Joe Thornton is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and he has a chance to pick his next move. Should the Sharks make an offer to keep him around or thank him for his service and move on?
The San Jose Sharks are not happy right now, and rightfully so. Usually a staple in the playoffs – the Sharks have only missed the postseason twice in fourteen seasons – they are now at home wondering what happened after they finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. In a top-heavy draft, a high pick would have lightened the blow, but their first-round pick was sent to the Ottawa Senators as part of the 2018 deal that brought defenseman Erik Karlsson to the Golden State.
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When Karlsson signed his eight-year extension in 2019, it meant the loss of a loyal servant in Joe Pavelski due to the cap crunch, which we will get into later. General manager Doug Wilson will need to make another decision this offseason that could alienate more fans and spell the end of Joe Thornton’s time in San Jose.
Objectively, the Sharks may need to rebuild. If so, keeping around a 41-year-old center does not make a ton of sense, especially when that money could be spent to keep Kevin Labanc and Melker Karlsson. However, when you are spending $34.5 million on four players over 30, a rebuild seems an unlikely scenario. There is also the fact that Wilson is not a fan of the rebuild, so it’s possible the Sharks will be ‘all in’ again next season.
Thornton has signed short term deals with the club the last few seasons in an attempt to finally win a Stanley Cup. Apparently, he was upset when he wasn’t traded to a contender at this year’s trade deadline, especially after Patrick Marleau was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the same reason. He told The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz, “It would have been nice to at least have a chance. I wanted a shot, you know? Believe it or not. I’ve been hunting this thing down for 22 years, so I wanted another shot at it,” (From ‘I wanted a shot’: Joe Thornton is disappointed he wasn’t traded to a contender, The Athletic, 02/25/2020).
Thornton’s Free Agency Decision
The question, then, for Thornton is, do the Sharks give him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup in his limited time left? If he is being honest with himself the answer is probably no. The high-end talent is just not there and was compounded when Timo Meier finished this season with the most points on the team. Meier is a good top-six player with a playoff team but would find top-line minutes hard to come by on a contender like the Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights or Colorado Avalanche.
After not offering Joe Pavelski a contract last offseason, the Sharks have shown they are not afraid to make tough decisions concerning fan favorites for the betterment of the team. The problem for Wilson lies in the numbers. After moving on from their long-time captain, they had their worst season in 15 years (not including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). Although, Logan Couture missed many games due to injuries, which didn’t help.
Pavelski, unlike his former teammates, is in the Edmonton bubble chasing his dream. He helped his Dallas Stars earn the No. 3 seed with a late goal against the St. Louis Blues to force overtime in the round-robin tournament on Aug. 9. The Stars won the game.
Thornton, like Pavelski, is more than a player for the Sharks. He’s a mentor and a leader. Peter de Boer, then coach of the Sharks and now coach of the Golden Knights, recently spoke about his interaction with Thornton during an amazing comeback from 3-0 down in Game 7 of their series against Golden Knights in the 2019 Playoffs:
“We tied it up 3-3 and I decided the first unit was tired, they scored three, let’s give the second unit some ice time. I remember Joe looked at me and said, ‘No, leave them out there. They’re hot. Leave them.’ I look back at that now, you’ve got a Hall of Fame player that made his entire career on playing in those moments, of being the difference, hopping over the boards and getting the winning goal on the power play, and he deferred. He had enough presence and leadership and security in himself. And sure enough, the first unit scored again even though they were dead-ass tired. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Moving on from him could upset the locker room balance even more than the loss of Pavelski. Erik Karlsson is already an alternate captain and Evander Kane seems to want more responsibility, after helping to form the new Hockey Diversity Alliance with Akim Aliu and others to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.”
But they aren’t the same as ‘Jumbo’ Joe who has spent the better part of his tenure in San Jose with either an ‘A’ or ‘C’ on his chest. He spent 2006-2010 as an alternate captain before being handed the captaincy. After Pavelski took over as captain in 2014 he reverted back to an alternate role and has held it since. Is that enough for the Sharks to offer Thornton another short-term deal?
Can Thornton Still Do It?
Thornton scored 31 points in 2019-20, mostly from the third line, which shows that he can still play, but he needs help. Some of that will come from Labanc, who signed a very team-friendly, one-year deal last season. He is a restricted free agent and might sign another team-friendly deal after his numbers dipped. However, with just under $15 million to spend, it may be a case of Labanc or Thornton, especially if Labanc wants the sort of raise he deserved last offseason, which is likely double the $1 million he is currently earning. Labanc is younger, with more of an upside for the Sharks than Thornton.
There is also the emergence of Dylan Gambrell who had a decent if not spectacular season. He averaged about three and a half minutes less ice time Thornton last season, but at 23 years old, could be the heir to the throne at half the price. Antti Suomela could be another option. As a restricted free agent, and one of only two players to have a positive plus/minus with the Sharks this season, Wilson may decide he is the better option for the cash-strapped Sharks.
Gambrell is already under contract for another year at $700k while Suomela could be re-signed as a restricted free agent to a similar salary meaning a $600k savings on Thornton’s $2 million. While that might not seem like a lot, every amount added to the $15 million in cap space the Sharks have will help shore up a number of holes on the backend. This includes a top-four defenseman to partner with Marc-Édouard Vlasic.
Tim Heed is an unrestricted free agent who, despite a poor season, will be looking for a raise on his $960k salary. Even as a bottom-pairing defenseman he could double that on the open market, or at least get close. He has proven himself a capable defenseman, albeit at the bottom end, and could be tempted to look elsewhere for a more lucrative contract should the Sharks try to play hardball.
At 29 years old, this could be his final NHL contract, and despite not being a top-four d-man, he may be the team’s best option alongside Vlasic. However, are the Sharks willing to overpay to stop him from going elsewhere and, if so, how does that affect the Thornton situation?
Of course, the Sharks could decide to let Heed leave if they think Ryan Merkley, their 2018 first-round draft pick, is ready to make the step up. Partnering the young offensive-defenseman with Vlasic would make sense. It would also be the best-case scenario for Thornton if he wishes to stay in San Jose. Merkley, on his entry-level contract, would round out the defense while also freeing up cap space for Thornton to stay. However, concerns about Merkley’s professionalism continue, so a year in the AHL might be best for the young prospect who dominated the OHL this season.
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What all this means is that ‘Jumbo Joe’ is probably not at the top of the Sharks’ list to re-sign, despite a stellar career and as a fan favorite. Much-needed help in other areas and much more pressing issues upfront means Thornton is probably heading towards the exit. If the Sharks start poorly next season, don’t be surprised if this is the first thing fans turn to after seeing two of their favorites leave in the past two offseasons.