Joe Thornton is a pretty divisive player in NHL circles. Some people love him, love his beard, and consider him a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Others believe Jumbo Joe to be a quietly dirty player citing examples like incessantly sticking his finger in Henrik Sedin’s eye during a game in 2011 and his hit on David Perron in 2010. I guess it all depends on whether or not you were a Sharks fan in the late 2000's.
One thing everyone can agree on though, is that the only thing missing from Thornton’s resume is a Stanley Cup. Despite being the face of the San Jose Sharks for more than a decade and leading the team to several strong regular seasons, Thornton’s teams never lived up to expectations. They reached just one Stanley Cup Final and only two Conference Finals. Last season, Thornton tried to escape the San Jose cycle with a move to Toronto only to lose in the first round, a sight all too familiar for both Leafs and Thornton fans.
Everyone suspected that Thornton would hang up the skates after last season. He’s 42 years old, and his production has been declining since 2016. But that lack of a Stanley Cup must have eaten away at Thornton during this offseason, as yesterday he signed a one-year deal worth $750,000 with the Florida Panthers.
There’s only one thing I have to say to that: “Hey Joe, it’s not happening there either. As much as I’d love to see you win a Cup, that time has come and gone.”
I understand that Thornton would not be relegated to the same duties he had in Toronto. As a Maple Leaf, Thornton was asked to do way too much for someone his age. He was consistently asked to play on the team’s top line, but couldn’t keep up with other premier skaters. With Florida’s abundance of talent and depth at the forward position, Thornton would likely serve as a third or fourth liner and could easily be given regular nights off to keep him fresh as the season winds down. It’s actually a pretty good fit when you think about it.
How much longer is Thornton going to do this though? Is he going to just sign one-year contracts until he stumbles his way onto a Stanley Cup winner? The longer Thornton spends in the league, the more his legacy is going to fall off. He’s not been able to maintain that high level of play and stamina like Jágr could back in 2017. While people marveled at Jágr’s ability to keep up with the best players in the world even in his mid-40s, the public’s view of Thornton has turned into a sob show where people watch Thornton try to keep up with everyone else and talk about how sad it is to see a once-formidable player in this state. Even if the Panthers win the Cup, Thornton won’t be the reason why. He won’t be someone leaned on for special teams. He won’t be someone called upon for shootout duties, and he definitely won’t be unzipping his pants to celebrate a four-goal performance.
That being said, all Thornton cares about is winning a Cup. All questions about his legacy disappear the moment he holds that coveted trophy over his head. Thornton has been vocal about his trust in the Panthers’ organization: “I love what they’re building and I’m excited to be part of it. But everything is about ultimately winning the Stanley Cup and the Panthers are right there in my opinion.” It would be a storybook ending to a fabulous career. The former number one overall pick finally earns his championship with a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since getting swept in the Cup Final in ‘96 — a year before Thornton was drafted. I can see the 30-for-30 trailer already. It could happen. Florida definitely has the tools to compete with the best of the best, especially given Tampa Bay’s cap situation, but if it doesn’t… Thornton needs to call it quits.
He’s 14th all-time in points with a Hart Trophy, a Ross Trophy, and several All-Star appearances to his name. He’s done more than enough to be immortalized in hockey lore. After this season wraps up, regardless of whether or not the Panthers win the Cup, I hope the entire hockey world tells him: “It’s OK, Joe, you can rest now.”