Let me start off by saying there are no new reports about the San Jose Sharks possibly trading Joe Thornton. Furthermore, yours truly frequently argues in defense of No. 19 in teal. My personal preference is to see the Sharks keep Thornton since he remains an elite player. If the Sharks do hold on to Thornton, their roster is still capable of big things with the right tweaks.
But the question remains, what are the Sharks looking to do? Last offseason, GM Doug Wilson used the word rebuild and called his team “not close enough” to the other contending teams. However, this offseason, new head coach Peter DeBoer mentioned wanting to win right away in his introductory press conference.
The Sharks still don’t have a clear identity on who they are. If they aren’t going to bring in the necessary pieces on the back end and between the pipes to compete now, trading their top older stars makes sense. Of course, in Thornton’s case, the soon to be 36-year old has a full no movement clause. While it would be painful for many of us Sharks fans to see Thornton moved, part of me would prefer him to waive his NMC to go to a contender since it doesn’t look like the Sharks are going to fix their roster to win immediately. If the Sharks did move Thornton to a contender, which teams would be good fits? Let’s take a look at the top five.
The Chicago Blackhawks are indeed in a salary cap bind and Thornton is an expensive player. In that sense this would be a hard deal to work out. However, Thornton isn’t as expensive as one might think, signing to a team friendly cap hit of $6.75 million.
Chicago has always been looking for a second line center to play behind Jonathan Toews though and Thornton is still one of the best centers in the game. Assuming Chicago moves out Patrick Sharp in order to fit restricted free agent Brandon Saad, it wouldn’t be impossible to fit Thornton into the mix.
Thornton has two years left on that contract and the Sharks would probably be willing to take on Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg’s combined $6.2 million in cap. They would only do that though if Chicago sweetened the deal by giving up a couple of prime prospects or high round picks. After giving up future to acquire veterans Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen at the trade deadline, does Chicago really want to trade away any more of their future? Maybe, maybe not. If they could make it happen, with two possession monsters in Thornton and Toews up the middle, Chicago could end up in a fourth Stanley Cup Final in seven years.
New York Rangers
Another team that is seemingly always looking for more out of their centers is the New York Rangers. Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard were both solid this year for the Rangers but both were below 50% in the faceoff circle. Only depth forward Dominic Moore took a large number of faceoffs for the Rangers with a percentage above 50.
Thornton, on the other hand, is a beast in the faceoff circle and loves setting up right-handed shooters. Perhaps Thornton pushes Stepan to the wing, and the Rangers go with a Rick Nash-Thornton-Stepan top line? That would be an incredibly difficult line for teams to contain. Two huge bodies with Nash and Thornton and a third top caliber player like Stepan is tough to handle. Nash and Thornton are also good friends who played together overseas during recent lockouts.
The Rangers aren’t in nearly as tight of a cap bind as the Blackhawks, with Martin St. Louis’ contract coming off the books. Thornton can basically replace St. Louis as the contracts are similar. While Thornton makes a bit more than St. Louis, the $1.125 difference is negligible. Thornton would have former Sharks teammate Dan Boyle in New York to help him get acclimated. As for what the Sharks would want back, well, a roster player plus picks and prospects since moving on from Thornton is a rebuild move. A defenseman like Kevin Klein might interest the Sharks who were weak defensively last season, or perhaps backup netminder Cam Talbot along with a first round pick and a prospect.
Another club in need of center help is the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs could use some bigger bodies up front and Thornton fills both those needs at 6’4″ 220 pounds. A top line of Max Pacioretty-Thornton-Alex Galchenyuk could do a lot of damage. That line would take pressure away from guys like Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais from playing against top competition.
If the Canadiens need to balance off some cap hit, Desharnais would actually make sense going the other way as a swap of centers. Of course added to it would need to be a combination of a couple high draft picks or prospects. San Jose would be looking for future pieces to build around. Sharks have a barren cupboard of goaltending prospects so perhaps Canadiens’ prospect Zachary Fucale is moved to San Jose with Carey Price not going anywhere any time soon.
A team deep on the blue-line and in net with only one forward making over $3.25 million, Nashville makes a lot of sense as a destination for Thornton. Rather than re-sign Mike Ribiero, a top-six center bound to be overpaid, Thornton would be a perfect fit in music city. The Predators could use Thornton in a shut down role allowing last year’s star rookie center Filip Forsberg to get away from top pair defensemen.
Thornton would be also be huge for a Predators power-play that was one of the worst in the league at 25th overall out of 30 clubs. An elite set-up man, Thornton is a beast on the power-play making those around him better with brilliant passes and is great along the boards keeping plays alive.
As for what the Sharks would want back, if the Predators aren’t willing to move defenseman Seth Jones, then defenseman Ryan Ellis makes sense. Ellis doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Jones and is signed at a reasonable cap hit of just $2.5 million for the next four years. An extremely solid two-way defenseman, Ellis still only 24-years old and had a nice offensive year with 27 points in 58 games. A smaller guy at 5’10”, Ellis is a puck mover with a strong defensive acumen similar to Justin Braun. Ellis and a first round pick for Thornton would be a win-win for both sides if the Sharks decide they aren’t in a spot to win a Stanley Cup in the next couple years.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders bolstered their defense and goaltending last offseason by bringing in Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, and Jaroslav Halak. They were my pick to make it to the finals out of the East, but for as balanced as they were, it turns out they still need more firepower up front.
Outside of super star John Tavares, the Islanders don’t have many forwards who put fear into opposing defenders. A one-two punch down the middle of Thornton and Tavares would do just that. Plus it has a perfect nickname ready to go: JT Squared. If the Islanders stars are struggling, it would be easy to just say that JT Squared needs to get it going.
If the Islanders need to rid themselves of a questionable contract, the Sharks could take back Nikolay Kulemin or Mikhail Grabovski back in a deal. Grabovski, Anders Lee, and a first round pick for Thornton would give the Islanders Tavares, Thornton, and Strome down the middle.