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Future Free Agents: Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton is a free agent. You know what team means? It’s time to speculate whether or not his time in San Jose is over or not. This is a narrative we’ve heard for years, but after the team went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, it’s even more difficult than ever to imagine Thornton playing anywhere else. Could it happen this summer?

Who is he?

Joe Thornton is one of the greatest playmakers in the sport’s history. He’s played 19 seasons in the NHL now, amassing 1391 points over 1446 games with the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins. The former 1997 first overall pick also became the 13th player ever to record 1000 assists at the NHL level this season, easily the most impressive accomplishment on his Hall of Fame resume.

The only thing missing? A Stanley Cup.

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Thornton and the Sharks came close to winning it all in 2016 after years and years of choking in the playoffs, but were dispatched in the first round by the Oilers this time around. The Sharks are certainly still build to be good for quite some time, as made evident by the eight-year, $64 million extension they handed out to Brent Burns a few months ago, but it’s hard not to wonder how much Thornton has left in the tank.

This season was the worst of his career since being deal to the Sharks. He scored seven goals and 43 assists in 79 games, good for 0.63 point-per-game, which is better only than his first two seasons in the league. But part of that could also be the Sharks playing a more conservative style than they have in the past, as Thornton posted a 53.9 Corsi For percentage (+3.1 relative to the team) this year, which is worse than what he’s produced in the past, but is still indicative of a player who can contribute.

But beyond his declining production numbers, there’s also the issue of injury. Thornton hurt himself in the final game of the season and missed the first two games of the first round of the playoffs before coming back and playing through a torn ACL and MCL. That’s, uh, that’s pretty incredible. He underwent successful surgery and will apparently be ready for the beginning of the season, but damn, how much longer can this guy keep trucking?

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How much is he going to cost?

Back in July 2013, the Red Wings singed Pavel Datsyuk, who was coming off of a 49 points in 47 games season, to a three-year contract extension worth $7.5 million annually that began in his 36-year-old season. Jarome Iginla his free agency as a 37-year-old, and signed a three-year deal worth $5,333,333 annually. Jaromir Jagr is signing one-year deals well into his 40s worth upwards to $5.5 million depending on bonuses, while Shane Doan signed a $4,836,572 contact to play for the Coyotes at the age of 40.

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What does all of that mean? Old players who can still produce will get paid. And Joe Thornton, while he isn’t going to produce a point-per-game like he used to, is still going to produce. He’s coming off a three-year deal that paid him $6.75 million annually. He won’t get that three-year term again, and will likely either take a one-year deal in the ballpark of $4 or $5 million or something slightly less over two years.

Can San Jose afford it?

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The Sharks have their core locked into next season, the only major decisions are whether or not they’ll keep Thornton and Patrick Marleau around. They have a handful of restricted free agents, like Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi, and Mirco Mueller, but it won’t cost much to get them locked up again. Another wrinkle for the Sharks is the expansion draft, in which they’ll like end up losing one of Joel Ward, Mikkel Boedker, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon, Paul Martin, or David Schlemko. I have no idea who they’ll protect and leave exposed beyond the obvious group of key players, but the reality is they’ll lose one of those aforementioned players, leaving the Sharks with a hole to fill this summer.

Anyways, the Sharks have about $56 million tied into the majority of their roster. Like I said, a new hole will be created and cap room will be freed up depending on who Vegas snags, but San Jose, as usual, is in a good position financially. They certainly have the cap room to keep Thornton around next season, and for all we know, he may take a team discount and come in cheaper than he’s worth on the open market.

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But long term? The Sharks have to worry about giving two very important players, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones, new deals next summer. But still, the Sharks have handled their cap well, don’t have any hideous contracts (no, we aren’t going to complain about the Burns deal), and have the core of their team locked up at a reasonable amount. They’re getting older, and their window to win is right now, so it does make a lot of sense for Thornton to return to the team on a short-term deal. You know he wants to bring a Cup to San Jose.

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If he hits the open market…

If you’re a contender one or two pieces away from winning it all or a team on the cusp of getting good in need of a veteran leader who can actually make the team better, Joe Thornton is at the top of your list this summer. Honestly, who wouldn’t want this guy on their team? Thornton’s teammates have raved about him, he’s silenced critics with his excellent playoff performance in 2016 (and this spring battling through that ACL and MCL injury, damn), and he’s still a good player.

Still, though, it’s hard to imagine Thornton playing for anybody other than Sharks. He’s said openly that he loves playing there, and the team’s makeup is largely constructed around him. But if things don’t work out and San Jose decides to go a different route, Toronto could use some of their hoards and hoards of cap space on a veteran to help them win sooner rather than later. This playoff series against the Ducks has made it clear Edmonton could use a veteran down the middle. Nashville also has a big hole down the middle behind Ryan Johansen, as does St. Louis. There will be interest around the league, there’s no doubt about that.

Other free agent profiles:

Forwards: T.J. Oshie Nick BoninoAlexander Radulov, Brian Boyle 
Defencemen: Michael Del Zotto Kevin Shattenkirk Karl Alzner  
Goalies: Ben BishopRyan Miller