Though the Sharks’ season ended with Joe Thornton watching from the sidelines while recovering from a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee, an injury that required in-season surgery, it sounds as though the 38-year-old center has no designs on allowing his tenure in San Jose to conclude in such a fashion.
Speaking with media Tuesday following the Sharks’ elimination from the second round of the post-season, Thornton didn’t mince his words when asked about a return to San Jose, where he has spent 12-plus seasons and the past 961 games of what has surely been a Hall of Fame career. "It's no secret I'm a Shark,” Thornton said, according to NHL.com’s Eric Gilmore. “I bleed teal and I want to come back and I know I'm going to be healthy when I come back. I'm sure we can figure something out, but I want to come back.”
Thornton is so serious about coming back, it turns out, that he went as far as to say he’d be more than willing to accept a pay cut to make it happen, saying there’s “enough money around for everybody” and that his goal, simply put, is to make the Sharks better next season and help bring a Stanley Cup to a city and team that deserves it. Thornton played the past season on a one-year, $8-million deal, a contract that came on the heels of him wrapping up a three-year pact that saw him earn $6.75 million per season.
The big question when it comes to Thornton, however, is what exactly a pay cut looks like and whether or not it will work out for both sides when all is said and done. We can’t know for certain at this point what kind of money Thornton is talking, nor what the Sharks are willing to offer him. What we can go off of, though, is what has happened in recent years, and we have seen players take pay cuts in order to land with organizations they either favored or were willing to give them a shot, to be sure.
For example, last off-season, there were three notable instances of a pay cut for a 35-plus player: goaltender Ryan Miller took a $4 million haircut in moving from the Vancouver Canucks to the Anaheim Ducks, Patrick Sharp signed a one-year, $1-million deal that paid him nearly $5 million less than the year prior to return to the Chicago Blackhawks and Jaromir Jagr, desperate to find an NHL fit, signed a one-year, $1-million deal. That was $3 million than he earned the year prior. Ahead of the 2016-17 season, Brian Campbell pulled a similar move to return the Blackhawks, as well. Earning more than $7.1 million in 2015-16, he signed a $1.5 million deal to make a return to Chicago possible.
There is, of course, a vast difference between Thornton and the likes of Miller, Sharp, Jagr and Campbell, primarily when it comes to effectiveness. Before falling injured, Thornton had scored 13 goals and 36 points in 47 games, making him the second-highest Sharks scorer at that point in late-January. Having played little more than half the season, Thornton finished ninth in team scoring. His effectiveness rarely, if ever, wavered, despite his age. “The last 10 games he played for us, he might've been our best player,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said, according to Gilmore. “He looked like he did two or three years ago. He was back to a point a game and he was playing outstanding hockey.”
So, while the aforementioned veteran foursome took salary reductions in the range of $4 million, Thornton’s ability to produce as a top talent realistically makes him more valuable than any of Miller, Sharp, Jagr or Campbell. And while a similar pay cut would see Thornton earn $4 million next season, that almost seems too deep a discount for the soon-to-be 39-year-old to take, especially given other organizations would likely offer him in the $6 million range, if not more, to come aboard as an unrestricted free agent.
Let’s assume, though, that Thornton does take a similar cut in salary for next season and signs a one-year, $4-million contract that keeps him in San Jose for 2018-19. How does that fit within the rest of the Sharks’ salary structure?
Per CapFriendly, San Jose is set to enter the off-season with $14.5 million in cap space, and it seems fairly safe to assume the cap is going to rise by somewhere in the $3 million range. If we somewhat modestly assume it’s less than that, though, and say the spending limit increases by $2 million, that gives the Sharks $16.5 million with which to work. Not bad.
However, defenseman Dylan DeMelo, who skated on San Jose’s third pairing and notched 20 points, all assists, in 63 games, is due a raise and is arbitration eligible restricted free agent. If we say he’s worth double what he currently earns — maybe steep, but it might be best to use extremes — that brings him up to $1.3 million on his next deal, which pulls the Sharks down to $15.2 million available. Then assume Tomas Hertl, also an arbitration eligible RFA, sees his salary enter the $5.5 million range. San Jose would then have roughly $9.7 million left to spend. There is clear interest from the Sharks, too, on bringing back Evander Kane, who was acquired at the trade deadline. Currently earning $5.25 million and able to hit the open market for the first time, Kane could be looking to cash in. A low-end deal would probably be $6 million per season, and bringing back Kane could leave the Sharks with $3.7 million with which to play.
Not taken into account, however, are other potential additions or subtractions. Does San Jose consider bringing back UFA Eric Fehr, who was a serviceable fourth-liner? Does Wilson see another area the Sharks need to address by way of free agency? Can San Jose finally figure out what to do with Paul Martin, who was waived earlier in the season before being scratched for the final three games of the post-season? He carries a $4.85 million cap hit, and a buyout could be in order if he can’t be dealt. It would save the Sharks $2 million next season. All of this is to say nothing, either, of the reported interest San Jose has in signing superstar free agent John Tavares. That could easily be a $10-million deal, though given the Sharks’ salary structure, it’s hard to fathom Tavares in teal next season.
With the roster staying largely the same, though, the Sharks will have anywhere from about $4 million to $7 million to spend on keeping Thornton around, though the larger number comes only if the salary cap increases to $80 million in time for next season. So, another year with ‘Jumbo Joe’ is most certainly a possibility for the Sharks. But in order for it to work, Thornton’s discount might have to be a deep or his deal awfully bonus-heavy if the financials are going to work and if San Jose is still going to be able to add where necessary.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.