SUNRISE — Joe Thornton may have left the ice for the final time in his illustrious career when the Tampa Bay Lightning sent the Florida Panthers packing with a second-round series sweep.
After 1,714 games, 430 goals and 1,539 points in the NHL, the 42-year-old forward finds himself at — or near — the end of his career.
If Thornton is at a crossroads, he does not know which direction he will take.
“I have no idea, I haven’t put any thought into it all,” Thornton said. “It happened so quick, it took me by surprise, so I’m sure I’m going to talk with the family and see what the plan is next.”
Thornton came to Florida in hopes of winning a championship and believed in this group.
For a while, it seemed like they proved him right for coming south after the team had its best season in franchise history, won the Presidents’ Trophy and later went on to win its first playoff series since 1996 against the Washington Capitals in Round 1.
Then, everything came crashing down as quickly as it started building up when the Panthers were swept by the Lightning in the second round.
“It’s extremely tough, I didn’t see it coming at all,” Thornton said. “We had such a great regular season and we continued on to Washington, but to get swept against Tampa, it’s something I didn’t see coming.
“I think the guys competed hard all year long and hopefully there are some lessons to be learned there.”
What made it harder for Thornton was that he had to watch most of it from the press box.
While the one-time Hart Trophy winner already had gotten used to a smaller role, playing in only 34 regular-season games, the Panthers’ Game 4 finale was the only game he dressed in during the playoffs.
“I was just trying to keep the boys positive as much as I could,” Thornton said. “As an older guy, you realize that it’s all hands on deck this time of year. I was just trying to keep the team positive and that’s all you could do.”
Still, he was impressed with what he saw from a young Panthers team this season.
“This team competes hard,” Thornton said. “Right from training camp, the way these guys put the work in every day, the practices are very high-tempo, during the regular season these guys played hard each and every night and it’s a long year. It’s a grind.
“These guys put a smile on my face every day. They love to come to work and it was easy for me to join this group and for them to allow me to be a part of it was great.”
But still, whether he will be a part of that group going forward is remained to be seen.
Thornton turns 43 in July and has a lot to mull over this summer, but for now, he is living in the moment.
“I have no plans and it’s kind of exciting that way,” Thornton said. “I’ve been privileged to play this game for a long time, so I don’t take anything for granted, but I never think ‘what ifs’ to be honest, I just try to live in the moment and go from there.”