Joe Thornton's days with the Bruins could be drawing to a close. Jumbo Joe announced yesterday that he has a deal in place with Davos, Switzerland, and Boston's 25-year-old franchise center intends to play the upcoming season in Europe if the NHL, as expected, doesn't open for business as usual this fall when the collective bargaining agreement expires.
Not stated in the press release, crafted by Thornton's agent, is the fact that Thornton could opt to play in Davos even if the NHL season is salvaged.
Now seven years into what has become a career -- and an era -- noted for postseason disappointments here in the Hub of Hockey, Thornton is a Group 2 free agent, yet to come to terms on a deal to remain with the Bruins.
According to a longtime agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Thornton in recent days told a former Boston teammate that he wants out of here because: 1. The Bruins, in keeping with their club policy this summer, thus far have opted not to offer Thornton anything more than the one-year, $5.5 million qualifying offer they tendered him at the end of last month; and 2. The Bruins thus far have stood virtually comatose on the sideline, losing a host of free agents, which yesterday included Brian Rolston hooking on with the Minnesota Wild.
"Joe went looking for a new deal with the Bruins after July 1," said the source. "And the front office told him that they're going to wait and see what happens over the summer -- they're not interested in doing deals right now. That's when Joe told [his ex-teammate], `That's it, I'm outta here.' "
A source with ties to the Boston front office last night confirmed that Thornton's agent recently asked for a new long-term contract, but general manager Mike O'Connell, once more sighting the unknown course of CBA negotiations, dismissed the offer out of hand and evinced no interest in making a counteroffer.
The Bruins in recent days have refuted a weekend New York Post story, penned by veteran hockey columnist Larry Brooks, that said Thornton requested to be traded. O'Connell, in comments to the Globe and other media outlets, said he never heard that from Thornton or his agent, J.P. Barry, and he further said that he called Brooks to refute the story.
All we can do here is read the tea leaves, but right now they are beginning to hint that Thornton, who in years past could reasonably expect a salary bump to upward of $8 million a year, is angling for at least a holdout.
If Thornton so chooses, he has until Thursday to file for salary arbitration -- a process that would fix his salary for one or two years (team's choice). But that scenario seems highly unlikely, if he's telling an ex-teammate he wants out, and now that he has an escape hatch awaiting him in Europe.
Twelve years ago, would-be Bruin Joe Juneau, a member of the Canadian Olympic team, threatened to sign in Switzerland if he couldn't get a deal done with Boston. An unfazed Harry Sinden, then the Boston GM, responded, "Hope he knows how to yodel." Days later, Juneau was a Bruin.
But much has changed in the NHL negotiating landscape in 12 years and Thornton is a much different customer, after ringing up some $15 million in his years with the Bruins. He easily could spend a year or two in the Alps, even become a master yodeler, and ultimately leave the Bruins little choice but to hand him huge money or, more likely, wheel him to another NHL team. Seven years ago, when they made him the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Bruins blew apart the NHL's entry-level salary system to sign Thornton -- a move now both regretted and disdained by the NHL. For the moment, it appears they won't break the bank for him again.
It was hard enough for the Bruins to sell tickets two weeks ago, with a lockout looming. Now there's the lockout, as well as a roster that might have to be patched together with walk-ons from Matignon and Acton-Boxboro. All of which would play neatly into Thornton's hands, whether he prefers to stay here and boost his price or ratchet up the pressure to be traded. He has the clout -- even if the Bruins end up threatening to let him sit for six years, when he would become eligible for unrestricted free agency at age 31. In the meantime, Thornton, his skill level highly coveted around the league, is the rare candidate who could draw a Group 2 offer sheet from another NHL team, similar to the 1998 offer Carolina made to then-Red Wings forward Sergei Fedorov and the Rangers' offer to Colorado pivot Joe Sakic in 1997. Both the Sakic and Fedorov offers -- ultimately matched by the Wings and Avalanche -- were heavily frontloaded. If the Bruins opted to let him go, their only compensation would be five first-round draft choices. Yes, Group 2 offers are rare, but they happen -- for players of Thornton's age and profile.
So many possibilities. At the moment, the only thing concrete is Thornton's deal in Davos, presented by his agent for one and all to accept as a backup plan. From here, it looks more like a plan to back the Bruins into a corner.