Thornton undecided about returning for 25th NHL season

SUNRISE, Fla. — Joe Thornton said he’s undecided whether he wants to return for a 25th NHL season.

The forward, who turns 43 on July 2, played an NHL career-low 34 games for the Florida Panthers this season and was a healthy scratch for all but one of their 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He played 6:18 in Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday and was on the ice for Pat Maroon‘s game-winning goal in the third period.

The Lightning defeated the Panthers 2-0 at Amalie Arena in Tampa to complete a four-game sweep of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round.

“I haven’t put any thought into it at all right now,” Thornton said Wednesday. “I think it’s still so quick. I wasn’t expecting that. It took me by surprise, so I’m sure I’ll talk with the family and see what our plan is next. I haven’t decided if I’m going to play or not, but we’ll talk and see how everybody’s feeling about it.

General manager Bill Zito said he couldn’t address the idea of ‚Äč‚ÄčThornton returning for a second season with the Panthers until other pending personnel decisions were made. Thornton signed a one-year contract Aug. 13 after playing the previous season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That followed 15 seasons with the San Jose Sharks and seven with the Boston Bruins.

“I said to him, I kind of wished I played with him,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “But I got to coach him, and it was a great experience to be around him every day and the enthusiasm and the joy he brings to hockey. He’s such a contagious guy to be around and was appreciative as a young coach, having to scratch a (likely Hockey) Hall of Famer is never easy, and he never made it anything about anything else besides just whatever the boys need to win. And there’s not too many players like that.”

Thornton finished the regular season with five goals and five assists and moved past Mark Recchi into 12th place in NHL history with 1,539 points. The 10 points were his second-fewest in the NHL, ahead of the seven (three goals, four assists) he had in 55 games for Boston as an 18-year-old rookie in 1997-98. His average ice time of 11:06 with Florida was the lowest of his NHL career.

Despite all that, Thornton said he enjoyed his season with the Panthers.

“It’s a long year and a grind, and these guys put a smile on my face every day,” he said. “They just love to come to work. It was easy for me to join this group and for them allowing me to be part of it was great.”

Thornton said the thought never crossed his mind during the handshake line with the Lightning that it might have been the last time he was on the ice as a player.

“I feel like I’ve been privileged to play this game for a long time, so I don’t take anything for granted,” Thornton said. “But I never think what ifs, to be honest with you. I just kind of try to live in the moment and go from there.”

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