Sharks Are Still Thornton‘s Best Shot at a Cup

Don’t shed a tear for San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton. It’s not over until the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Jumbo Joe sings and calls it a career.

Thornton vs. Marleau

Obviously, Thornton remains with the Sharks despite general manager Doug Wilson’s willingness to move both him and fellow-veteran Patrick Marleau at the trade deadline. Marleau got traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional third-round pick. Thornton apparently didn’t attract the same bites, despite a higher point-per-game clip this season.

While he has a no-movement clause, Thornton did express disappointment that he didn’t get dealt. There was reported interest, just not from a supposedly legitimate contender. It’s curious, because just about everyone would consider the Penguins a contender.

So, either the Penguins simply preferred Marleau and his extra seven seconds of ice time per game this season or Thornton didn’t want a chance to play with Sidney Crosby down the stretch. Either option is just as bewildering. Keep in mind both Marleau and Thornton play center and are the same age.

San Jose Sharks Patrick Marleau
San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jeff Chiu)

Granted, Marleau has six more goals this season, but Thornton was rarely if ever considered a big goal scorer. They are different players for all intents and purposes. Nevertheless, despite Marleau’s (relatively) superior mobility, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who considers Marleau, a guy whose contract the Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a first-round pick to get rid of and the Sharks didn’t even want to re-sign at first, more valuable, especially in the bottom-six role he’ll play down the stretch for the Penguins.

Thornton Stays with the Sharks

Maybe Thornton’s massive $2 million hit was enough to scare away the Penguins who are admittedly right up against the cap. Nevertheless, the takeaway for Thornton here is doubly disappointing. Not only did he just apparently discover not a single legitimate contender was interested, presumably even in him as a depth player, but he just found out in a roundabout way that his prospects come July 1 aren’t all that great, either.

If you’re a contender, and you’re unwilling to find space for a 40-year-old Joe Thornton in a supporting role on the team-friendliest of deals down the stretch, are you really interested in a 41-year-old Joe Thornton over an entire season? The ramifications are clear: In spite of rumors of Thornton and the Toronto Maple Leafs being a good fit (because apparently Thornton plays defense), the Sharks may still be his best, nay realistically only shot at a championship.

Yeah, the Sharks are in the throes of a disappointing season. However, Wilson, in spite of his inability to do Thornton a solid and trade him here, is still one of the best in the game. His record of a single non-playoff season with the Sharks up to now (not including 2019-20) is proof the Sharks can rebound. Remember, the last time around they reached the Stanley Cup Final the following campaign.

Doug Wilson San Jose Sharks Ken Holland Edmonton Oilers
San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson and Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland of the Edmonton Oilers – (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

In effect, all bets are off if Wilson can address his team’s weakness in net (3.27 goals-against average) and replace Martin Jones with an unrestricted free agent like Jacob Markstrom, Jaroslav Halak or Robin Lehner. Of course, the Sharks would have to want to re-sign Thornton but it’s become abundantly clear the 2006 Hart Memorial Trophy winner has a lifetime contract with the Sharks if he wants it, assuming his contract demands adjust accordingly with whatever space Wilson has left.

Thornton’s Limited Options

That’s a pretty safe bet. After all, Thornton’s hit has gone down from $8 million to $5 million and now to $2 million over his last three contracts. Furthermore, judging by his post-trade-deadline comments over his disappointment at not having gotten a shot at a Cup, he clearly wants one. It’s just a matter of how badly, if he’s willing to take another kick at the can.

Thornton’s options may be limited at this stage, but he’s far from helpless. The Sharks may realistically be the only shot he has left at a Stanley Cup after this season, but it’s up to him to call it, even if “it” ends up being his career. He’ll still be leaving the game on his terms if he decides to retire. Of course, it would be far from the ideal outcome, but some of the greatest pieces of performance art in history end in tragedy. That’s not the case here though, considering his 1,600-plus NHL games played over a 23-year career up to now.

Joe Thornton Sharks
Joe Thornton – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Thornton theoretically could have gone to a non-contending playoff team this trade deadline. He reportedly preferred to stay with the Sharks, which says to any objective observer he’s got some idea of how he wants to go out: Win or lose, it’s likely as a Shark. In that sense, even if he may not end up winning, he can’t really lose. The Cup won’t come this season. Chances are better than not it won’t come at all, but, disappointed as he may be, Thornton must know the truth: the Sharks are still his best shot… and, regardless of whether or not he’s successful in the end, he’ll have earned the standing ovation he inevitably gets.