TORONTO -- Three days ago, when the Toronto Maple Leafs began their pre-camp line drills at Ford Performance Centre, Mitch Marner didn’t even bother looking at the assignment sheet.
Marner spotted ol’ linemate Zach Hyman wearing the same shade of practice sweater and tapped the club’s favourite forechecker to join Auston Matthews.
“I’m assuming it’s us three,” Marner said.
“No,” Hyman replied. “You’re playing with Jumbo.”
And with that, the first mini bombshell of this utterly unobserved yet highly scrutinized training camp was dropped.
Joe Thornton: Minimum-wage earner, future Hall of Famer, oldest forward in the league, and -- yep -- top-line winger.
With a point-per-game pitstop in the picturesque Davos in between, Thornton has gone from third-line status on a poor Sharks squad to flanking a pair of all-stars screaming into their prime in Toronto.
Consider: Thornton’s most frequent linemates with San Jose in 2019-20, Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc, combined for 21 goals. Matthews and Marner combined for 63.
Quite the job promotion at age 41.
“Oh, he looks good. We spent quite a bit of time together the last couple of weeks at the Ford Centre skating,” says Matthews, a fellow Swiss A League alum.
“He looks sharp. He just looks like Jumbo out there.”
An excited Marner concurs.
“I’ve watched Jumbo for a long time. How he controls the puck in the O-zone, it’s very impressive to watch. It's going to be fun to play with a very talented playmaker. For me, it’s trying to find holes in the middle of the ice and get to open spots so I can be more of a shooter and more of a threat,” Marner says.
“I'm super excited about it. We've been practising together now for a couple of days. The chemistry’s getting better every day.”
Thornton’s new coach, 40-year-old Sheldon Keefe, relished in the spoiler alert. After questions for the coach’s Sunday media session were cut off, Keefe chose to announce his overhauled top 12.
“So you guys have a little more to talk about,” Keefe smiled.
Line rushes get official on Monday:
Thornton – Matthews – Marner
Vesey – Tavares – Nylander
Mikheyev – Kerfoot – Hyman
Barabanov – Spezza – Simmonds
Thornton’s slotting in and setting up a couple of superstars will snatch the headlines, but there is plenty to chew on here, as all four forward units that bowed out to Columbus in 2020’s summer post-season bubble have been tweaked.
Newbie Jimmy Vesey is blessed with a golden opportunity to not only bounce back but flourish alongside a pair of elite offensive talents in John Tavares and William Nylander.
KHL import Alexander Barabanov has an apparent leg up on fellow fringe forwards (Nick Robertson, Travis Boyd, Pierre Engvall, Joey Anderson) on a revamped checking line. “Really competitive on the puck and never seems to quit on it,” Tavares praises the Russian’s game.
And Hyman’s repositioning on the Leafs’ formerly problematic third line has Keefe particularly excited about showcasing his depth and injecting some much-needed balance and identity to the bottom six. It also gives a bulked-up Alexander Kerfoot (now 184 pounds) a second crack at establishing his value up the middle.
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In theory, jobs could be won or lost over the nine days before the season opener. But with zero exhibition games and only two intrasquad scrimmages before the Leafs’ home opener on Jan. 13, this is Keefe’s likely starting 12. (With the understanding that tryouts and chemistry experimentation will roll into the regular season.)
The organization believes Thornton can hang with the kids and is giving him every opportunity to do so. Toronto is doubling down on the low-risk, high-intrigue gamble that is Jumbo. Moreover, the Leafs are sandwiching its supreme sniper between two of the best passers outside of Green Bay’s city limits.
Wait. What if Ovechkin was supplied with two Backstroms?
If it works, the secondary assists should stack like Pringles, and Matthews’ tape job will be in for a beating.
This is a roster decision that aligns with Keefe’s view of the game. He fashions himself a possession-minded coach. Why dump-and-chase when you can pass-and-create? And few can cling onto a puck like the six-foot-four, 220-pound Thornton, who should be an asset in Toronto’s bid to add a cycle threat to its deadly rush attack.
“He’s a big frame,” Matthews notes. “It's nice to know whenever we're in trouble that we got an outlet because he hangs around the net -- in front of it, behind it.
“He's so big and strong and can protect the puck so well. So, little give-and-gos, just trying to get open for him because you know he's got great vision -- even with guys draped all over him.”
Marner zeroes in on Thornton’s magic below the goal line and those soft hands that have racked up 1,089 assists in the NHL. If Jumbo can spot and thread seams down low through traffic, he’ll contribute to Matthews’ race for the Rocket Richard Trophy and give Canadian division netminders fits.
“That's very hard for goalies to see the puck coming through those players,” says Marner, who made a new year’s resolution to shoot more in 2021. “For us, I think it's just being ready for shots and second chances.”
Adds goalie Frederik Andersen, thinking back to his California days: “Definitely had some trouble with him and his playmaking abilities. He’s as good as anyone.”
Even the most star-studded trios don’t possess the puck 100 per cent of the time, however.
Inevitably, some will question whether an ageing Thornton can defend the opposition’s top lines. A legitimate concern when you see Connor McDavid and Kyle Connor speeding into the Leafs’ schedule over and over again.
Marner says he and Matthews don't always get enough recognition for their defensive efforts, how dogged they are on the backcheck and how often they steal pucks. He believes Thornton can complement their two-way play, and recent numbers hint that this could work:
At the very least, it’s an option worth exploring right away. And it presents Thornton with a vote of confidence and every chance to make an impact with his first new squad in 15 years. And shifting a natural centre to the flank lessens the risk of exposing Thornton’s declining footspeed.
“It's been great so far having him here. He's been a great addition, brings great energy to the rink every day,” Matthews says.
“Everybody’s super excited to have him on the team.”