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It’s hard to make long-term sense of Kings’ interest in Thornton

Joe Thornton and the Kings have reportedly been in touch during the free agent discussion period, but Los Angeles should be wary of bringing Thornton aboard if he'll be around beyond next season.

Joe Thornton has spent the better part of the past 12 seasons playing in California, and as he gets set to potentially hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, there’s a fair chance Thornton sticks around in the Golden State. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll remain a member of the San Jose Sharks.

It was reported Tuesday by LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen that Thornton has been contacted by and has communicated with the Los Angeles Kings during the week-long free agency discussion period ahead of signing season opening on July 1, and that has sparked some speculation that if Thornton is going to sign elsewhere, it could be with the Kings. That’s especially true after Rosen reported the Kings have called Thornton a “priority” as free agency approaches.

One can understand the interest in Thornton, of course. He may be on the back-nine of his career, but ‘Jumbo’ posted seven goals and 50 points while skating 18-plus minutes per night for the playoff-bound Sharks this past season. He’s also only one season removed from a 19-goal, 82-point campaign and a run through the playoffs in which he contributed three goals and 21 points en route to the Stanley Cup final. That he’s managed that level of production over his past two seasons is a clear indication that Thornton still has some offensive punch to offer.

There’s also no denying that Thornton, even at his age, can still be the setup man that drives a power play. He has posted 17-plus power play assists in each of the past six seasons, including 18 for the Sharks in 2016-17 to go along with one goal with the extra man. Thornton also isn’t half bad in the circle — he boasts a 53.9 winning percentage across the past three seasons — and he’s a steadying force defensively. He has received votes for the Selke Trophy in each of the past three campaigns, including a fifth-place finish in voting in 2015-16.

On top of his individual play, there’s also a matter of Thornton coming into town and making Los Angeles that much stronger down the middle. Anze Kopitar can still man the top unit with Jeff Carter as the No. 2, which would allow Thornton to play as a third-line pivot. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the opportunity to move Carter onto Thornton’s wing, if coach John Stevens so chooses.

And make no mistake, financially speaking, Thornton could absolutely fit in Los Angeles. While the Kings aren’t in the best cap situation, it’s not as if new GM Rob Blake is facing his first off-season without two nickels to rub together. The Kings have slightly more than $10 million in available cap space with only a handful of restricted free agents who are in dire need of new deals. That should be more than enough money to pursue someone such as Thornton, if that’s the Kings’ choice.

But the question Los Angeles should be asking themselves when it comes to Thornton is how he would really help the organization take a step toward the future.

In the here and now, the Thornton acquisition is tantalizing, to be sure. The idea of Thornton skating with Carter is intriguing, and his aforementioned work on the power play, when paired with the top-tier talent the Kings do boast, could make for an excellent fit. He would absolutely add something to the roster this coming campaign. But Thornton’s contract ask goes beyond one season. In fact, it’s been reported he’s seeking a three-year deal. And in three years, the Kings would be looking at a 41-year-old Thornton with no guarantee his production would continue to float around 50 points. The impact of the three-year deal goes beyond a potential dip in production, too.

Look at it this way: if the Kings were to sign Thornton on a three-year deal at $6 million, which is a pay cut from his most recent three-year, $20.25-million contract, it would leave them with about $4 million to spend on their current RFAs. Once Kevin Gravel, Nick Shore, Michael Mersch, Jonny Brodzinski and Andrew Crescenzi are inked, Los Angeles could be left with less than a couple million to work with in the rest of the off-season. That would also carry over into the coming off-seasons, as there’s not a single significant contract set to come off the books until Drew Doughty’s deal finishes up ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. Thus, spending on Thornton now could prevent a younger player, with more long-term potential, from signing with Los Angeles in the next few years.

And what the Kings desperately need right now is to start bringing in some younger skill players who can form the next generation. That’s the area where the Kings are most sorely lacking. And it’s not as if those prospects are lying in wait. In THN’s Future Watch 2017, a panel of scouts ranked Los Angeles’ prospect depth as the worst in the league. Only two prospects, Adrian Kempe and Kale Clague, cracked the top 100 rankings, and there’s really not much in the way of no-doubt, future-star calibre talent in the ranks.

While bringing in top talent makes up for a lack of prospects, if that top talent is also nearing the end of their careers, there’s no long-term outlook. Thornton isn’t going to be sticking around for five years, let alone 10, and bringing him aboard only leaves the Kings closer to the cap for the next few seasons with little room to add even if a sought after, prime-aged free agent hits the open market. And that’s the type of player Los Angeles should be looking to sign, not veterans who are heading into their last hurrah.

So, while the Kings may be interested in Thornton, it might be best for the Kings to let him end up elsewhere, because for whatever he provides in the short-term, it could end up leaving Los Angeles with yet another long-term regret.

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