Joe Thornton spent the first seven and a half years of his career in Boston.

Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

Would Bruins bring Joe Thornton back to Boston?

Ty Anderson
June 14, 2017 - 7:08 pm

Long the strength of the club, the Bruins have questions when it comes to their depth at center.

Ryan Spooner, an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent and healthy scratch to end his season, is likely on the outs in Boston. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, who may have had one of the most forgettable NHL debuts in recent memory, may not yet be ready for a full-time center role at the NHL level. David Backes, for preservation’s sake, probably isn’t a long-term solution in the middle, and there’s just not enough of a book on potential tweeners such as Sean Kuraly (a strong finisher, two goals and 12 hits in five playoff games) and Austin Czarnik (five goals, 13 points in 49 NHL games). And Riley Nash, the likely heir apparent to Dominic Moore as the club's fourth-line center next season, is at his best there. 

So, while the number of bodies may indicate a different story, their statuses tell you that there’s certainly room for another pivot behind the club’s powerful one-two punch of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

How about Joe Thornton?

Maybe bringing the 37-year-old Thornton, who spent the first seven and a half seasons of his NHL career with the Bruins, seems like a longshot, but it was one of the first landing spots mentioned by Comcast Bay Area Sharks insider Kevin Kurz when discussing potential new teams for the pending free agent.

His ultimate preference seems to be staying with the Sharks and why wouldn’t it be? Thornton has been a fixture of Sharks hockey since 2005 (he’s recorded 215 goals and 937 points in 914 games there), and everything about San Jose is up Thornton’s alley both as a player and a person. But should the Sharks try to shake things up in an effort to get themselves over the hump that’s kept them from the franchise’s first Stanley Cup -- they came closest in 2016, when they lost to the Penguins in a six-game Stanley Cup Final -- moving on from either Thornton or fellow pending free agent Patrick Marleau would be a start.

At the same time, he’s still an extremely effective player, with seven goals and 50 points in 79 games last season (numbers that would have undoubtedly been higher for No. 19 had he not averaged just 2.96 shots per 60 minutes, the lowest among NHL forwards with at least 1000 minutes of five-on-five play).

Without a proven upgrade in the picture, the Sharks seem better off with him than without him.

But there’s also no denying that Thornton is at a crossroads with his future.

19 years into his career, Thornton is still in search of his first Stanley Cup. He took those efforts to new heights this spring, too, as he played through a torn MCL and ACL in a round series loss to the Oilers. Losses to the McDavid-led Oilers may become the new obstacle for the Sharks, too, as their reign over the division may just be getting underway, while the Ducks still present a formidable challenge as well. So maybe it would make sense for Thornton, not the Sharks, to decide that it’s time to part ways.

And where would Boston fit into that equation?

Well, I think it almost goes without saying that the Atlantic Division may be the worst in the NHL. It’s an odd mix of teams making an effort to win now (the Canadiens and Lightning), rebuilders (Detroit and the Sabres), and teams trying to work with both philosophies. That’s where a team like the Bruins -- loaded with prospects, but still with older players in a win-now mode (Zdeno Chara. David Backes) -- find themselves in these days before Auston Matthews and the Leafs try to pull a McDavid on the division. 

In essence, Thornton could find himself in the third round with Boston with a bit less resistance than he would with either the Sharks, Blackhawks, or Rangers.

That, especially at his age, is worth something.

But does he make sense for the Bruins? Don’t get hung up on your 13-year-long axe to grind. Of course it does.

The Bruins have repeatedly blamed their shortcomings on their lack of offensive depth. Having Thornton step into the mix as a third-line center and also as a power-play threat (Thornton’s 18 power-play assists were the seventh-most among NHL forwards last season) instantly improves that. His Boston sequel would also come without the pressure of Thornton being thee guy to take the Bruins to a Cup (he would really be a complementary piece, at least in terms of his expectations), which was something he was constantly burdened with during the first half of his career. And that stigma always seems to be outdated as hell, as Thornton has contributed in a big way in his last four playoff runs, with seven goals and 36 points in 46 games, all while often matched up against the opposition’s best. And not that this would mean anything beyond a fun nugget, but B's general manager Don Sweeney played with Thornton for the first six years of Thornton's career, too. So he knows the player. 

It’s a move that would undoubtedly require some cap-maneuvering from the Bruins, who have yet to sign David Pastrnak to an extension that will likely pay him around $6 million per season, but one that would ultimately seem worth it when it comes to capturing the club’s first Stanley Cup in six years. And Thornton’s first Cup in Boston. About 20 years late, but still. 

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