Up front, I am all about Joe Thornton getting his name on the Stanley Cup, and have felt that way well before he made his now-legendary pre-NFT four-goal offer to fans, let alone his John Brown impersonation. He should not end up being this generation’s Ernie Banks.
But he has reached the point where he, too, is all about the ring chase, what with his fresh one-year, league-minimum deal with the Florida Panthers of all teams. Since he doesn’t figure to end up either a coach, general manager, or owner, he’s going to have to do it as a player, which means he has to rely on the kindnesses of strangers to continue his pursuit, and there are few teams stranger than the Panthers. No team has been more fan- or success-resistant, and even when they close in on something, they recede from it just as quickly. They have made the postseason only seven times in 28 seasons of existence, haven’t won a series of any kind since 1996, and last year marked only the second time that they have reached the playoffs in successive years.
Last year, though, was also their best regular season ever, and with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau as their guiding torches they might actually be on to something here. So … Joe Thornton? Sure. Why not Joe Thornton?
Thornton played in a limited role in Toronto last year, trying after years of letting the San Jose Sharks vomit all over his Cup dreams to fast-track his way to the engraver’s bench. But even at the moment of his signing last year, those cynical hyenas in We Don’t Winnsville recognized that he was kind of an ill fit, doing what Jason Spezza essentially does as part of Toronto’s traditional drunk-meets-blindfold-meets-dartboard roster construction theories. And of course the Leafs did what they do, which is Shark themselves. Thornton got to play before his parents, which was good. He did so for a Leafs team that blew a 3-1 series lead to Montreal, which was Leafy.
So now it’s Florida. But frankly, we can’t trust the Panthers’ resume any more than we can the Maple Leafs, so it may be time to consider a loophole made just for Thornton, specifically this:
At the trade deadline, he gets to go to the team he thinks has the best chance of winning the Cup, and he gets to change teams again whenever he wants up until the end of the regular season. He can bounce from Florida to Tampa to Nashville to Seattle to Winnipeg to Dallas to Ariz- … OK, let’s not lose all perspective. You get the point, though. If he’s chasing Lord Stanley, let’s make the path as easy as possible for him to catch it.
And at this point, given that he has been such a correct servant to the league for as long as he has and still has a beard in which you could hide three wasp hives, he should get as many chances as he needs so that he can finally stop shoving coal tenders up a hill that never levels off. In short, Gary Bettman must step in and do whatever he can within reason to free Joe Thornton from this hamster wheel of fourth-line torture before it’s too late.
And if Florida can’t do it any better than Toronto did, Bettman has to find a team that can, even if it means extending roster limits by one player for said team. The idea that Thornton is trapped in a world that he admittedly richly enjoys is frankly reaching its event horizon, and even if it seems ungentlemanly or even too much like brazen charity, screw it. It’s Joe Thornton, and he must be freed. He may never get the four-goal game he teased us with, but this seems like a perfectly reasonable solution.
Or to be more specific, it’s a hell of a lot better solution than what he tried last year. The Leafs? For Cup-chasing? Ideas don’t get worse than that.