Joe Thornton playing key role in Maple Leafs' success since return

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston break down the latest Toronto Maple Leafs win over the Ottawa Senators, including why Joe Thornton deserves a lot of credit for the success of the team lately.

TORONTO -- If Joe Thornton was the second-oldest player in another league, they wouldn’t have let him anywhere near the playing surface for his third game in four nights after a month on the sidelines nursing a fractured rib.

They’d have called it load management and deemed it a mandatory night off.

But hockey’s culture hasn’t fully come around on a practice that’s become standard operating procedure elsewhere and Thornton is above all else a hockey player. So there he was Thursday, 24 hours after playing a season-high 18:15, and wouldn’t you know it he was chiselling another entry into the Toronto Maple Leafs' record book.

Thornton became the oldest player in franchise history to register a three-point night during a 7-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators and he needed only the first period to do it. His inspired run alongside Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner continued with a goal and two assists before the intermission, bumping the Leafs ‘smiles per 60’ rate in the process.

“It’s a blast,” Matthews said of playing with Thornton. “He’s a buzzsaw, he never stops.”

Thornton has an enviable seat to watch two of the game’s most electrifying players, but he’s been no passenger. His movement is more economical than what you get from Marner and Matthews, tightly fixed to the area around the net in the offensive end, and it’s allowing the Leafs to put opponents in the blender.

There was skepticism, if not outright derision, when head coach Sheldon Keefe announced on the first day of training camp that Thornton would be getting top-line reps in Toronto.

Go back and dig up the takes: They ranged from “this will only be temporary” to “this is just a distraction,” without much along the lines of “this should work wonderfully” mixed in.

Except here we are more than five weeks into the season and the Leafs top the NHL with a 13-3-2 record. Were Keefe inclined, he could have easily bumped Thornton down the lineup while easing him in after a 10-game absence but instead he went back to the original plan -- seeing him contribute to eight Toronto goals in nine periods against the Senators this week.

“It’s just easy to play with him,” Matthews said. “As we play more and more games and practice and get more touches with each other, the chemistry seems to get better. We just want to keep that going.”

They are generating 65 per cent of the expected goals while playing together and 88 per cent of the actual ones that have gone in the net across 85 minutes. It obviously helps to be skating with Marner, the NHL’s third-leading scorer with 27 points, not to mention its most dangerous sniper in Matthews, who has a ridiculous 16 goals to show for his 17 games.

But Thornton’s ability to win pucks back in transition and extend offensive zone shifts with possession have factored into the success, too. Plus there’s the legendary passing ability that’s already secured his eventual spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

That line set the tone in the rubber match of a three-game set with Ottawa that had been much tighter than the Leafs cared for through the first two games.

“I just thought they had a lot of motion, a lot of movement,” Keefe said. “They were very much in sync in terms of how they supported one another and how they moved the puck. And then of course just the skillset that goes with all of those elements.”

Thornton’s three points bumped his season total to eight in his first eight games with the Leafs. At 41 years and 231 days, he wiped away Carl Brewer’s Jan. 7, 1980 record for the oldest Toronto player to have that many points in a game (Brewer was 41 years, 78 days).

“It’s unbelievable, both what he brings in the locker-room and on the ice is huge for us,” said teammate William Nylander. “A lot to learn from the guy. He’s performing every night.”

Thornton could prove to be big value for a cap team this season while playing on a league-minimum $700,000 contract. Of most importance to the Leafs in the near term is how much jump he had following the painful rib injury, and how well he navigated the busy schedule upon his return.

It was clear Keefe didn’t feel the need to keep him on a pitch count. He saw 39 total shifts in the Wednesday and Thursday games.

“I felt fine,” Thornton said. “I think it’s good for me to get a bunch of games in a row like this and just kind of get my timing back. I like rolling every other night and playing lots of games so I think it’s actually going to help me.”

Hockey players are a different breed and they don’t make too many like Thornton.

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