Sharks center Joe Thornton has a history of signing three-year contracts, currently on his fourth such deal right now, taking him through the conclusion of this season.
And, he reportedly wants another one, as agent and brother John Thornton recently told ESPN.
There’s probably no rush to get it done from either side. For Thornton's part, he enjoys playing in the Bay Area, and with two young children it’s no surprise he’d like to remain where the sun’s always shining, yet the NHL spotlight isn’t quite so bright.
The team looks like it’s set up well to contend for a few more seasons after this one, too, making it even more appealing for the future Hall of Famer still seeking his first championship. Young players are busting down the door and taking jobs, upgrading the lineup. Martin Jones looks like a franchise goalie, and will likely get a nice extension in the offseason. Brent Burns is the frontrunner for the Norris Trophy, and Thornton’s good buddy/beard brother isn’t going anywhere after signing an eight-year contract. Thornton and coach Pete DeBoer seemingly have a strong relationship.
From the Sharks’ perspective, waiting to sign Thornton until the offseason would be a benefit in terms of the upcoming expansion draft. There’s likely enough of a trust factor between Thornton and general manager Doug Wilson (despite their well publicized differences in 2015) that they could agree in theory to an extension, allowing Wilson to protect other players he would like to protect from Las Vegas.
But the more important question from Wilson’s perspective is, does three more years of Joe Thornton make sense for the organization?
At 37 years old, Thornton is obviously getting up there. His play this season is a bit concerning, too. He leads the Sharks with 24 assists (tied with Burns), but still has just two goals – both into an empty net. He's on pace for just 53 points, which would be his lowest total since he was a teenager in Boston.
The top power play unit, which Thornton has led to prominence for so many years, isn’t producing, either. Frankly, it looks too deliberate and predictable lately, with Thornton the passer, Burns the shooter, and Joe Pavelski trying to find some room between the circles for a deflection. The team’s 14-for-99 stretch since Nov. 1 is not all Thornton’s fault, of course, but those slick passes that lead to easy tap-ins on the man advantage have been virtually absent.
Still, there are more reasons for the Sharks to sign Thornton – who has said more than once he can see himself playing into his 40’s – than to let him walk.
First is Tomas Hertl’s status. The Sharks have missed the player that was their third line center at the time of his latest injury on Nov. 17, as Hertl finally was starting to look like an NHL pivot. When San Jose chose the Czech native in the first round in the 2012 draft, the thinking went that he would be able to replace Thornton at the center position some time in the future.
But considering Hertl suffered yet another right knee injury on what looked to be an innocent looking play, there’s reason to wonder if he will ever be healthy and capable of playing at 100 percent. The latest procedure was at least the third Hertl has had on the knee, and even he said on Dec. 27 that there is “no guarantee” it will put a stop to future problems, as was the intention.
There isn’t much coming in the immediate future at the center position, either. Chris Tierney is a nice piece, but he’s more suited to play in the bottom six. Danny O’Regan – perhaps the best player on the Barracuda that hasn’t been recalled yet – is still too much of an unknown. Pavelski could play center and many times on his line with Thornton he is playing in the middle, but he’s no spring chicken himself, turning 33 this summer.
Replacing Thornton, even at this late stage of his career, would be impossible for a team that perpetually expects to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The less obvious reason this deal needs to get done is that Thornton is still beloved in the Sharks’ dressing room, and is a vital part of the refreshed culture.
Recently when working on a story about rookies Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier, I was struck by something when I asked both of them separately how they’ve been welcomed into the Sharks’ dressing room. The first name each of them mentioned was Thornton’s, and with it came a huge grin.
“They’re all welcoming,” Labanc said, before adding: “Jumbo is probably one of the loudest guys in the locker room. He’s really welcoming.”
When Logan Couture was asked earlier this year about the team making the rookies take a solo lap around the ice in warmups prior to making their NHL debuts, he said: “I think when Jumbo tells them to go do it, they're not going to say no." That says something about the inner-workings of the dressing room, and the role Thornton still plays.
The thought by many after the disastrous 2014-15 season – and that admittedly includes myself – was that there was no way the Sharks would be able to remove the captain’s ‘C’ from Thornton’s jersey and keep him around without negative repercussions off the ice. The culture was in need of a true and swift reset, and that wouldn’t happen with Thornton around.
In fact, though, the opposite has happened. Thornton has remained himself, and the team and the dressing room is better off with Pavelski accepting the captaincy and thriving in the role. As boisterous and outgoing as he is when the cameras or microphones aren’t pointed in his direction, Thornton was simply never cut out to be the unofficial team spokesman, and it showed. It’s not a stretch to suggest that last season’s Western Conference championship doesn’t happen without the changing of the guard at captain.
Thornton might be struggling to get going this season – probably at least in part due to the short summer and World Cup – and the Sharks are going to need more from him than they’ve gotten so far. At some point, either this season or in the future, he’s going to have to accept a lesser role. That could take some coaxing from DeBoer, but Thornton has been on board with all of the head coach's decisions so far.
That's something that can be dealt with in time, though. For now, the Sharks should give Thornton his three-year deal. It’s much too risky for them not to.