It’s time to do that thing that it seems we do each and every NHL offseason: discuss the prospects of Joe Thornton signing on with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The latest to bring the discussion to the fore is The Athletic’s James Mirtle, who wrote in depth about the “mutual interest” between Thornton and the Maple Leafs, mentioning that talks between the two camps have reached the “beginning stages.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time the Maple Leafs and Thornton have kicked around the idea of the legendary forward signing on with his hometown team — or at least the one considered adjacent to where he grew up. Thornton was one of two members of the San Jose Sharks involved in discussions with the Leafs three years ago, but it was Patrick Marleau who made the decision to join the core in Toronto, while Thornton remained on the west coast.
At varying degrees in the offseasons since, it seems the connection between the player and club has remained. And with the Sharks working to reload what’s become a mediocre roster, and the Leafs scavenging for inexpensive talent to fill out one they hope can compete for a championship — which is the one thing missing from Thornton’s Hall of Fame career — it makes all the sense in the world that these discussions are being had again.
What’s important to note is that it isn’t as though this can’t-miss opportunity to win is being dangled in front of Thornton’s heavily-bearded face. What’s clear is that for this potential partnership to be worth it for the veteran and the success-starved organization is that Thornton actually increases the Leafs’ likelihood of winning.
So the question is: Can he?
Incredibly, Thornton didn’t miss a single game for the Sharks in his age-40 season with the organization. He appeared in all 70 games in the pandemic-shortened regular season, scoring seven goals and finishing with a career-low 31 points (unless you include his rookie season with the Boston Bruins back in 1997-98). Further, Thornton had just eight points on the power play, special-teams scenarios in which he dominated at the height of his powers.
Thornton had two primary linemates, logging roughly 70 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Marcus Sorenson and Kevin Labanc, who also had disappointing seasons. The trio was not caved in from a shot-attempt perspective, but had basically zero positive impact, combining for two goals across 125 total 5-on-5 minutes.
While it’s clear Thornton was in an unfavourable position to deliver strong numbers and that his poor surroundings — a bad team with bad goaltending — were detrimental to the underlying data, the Sharks were outscored 32-44 in Thornton’s 5-on-5 minutes, all told, while essentially being a non-factor on special teams.
While the Leafs are loaded with talent, Mirtle mentions that Thornton is being looked at as a possibility at the third-line centre position, or a role that would certainly demand something of him. The Leafs have sold off middle-six contributors Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson already this offseason in order to improve their defence and remain cap compliant. And if he’s to replace Alexander Kerfoot in the centre-ice position, that means the Leafs likely have other plans for the only other mainstay on that line from last season.
If Thornton was to fill that role for the Maple Leafs, it’s hard to say that his surroundings would be definitively better than what he had in San Jose. Wayne Simmonds, another name-brand player, is no sure thing, and neither are Jimmy Vesey, Ilya Mikheyev and Nick Robertson, who should be considered in the mix for the third-line left wing slot.
After selling off several important assets in the middle six, the expectation from the third-line centre needs to be that he drives results, and there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s within Thornton’s capabilities as he continues on a downward trajectory into his 40s.
In a perfect world, Thornton is deployed from the fourth line and chips in a little bit offensively while his linemates offer other utility, while also serving some purpose on the second power play. The problem is the Leafs have that exact player already in Jason Spezza.
With Simmonds and Spezza in the fold already, and eating up top power-play minutes (potentially) and the less-important centre-ice function, respectively, the risk of redundancy is there when gauging Thornton’s fit with the Leafs.
While the Leafs can do worse than signing Thornton on a risk-free deal that comes in below the threshold for what can and cannot be buried, expecting him to bring plus contributions to the third-line centre spot at this point seems hopeful more than anything, and dangerously so.
At the outset of free agency, it seemed imperative that the Leafs prioritize fit and function over brand name, and it seems especially important now with legitimate holes that still need to be filled up front following the additions to the blue line in T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian.
That’s why passing on what makes for a good story is the right move for the Leafs right now.
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