The Los Angeles Kings have found mild success in taking on... how do we say this diplomatically? ... experienced forwards in recent years. Jarome Iginla spent the final 19 games of his 21st NHL season in LA, while most of Vincent Lecavalier’s 17th season was spent as an LA regular despite having been a healthy scratch for Philadelphia immediately before that. Both contributed big experience, medium offense, and little in the way of possessing the puck. What if I told you that Joe Thornton offers all three of those quantities, even though he’s between the two in age, and the Kings might be able to get him?
Well, you probably have mixed feelings. Fair.
So the idea that LA is not only interested in Joe Thornton, but are making him a priority, understandably is going to dominate the conversation around the Kings until Thornton picks a destination. (It’s dominating San Jose conversation, too.) If we’re talking about hockey ability, though, there’s no reason for mixed feelings around this possibility. If you’re a team signing a free agent, you ask if he improves your team, if he fits a need, and if the reward is worth the risk down the road.
Let’s start with whether he improves the team, and that’s a resounding “yes.” 37-year-old Joe Thornton posted his worst full-season point total since his second season in the NHL, and his Corsi For% was his lowest since 2010-11. And yes, that is a weird way to start that argument. But first, consider that point total was 50, and that he outscored every King not named Jeff Carter or Anze Kopitar. Now consider that the Corsi For% at even strength was still 53.9%, on a team which overall got 51.1% of the shot attempts in 2016-17. At worst, you imagine 38-year-old Joe Thornton will place in the top five in scoring for Los Angeles, and the odds are he’ll battle Kopitar for the team’s assist lead. (A guaranteed 40 assists sounds good from here.) Just as importantly, he’ll be able to keep up with a team that is better at holding the puck than any other team in the NHL.
Does he fit a need? Depends on which need you’re talking about.
The needs he doesn’t fill? He doesn’t kill penalties or take the toughest defensive assignments, but that’s all right when you have Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Nick Shore. He doesn’t shoot the puck, which is bad if (a) you don’t sign any other forwards and (b) Anze Kopitar keeps decreasing his shot total, but the idea seems to be that he gives the other guys more shots. If he’s skating in your top six with Carter on the wing, or Tyler Toffoli, or Tanner Pearson, I’m okay with him taking approximately zero shots. He doesn’t skate that fast, but was that really a problem for San Jose? If you play him with anyone faster, he’ll spring them on a few breakaways.
What need does he fill, then? Playmaking is a given. Carter was second on the team behind Kopitar in assists last year, which seems bad when Carter was also the guy LA relied on to score goals. He also fills the very simple need of “having at least six top-six forwards.” Would you like to know which four forwards Anze Kopitar spent the most time with last year at even strength? That’s right! It was Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Dwight King, and Trevor Lewis. Thornton’s presence allows Kopitar better linemates, and hey, maybe Gaborik, Brown, or Lewis will find a connection with Thornton. And as Jon Rosen pointed out earlier this week, GM Rob Blake and other members of the Kings’ front office already possess said connection.
The risk is there, though, especially if the Kings give Thornton the three-year deal he is reportedly seeking. The point decline is a mild concern, and we’ve certainly seen players in their 30’s see their play fall off a cliff. This isn’t a Lecavalier or a Iginla situation, though, where Darryl Sutter had to make major adjustments simply to keep the two above water. Thornton had 82 points in 2015-16. He’s going to be fine no matter where you put him... unless he’s hurt, which brings us to the other risk. Thornton played playoff games on a torn ACL and MCL in April, and even a speedy recovery might leave Thornton with approximately zero burst for a good chunk of the season. Yeah, he’s not leading many offensive rushes either way, but missing training camp and playing limited minutes sounds like a rough way to start your first season with a new team after ten years with your old one.
Does the reward outweigh the risk? I think so, especially in the near future. Thornton adds an additional dimension to LA’s forward group, and will probably increase LA’s goal total merely by just being there. (And by being one of the game’s best passers, I guess.) The signs do not point toward a rapid decline for Thornton, and there’s potential for a bit of a bounceback in the wake of San Jose’s teamwide decrease in shooting percentage. Thornton’s excellence is no longer a sure thing, but he improves the Kings if he chooses to sign with them.
(Plus, just IMAGINE the reactions from the Bay Area.)