Thornton returning for 24th NHL season

MONTREAL, QC - MAY 29: Look on Toronto Maple Leafs center Joe Thornton (97) during the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs first round game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens on May 29, 2021, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
A 24th NHL season for Thornton? Why not. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The dream won’t die. And why should it?

Fresh off his 23rd NHL season and yet another disappointing finish, Joe Thornton is back for one more year at least, inking a contract Friday with the Florida Panthers. The agreement gives the 42-year-old, and the definition of a grizzled vet, a realistic shot at competing for that elusive Stanley Cup with the upstart group in South Florida.

It will mark a quarter century of professional seasons for Thornton, who added another in Switzerland during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. He was originally drafted first overall in 1997 by the Boston Bruins before playing over 1,100 games with the San Jose Sharks.

Thornton was reasonably productive last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring five goals and 20 points in 44 games. His role did diminish rather consistently, however, after starting the season on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and after picking up a rib injury. He wound up logging fourth-line and power-play minutes by the end, contributing only sparingly to the club’s short-lived postseason run. 

In Florida, it should be a similar role, if not a reduced one for Thornton. However, general manager Bill Zito clearly sees the value in his veteran experience, personality, and perhaps even marketability as a veteran leader aiming to help one of the fastest-rising teams in the league.

The Panthers authored one of the league’s best records last season. Their 37 wins were more than every team aside from the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was effusive in his praise of his first-round opponent after their six-game struggle. 

Florida has lost very little from the roster that pushed the Lightning (save for goaltender Chris Driedger, who is being replaced by top prospect Spencer Knight), while managing to add another front-line scorer in Sam Reinhart. Florida will also get back No. 1 defender Aaron Ekblad, who was lost to a season-ending injury.

With burgeoning talent and cap flexibility, the Panthers are ready to win. For those hoping Thornton achieves some postseason success in what could be his final season, Florida may be as good of a landing spot as any.

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