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Thoughts on a Thornton Extension

07/31/2010 at 10:35am EDT

Reports have emerged in the past few weeks, first from Pierre LeBrun and then Craig Custance, indicating that the San Jose Sharks are at work on a contract extension for Joe Thornton. It’s a bit of a no-brainer: Thornton has led the Sharks in scoring in each of his five seasons with the club, he’s established himself as a fan-favorite (for good reason), and it seems he enjoys being a part of the community and organization after his experience with Boston. For better or worse—taking into account his playoff shortcomings and laid-back attitude—it’s clear that the Sharks have hitched their wagon to Thornton.

The big question, then, is not if the Sharks should sign Thornton to an extension, but for how long. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson has already re-signed two key forwards to new deals this summer—Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski—both for four years. In talking to Custance, Wilson said, “We don’t have any contracts longer than four years. We are a player payroll team. We operate the way we operate.” We could assume, then, that Thornton might be extended for three or four more years as well. Would it be more prudent for the Sharks to extend Thornton for longer, though?

This is not to suggest that the team ventures into the territory of decade-long contracts. But a six- or seven-year deal with Thornton, who turned 31 earlier this month, could help to lower his cap hit, an important matter for the Sharks who will likely continue to walk the salary cap tightrope for several seasons if they hope to contend.

Next summer the Sharks will have the benefit of $4.2 million coming off the books if they choose to not re-sign defensemen Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins. And if Devin Setoguchi re-signs this summer for more than one season, they’ll have no other key players coming up for new contracts next summer. Thornton currently has a cap hit of $7.2 million. Take that number down to, say, $6 million or less over six years, and the Sharks will be in a pretty good position for adding an impact free agent defenseman to the fold. That’s an issue they need to address sometime in the coming months, but even the most talked-about options on the trade market—Tomas Kaberle and Kevin Bieksa—will be UFAs next summer. Retaining such a player, or having the flexibility to bring in a player like Mark Giordano, is critical to the long-term health of the team’s defense.

Thornton’s game is not predicated on speed; that’s part of the reason why he’s gotten a bad rap for coasting over the years. But it’s a good thing for an aging player. It’s unlikely, barring injuries, that he won’t be able to continue as the playmaking centerman he is. And if anything, his defense might improve as he becomes a more savvy veteran—at least enough to make up for the loss of speed.

The Sharks have never been a destination for outside free agents, and this persists despite the team’s success over recent years. Players frown upon the extended travel required of West Coast teams, and the bonus of good weather year-round doesn’t seem to be much of a draw. Most players would rather choose to play near home—an issue for both the Sharks and Kings in trying to sign Dan Hamhuis this summer, as they saw their offers of more money ignored for the lure of playing near home in Vancouver.

There are a couple other issues the Sharks face in luring free agents: Stashing defenseman Kyle McLaren in the minors two seasons ago to avoid his salary cap hit was looked upon poorly by other veterans around the league. And some players see the Sharks’ dressing room as possessing too much of a laissez-faire atmosphere, partly due to Thornton’s presence as one of the club’s leaders. Now, retaining Thornton won’t help change that perception, but it seems that securing his talents for several years would be wiser, considering the other elements at play, than trying to lure in Patrice Bergeron or Alexander Semin next summer.

A final point is that Wilson’s statement about not signing players to contracts longer than four years is a bit hypocritical. He may not have signed players to longer deals, but he has, in the past two offseasons, traded for two players who have such contracts: Dan Boyle and Dany Heatley, who had, at the time of their deals, six years and five years, respectively, left on their contracts.

So while this is no call for the Sharks to sign Joe Thornton to a 17-year extension, a deal of around six years, lowering his cap hit, would likely be the best solution to all parties involved. It would be wise if Wilson could find a way for this plan to fit into the organizational philosophy. Other teams, notably the Detroit Red Wings, have done so reasonably, and no one is arguing with their success.

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