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Could Joe Thornton be the answer to Montreal’s top-line centre conundrum?

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One of the greatest playmakers in NHL history is approaching free agency, but is also dealing with a knee injury.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It’s rare that one of the NHL’s all-time leading point producers hits the free-agent market. This year two of them are headed in that direction.

One of them is Jarome Iginla, who should only re-sign to retire in Calgary with the Flames, but that’s a different topic.

The other is Jumbo Joe Thornton, and it’s unclear whether his future still lies in San Jose after yet another early playoff exit. The long-time Sharks centre sits in a tie for 22nd all-time in points with 1391, including a ridiculous 1007 assists. Could he be that mythical top-line centre Montreal has been searching for in recent years?

Thornton is one of the best playmakers in the NHL in the past 15 years. Since joining the Sharks his lowest assist total in a season is 33, which came during the lockout-shortened campaign in 2012-13, wherein he still nearly produced at a point-per-game pace. He posted another 50-point effort this season, with seven goals and 43 assists in 79 games for the Sharks. He added another two points in four playoff games, where a torn ACL and MCL limited his ability against the Edmonton Oilers.

The offence and ability to create scoring chances for his teammates is Thornton’s greatest strength, cycling well and feeding passes through the narrowest of gaps.

Defensively, at 37 years old Thornton is more than up to snuff, even while playing major minutes. The way San Jose is structured there was no one line that was buried in defensive starts like Montreal tends to do with some of their lines. Regardless, Thornton was their top centre by ice time.

He responded with a 53.99% Corsi-for percentage while facing top competition night in and night out, which at his age is beyond impressive. He makes everyone around him better and drives offence in the right direction. He should be on every team’s radar this off-season, as it’s rare to have a player of his calibre available.

So where does Thornton fit into the Canadiens‘ lineup? Unless Tomas Plekanec is picked by Vegas in the expansion draft or traded in the off season, Thornton’s acquisition would be difficult from a financial perspective. It would also force someone to the wing, though that’s a minor issue given the talent that would be added. If he were to sign in Montreal, he would assuredly slot in on the top line beside Max Pacioretty. Adding a playmaker of Thornton’s ability to a line featuring one of the NHL’s best snipers and human dynamo Alexander Radulov (if they can afford to give him a contract as well) would be an immediate fix to the Habs’ scoring woes.

There’s an added benefit as well: it could allow Galchenyuk to take on easier minutes at centre and continue developing his game. Flanking him with Brendan Gallagher and one of Paul Byron or Artturi Lehkonen makes for a promising second line. This gives Montreal arguably their best looking top six in quite sometime, in terms of both offensive potential and the ability to control the flow of play.

The last and biggest hurdle in this potential signing is the contract. Thornton is coming off a contract that paid him an average of $7,200,000. At 37 years of age, signing Thornton to anything more than a two-year deal could prove to be a bad move.

As good as his production is, he is beginning to slow down, and major knee surgery isn’t going to help any. Ideally, he could be signed to just a one-year deal, worth around $7 million for the short tenure, taking advantage of the last season of Carey Price’s contract before he’s due for a raise, and then let Galchenyuk develop behind one of the all-time great centres, before stepping into the top role the next season. The problem is Galcheyuk needs a new contract too, and there’s only so much cap space to go around.

It is also fully within the realm of possibility that Thornton re-signs in San Jose. Both he and general manager Doug Wilson are open to the idea of a return to the Bay Area. It likely won’t be easy to pull the former captain away from a team that he’s been a part of for the better part of his career.

There are a lot of pieces that would have to fall into place to make this pipe dream a reality. Marc Bergevin is likely feeling the pressure after another early playoff exit, and going out and grabbing a legitimate number-one centre would go a long way toward fixing the big issue plaguing the Habs. Plus his Team Canada teammates Price and Shea Weber would probably love nothing more than to raise a Stanley Cup banner with their long-time international comrade.

Poll

Would you sign Joe Thornton?

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  • 24%
    Yes, for multiple years
    (484 votes)
  • 50%
    Yes, but only for one year
    (992 votes)
  • 24%
    No
    (491 votes)
1967 votes total Vote Now