Joe Thornton made his intentions clear early when he signed with the Florida Panthers this offseason. He had already accomplished more than enough individually over two-and-a-half decades in the National Hockey League.
At age 42, with only so much time left that he’ll put on skates and sacrifice his body for the game he’s played at the highest level for well more than half of his life, the goal became much bigger and much more specific.
“Everything is about ultimately winning the Stanley Cup,” Thornton said in August shortly after his one-year deal became official, “and the Panthers are right there in my opinion.”
The Panthers fell short of that quest, getting swept by the two-time-defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round after their 2-0 loss in Game 4 on Monday at Amalie Arena.
And now the question: Was this the last time we see Joe Thornton play in an NHL game?
If that does end up being the case, the Panthers are grateful for what he brought to the club during their historic season that ended earlier than they had hoped.
“Joe’s the best,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “Such a no ego type of player. Just a tremendous leader and he’s meant a lot — so much — to our group all year in a way that’s unheralded and sometimes goes through the cracks. He treats everybody the same, regardless of who you are. He’s an unselfish, selfless teammate.”
Thornton’s impact this season, however, primarily came off the ice.
He played in only 34 regular-season games and produced 10 points on five goals and five assists, taking a backseat in game action as the Panthers’ high-powered offense and immense forward depth pushed him down the depth chart.
Thornton was a healthy scratch in each of Florida’s first nine games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before drawing into a lineup on Monday. He played on the left wing of the Panthers’ fourth line with center Noel Acciari and right wing Patric Hornqvist while also seeing time on the power play. Even with that, he was only on the ice for a team-low 6:18 on Monday.
But his influence was still felt in the dressing room.
A surefire future Hall of Famer with nearly a quarter-century of NHL experience, 186 career playoff games and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on his resume provided the Panthers talented playmakers a valuable source of wisdom to learn from this season as they marched their way through the regular season with relative ease.
“He’s been in the league for a while, but he’s still the first on the ice and the last to leave,” center and team captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He brings that, but at the same time, whenever there’s some type of situation when we don’t know what to do, we can always turn to him and ask him questions, ask him to help. Just to talk to him is a pleasure.”
Added defenseman MacKenzie Weegar: “He’s huge. ... He makes us feel like we’ve been playing with him for years now. He’s a great and and he gives us so much confidence. He’s always hyping us up. He provides a lot of wisdom for us. He’s been a great addition and I hope that he sticks around for as long as I’m playing. I’d love to play with him every year.”
Carter Verhaeghe summed it up the simplest and perhaps the most aptly: “I mean, he’s a legend.”
The legendary, 1,714-game career began with the Boston Bruins on Oct. 8, 1997, before three of his current teammates — centers Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen and goaltender Spencer Knight — were even born.
He had seven seasons with at least 80 points, including a career-high 125 in the 2006-2007 season, including 92 points in 58 games after being traded from the Bruins to the San Jose Sharks. He won the Art Ross Trophy (NHL regular-season points leader) and Hart Memorial Trophy (league MVP) that year.
Thornton would spend the next 14 seasons with the Sharks and become the franchise’s all-time leader in assists (804), power-play points (402) and plus-minus rating at plus-161, while ranking second in total points with 1,055. He reached the Stanley Cup Finals with the Sharks in 2016, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.
After spending a year with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thornton made his way to South Florida for his 24th NHL season. He was a paramount voice in the dressing room early in the season when the team maneuvered around Joel Quennville’s abrupt resignation for his involvement in covering up a sexual abuse scandal while with the Chicago Blackhawks. He served as a mentor for the younger forwards in Lundell and Luostarinen while helping the likes of Barkov understand what it takes to be a more vocal leader.
His goal, whether he was playing or not, was to help the Panthers be in a position to win their first Stanley Cup.
“To see a guy of his stature and what he’s done in the game and one of the all-time greats treat everybody the same,” Brunette said, “it’s a wonderful thing to see and wonderful thing to be around and a wonderful thing for all our players on our team to see how true professionalism should be.”
But the Panthers’ quest for their first Stanley Cup — and quite possibly Thornton’s last chance to hoist the cup — wasn’t meant to be.