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NHL Free Agency 2017: Thornton’s deal a short-term gamble Sharks can afford to make

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It offers a template to keep Thornton in teal beyond this year.

Calgary Flames v San Jose Sharks Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After reportedly seeking a three-year deal throughout free agency, San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton signed a one-year, $8 million deal on Sunday and ensured his teal tenure would last at least one more season. Although not as long as longtime teammate Patrick Marleau’s three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thornton’s contract is a hefty financial commitment to give a player that turned 38 the day he signed. That is especially so for one coming off of significant knee surgery and his worst offensive season in years.

Thornton will not just be among the highest paid players in their late 30s, but of the entire league. Entering next season, Thornton’s $8 million annual average value (AAV) is tied-for-15th among all players with teammate Brent Burns and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel, and also tied-for-13th among forwards with Kessel. It is also eighth among centers. Thornton’s also just the third player older than 35 since 2013 (Pavel Datsyuk, Marleau) to sign a contract worth more than $6 million annually. Datsyuk and Thornton are the only players older than 35 whose contracts were worth more than 10% of the salary cap, accounting for 11.66% and 10.67%, respectively.

Those figures are worrying given Thornton’s age, his declining offensive numbers last season, and the torn MCL and ACL he suffered in the final week of last season. Thornton showed signs of decline during the condensed schedule brought on by the league’s (and his) participation in the World Cup of Hockey. As a result, he scored 50 points, 32 fewer than the previous season and his lowest in an 82-game season since 1998-99.

He underwent successful surgery in April, and said on a Sunday conference call with reporters that he was going to begin skating in two weeks. Even as he appears to be on the road to recovery, San Jose is making a big bet on Thornton’s ability to return and improve.

They’re also the only team that could have made it.

The Sharks entered free agency flush with salary cap space. San Jose could have spent as much as $18,144,500 before reaching the cap ceiling, which would have been plenty to re-sign all of their remaining restricted (Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen, and Barclay Goodrow) and unrestricted (Thornton, Marleau, and Micheal Haley) free agents.

Thornton was, reportedly, open to signing for less money if it meant the Sharks were also able to re-sign Marleau. San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson didn’t directly confirm in a conference call with reporters on Sunday, but praised Thornton’s adaptability throughout the process of negotiating his return to the club.

“Joe was so flexible with his contract. He agreed a couple days ago on the contract with some versions depending on the circumstances,” Wilson said.

With Marleau no longer in the picture, the Sharks were able to sign Thornton more money than they would have otherwise. It’s a high price to pay, albeit one the Sharks had plenty of space for, as San Jose still has over $10 million in salary cap space entering the 2017-18 season.

San Jose also maintains flexibility beyond 2018, when Thornton’s contract expires, and they’ll need it. Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will see their newly-signed extensions come into effect, and Tomas Hertl will need a new contract.

Thornton’s willingness to sign a one-year deal also bodes well for his own future in teal after this season, assuming he’s able to return to form. Going forward, Thornton wants to take things a season at a time, he said on a conference call with reporters on Sunday.

“Working with [San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson], I think one year works,” Thornton said on a conference call with reporters on Sunday. “At this point in my career, [I want to] just really go year-by-year and see how I feel. I think I have a lot left in the tank, and hopefully after this deal, I’ll keep signing.”

Term proved to be a sticking point in negotiations between the Sharks and Marleau, though not with Thornton. The Sharks did not go to three years, and Marleau was well within his rights to an accept an offer that did.

San Jose then invested some of those savings in Thornton, while still maintaining room to maneuver under the salary cap. It’s still a lot of money to invest in the short-term, considering Thornton’s age, recent performance, and injuries, but only for a year. If Thornton bounces back and maintains a willingness to be flexible on one-year deals after this season, the Sharks just might have found a path to ensure Thornton finishes his career in San Jose.