With the uncertainty of the next season, we’ll call it the 2021 season now, Joe Thornton has opted to lace up his skates in Switzerland.
The 41-year-old veteran, or legend as HC Davos called him when it announced his return on social media, returns to the team for his third stint. He played for the Swiss squad back in 2004-05 when the NHL was in a lockout and in 2012-13 for a short stint before the shortened season started after another labor dispute. Thornton met his wife, Tabea, in Switzerland during his first tenure and they return during offseasons.
In 73 games he has racked up 90 points (22 goals, 68 assists) and helped lead the club to the league’s championship and the Spengler Cup. During that 2004-05 season, he teamed up with fellow NHLers Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman. He is expected to play in HC Davos’ game on Saturday.
Circling back to the NHL, the big question, for now, is: Where will “Jumbo Joe” play when the season does resume? An unrestricted free agent, Thornton may be ending his 15-year tenure in San Jose.
Back in February, he expressed his disappointment at not being moved to a Stanley Cup contender at the deadline — like his buddy Patrick Marleau was to the Penguins.
“I wanted a shot, you know? Believe it or not. I’ve been hunting this thing down for 22 years, so I wanted another shot at it,” he said the next day, per The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz. “I wanted to get something (for the Sharks) in return. It just didn’t work out. Back to the grind, and that’s how it is.”
Marleau re-signed with the Sharks on Tuesday, but some are speculating that the non-move left a bad taste in Thornton’s mouth.
“I can still go back there, it’s all open,” he told Tages-Anzeiger, a Swiss German-language newspaper, on Thursday.
“I’ve been watching this, all the ‘buzz,’ the questions about what’s going to happen to me,” Thornton added. “The desire to continue playing [in the NHL] is there. I will be able to prepare myself well for it here in Switzerland.”
So will he continue it in San Jose or elsewhere? There has been some speculation about him joining his old pal Joe Pavelski in Dallas; however, the biggest rumors are circling the Maple Leafs.
“My understanding is both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe have talked to Joe Thornton about the Leafs’ interest in him and, so, I think it’s genuine,” TSN’s Pierre LeBrun recently told Andi Petrillo and Craig Button on TSN Radio 1050’s “Leafs Lunch.”
“The Leafs did approach him in 2017,” LeBrun added. “And at the time they were trying to sign both Thornton and Marleau. But what’s interesting is at that time that was a Mike Babcock-Lou Lamoriello issue. . . . This time around it’s Dubas and Keefe.”
Of course, Thornton has been a Shark longer than his beard can grow, and cutting ties with his home since 2005 could be tough. But the Sharks are in the midst of a rebuild and with time winding down for the future Hall of Famer, a move may be just what Father Time ordered.
Is a move east — and about a two-hour car ride from where he grew up in St. Thomas, Ont. — the right one? Well, the Leafs could use him. Keefe’s squad severely underperformed in the qualifying round and couldn’t rebound when trailing in games — one game notwithstanding. Having Thornton, who has been on deep playoff runs, including a Cup Final, and is a loud, vocal presence in the locker room and on the bench, could just be what the team needs to rebound in tight games.
They also need a third-line center. With their personnel at the moment, Alex Kerfoot is slotted in at that position, and while he did an admirable job in the postseason sandwiched between Kasperi Kapanen (who has since been traded) and either Ilya Mikheyev or youngster Nick Robertson, Thornton would be an upgrade. Andreas Johnsson, who skated with Kerfoot and Kapanen during the season but missed the bubble with a knee injury, was traded to the Devils.
Sure, Thornton only collected 31 points in 70 games during the 2019-20 truncated season, but the previous year he had 51 in 73. His linemates of Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorenson also showed a lack of production, but when you look at 5v5, they actually had a 55.40 percent Corsi For and a 55.26 percent Scoring Chances For (per Natural Stat Trick). It should be noted that Thornton is also a key power-play guy and his insertion into the unit would definitely not hurt an already powerful power-play group.
That Keefe has reportedly spoken to Thornton is a sign that they want “Jumbo” in a Leafs sweater; after all, when a coach calls and says (presumably), “Hey, this is how you’ll fit and get us to the promised land,” it definitely gets the wheels spinning. Now it’s up to Thornton to decide what’s next. But for now, he’s gearing up to dominate in the Alps.