Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Ottawa Senators free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
The All-Time Best San Jose Sharks Free Agent Signing
2000 – Scott Thornton – Four Years, $5.875 million
A 6’3, 220-pound left winger, Scott Thornton was originally selected in the first round, third overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He would play only 33 games in Toronto, recording a goal and three assists before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers. Thornton would spend five years with the Oilers organization and the next three and a half with the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs would ship Thornton to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Juha Lind on January 22, 2000.
Playing the second half of the season with the Stars, Thornton would come as close as he ever would to winning the Stanley Cup. The Stars, who won the cup in 1999 (or maybe not if you are a Buffalo Sabres fan) made it back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2000 but fell in six games to the New Jersey Devils.
Then-Sharks General Manager Dean Lombardi signed Thornton as a free agent, July 1, 2000, to a four-year, $5.875 million contract.
Thornton skated in 342 games for the Sharks over four seasons, registering 147 points to go with 439 penalty minutes. From the start of his tenure, his style of play clicked with center Mike Ricci. Along with Niklas Sundstrom on the right wing, the trio formed the best third line in San Jose Sharks history combining for 305 points the three years they were together. It would likely also be in the running for one of the stronger second lines as well.
Then an up-and-coming executive, Lombardi largely built the Sharks via the draft and shrewd trades. The NHL back in the early 2000’s was still one of dump-and-chase and grinding with low scoring hockey. The two-line pass was still around and goalies were free to move around outside of the trapezoid implemented today. Thornton, a power forward with decent skills with his hands on the puck or an opponent’s jersey, made the Sharks deeper and tougher. Along with Ricci and Sundstrom, the Sharks had an excellent cycling line that would wear down teams in the corner.
Thornton’s five years in San Jose saw mixed results team-wise. The Sharks made the playoffs in each of his first two years as he had consecutive career years, including 26 goals in ’01-02. He would struggle through an injury-plagued 2002-03 year that saw the Sharks struggle mightily after star goaltender Evgeni Nabokov held out early in the year. Following the NHL lockout, Thornton continued to see his point production slide and ultimately departed following the 2005-06 season.
In the pre-salary cap era, the San Jose Sharks were not a free-spending team. Very few notable signings are part of Sharks history outside of some aging but serviceable players like Tony Granato, Bobby Dollas, Bernie Nicholls, and Kelly Hrudey. The deal for Scott Thornton was still a good deal both for him and the team. The Sharks got three good years out of the power forward who was a key cog in the Sharks early 2000’s playoff teams. Thornton enjoyed career years in San Jose and received a solid paycheck for a third line player back in those days.
The rugged left wing posted a 19-goal and 36-point campaign in his first year in teal. The Sharks, however, lost in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the St. Louis Blues. The following season, Thornton would record 42 points and 116 penalty minutes as the Sharks would fall to the Colorado Avalanche in the second round.
Ahead of the 2002-03 season, there were high expectations for the Sharks coming off the team’s first ever Pacific Division championship. The struggles early would cost long time head coach Darryl Sutter his job, as he was relieved of his duties just 24 games into the season. Ron Wilson was quickly brought on board but could not steady the Sharks sinking ship. Captain Owen Nolan, would be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and both Marcus Ragnarsson and Niklas Sundstrom would be shipped out as well.
Lombardi, who had been part of the San Jose organization since the team’s inception, would not see the end of the year. The Sharks fired Lombardi on March 18, 2003, as the entire organization endured a major shakeup.
Thornton himself would post 21 points in 41 games before the season would come to an end for him. A high stick against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a fight-filled tilt would put Thornton out for the year with a head injury.
The following year, Thornton would see his totals dip to 27 points in 80 games, but the team would rebound to win the Pacific Division and make it to the Western Conference Final. But the ghosts of seasons’ past would haunt the resurgent squad. Former backup goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and coach Sutter would guide the Calgary Flames past the new-look Sharks in seven games and go on to play for the Stanley Cup, ultimately losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The following season would be Thornton’s lowest output in teal, with only 21 points in 71 games. It would also see his cousin Joe Thornton’s first campaign with the Sharks after being acquired in December in one of the best deals the Sharks have made in their history. One Thornton era was beginning just as the original was ending.
Leaving San Jose
With a team-held option for his potential sixth year in San Jose, general manager Doug Wilson decided to decline the option to allow Thornton to become a free agent in the summer of 2006. Declining to option Thornton and then trade him to get some return was odd, but Wilson was plain in his decision.
“It’s not every player you do this for, but I have a lot of respect for him,” Wilson said to the Associated Press when the Sharks opted to make Thornton a free agent. “This gives him time to check out his options.”
Thornton would sign with the Los Angles Kings, reunited with Lombardi. He would play two more seasons, with diminishing results, before retiring in 2008. The London, Ontario native would finish his NHL career with 144 goals, 141 assists and 1459 penalty minutes in 941 games played.