Joe Thornton has played 1636 career games in the NHL, his next one could be as a Pittsburgh Penguin. While the 41-year-old veteran has been busy training in Switzerland, looking for any way to keep his legs fresh, Thornton will return and, at this point, his destination is unknown.
The Penguins are thin at center, and general manager Jim Rutherford will look to free agency to address their needs. The team has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, and management seems willing to try newly-signed Jared McCann as their third-line center. After that, is anyone’s guess.
Insert, ‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton
Thornton finished last season with 31 points in 70 games and was his usual playmaking self, collecting 24 assists on a struggling San Jose Sharks team. While his ice time has declined over the years, he can still provide valuable minutes on the second power play and is a veteran presence on the fourth line, which should appeal to Rutherford and the Penguins. It also doesn’t hurt that Thornton’s next deal should be on the cheap.
With Matt Murray’s recent departure to the Ottawa Senators, the Penguins now have roughly $4 million in cap space, and only a few holes left to fill, including the fourth-line center position. Thornton could bring his elite hockey IQ, his playmaking prowess and his stand-up character to the Penguins’ dressing room, as by all accounts, his teammates have always had nothing but great things to say about him, on and off the ice.
For Pittsburgh, this would be a low-risk, high-reward move. We all know Thornton’s best days are behind him; over 23 years in the league will do that to you. However, that doesn’t mean he still can’t be a productive piece on a contending team. With most of their core returning and considering the additions acquired in the last few weeks, the Penguins see themselves in the thick of things, and some secondary scoring could go a long way for the team’s success.
Thornton would also provide the Penguins with some health insurance in case one of their top two centers goes down, which seems to be a reoccurring theme. Last season, the Penguins led the league in man-games lost to injury, and having someone like Thornton slotted in their bottom-six gives them a chance to move him up the lineup when needed. With some extra even-strength minutes for Thornton and a capable veteran for the Penguins, adding him makes a ton of sense for both sides.
The only question that’s really worth considering is if Thornton has any interest in leaving San Jose. Sharks general manager, Doug Wilson mentioned earlier this week that he called Thornton to check-in and, wouldn’t you know it, Thornton’s response was typical:
If Thornton leaves California it will be because he’s been offered some power-play minutes on a contending team. In what could be his last season, he has one thing on his mind and that’s giving himself the best chance to win that elusive Stanley Cup.
The Penguins have everything Thornton’s looking for, we’ll just have to wait and see if he’s done shoveling in time to answer Jim Rutherford’s phone call.