agents to deal with as well. If the room is there and Thornton is willing to take a cut from the $8 million San Jose paid him in 2017-18, this could be a shot worth taking.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Thornton was teammates with Patrick Marleau for 12 seasons until the latter left for Toronto in free agency last summer.
“Obviously, I loved playing with Patty and it was just like, ‘Wow, Patty Marleau is going to be putting on a blue and white jersey and this is going to be strange and he’s not going to be there at training camp,’” Thornton said earlier this season. “It was different, but as you know and everybody knows throughout the sport, it’s business.”
Would it be inconceivable for Thornton to follow his buddy north? The Leafs certainly wouldn’t be able to give Thornton a multi-year deal that pays the same $6.25 million Marleau gets, as the likes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are due big pay hikes a year from now. But as Toronto expects to lose centre Tyler Bozak to free agency this summer, there could be room for a one-year fit as the third line pivot.
He would, however, have to patch things up with Nazem Kadri.
After crumbling down the stretch and falling short of the playoffs, the Stars will have a new head coach in 2018-19 and Jim Montgomery preaches the kind of game Thornton thrives in.
“We’re going to be a puck possession team and we’re going to try and make plays everywhere on the ice,” Montgomery said last week.
Though Thornton’s Corsi For percentage has been dropping the past four years, he’s still a possession monster who is one of the better puck protectors in the game. Jason Spezza, currently lined up as the third-line centre, registered just 26 points this season and was made a healthy scratch at one point. He has one year left on his contract and the Stars may find it more valuable to buy him out this summer, which would open $5 million in cap space next season. That money could potentially be used to bring in Thornton as the third-line centre and power-play specialist who could help improve the 19th-best PP unit from this season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are interesting in that they’re trying to be a Stanley Cup contender, but can’t get over the regular-season hump to really enter that echelon. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexander Wennberg are locked in as the top two pivots next season, but Brandon Dubinsky was the only Blue Jackets centre who won more than half his faceoffs this season. Even he was eventually demoted to the fourth-line wing in the playoffs.
Nick Foligno was used at centre this season as well, but may be a better fit on left wing. And since the team has two pending UFA wingers who may not return in Thomas Vanek and Matt Calvert, Foligno could slide back over and make room for Thornton on this team’s third line. The Blue Jackets also had the worst power play of any playoff team this season and could use all the help on the man advantage they can get.
The Habs are in the market for any centre who would move the needle and open up the possibility to move Jonathan Drouin back to the wing, or take the focus off the fact Alex Galchenyuk is not playing down the middle. Thornton could fit into a top-six role with Montreal, something he may not be able to do in some other destinations, but this isn’t exactly a team that will be projected to take a run at the Stanley Cup.
That said, if Carey Price can stay healthy and on top of his game the entire season, it will entirely change the way the Habs perform and are perceived. If you get that from Price and a productive Thornton on the first or second line, there is a path to the playoffs for this team. It’s just that, for this to play out, it seems everything would need to work out close to perfectly — and if Thornton is all-in for chasing a Cup, this would be an unlikely landing spot.
San Jose Sharks
Thornton has previously taken calls from other teams when he was up for a new contract last summer, but eventually re-signed with San Jose.
“Obviously, I love San Jose and I feel like I’m a Shark, but you have all these other teams phoning and, ‘What if?’ and things [go through your head] like that. But I’m super happy to be back with the Sharks,” he said.
It’s still entirely possible Jumbo Joe stays with the Sharks and finishes his career there in possibly a year or two. The problem is the team surged without him, rose up the standings and swept their way over rival Anaheim to get into the second round. The Sharks found success with a top line of Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi — and should Kane stick around, they’d have interest in keeping that combination.
Thornton would no doubt have to take a pay cut and a reduced role to stay in San Jose, something he may have to accept with any other team that has Cup aspirations. If they keep Thornton, the Sharks would also likely be out of the running for Tavares, so they would want to see how those negotiations play out before making a call on Thornton.