Maple Leafs return Thornton to top line, a sign of sticking to the plan

Joe Thornton speaks to the media to confirm he'll be in the lineup on Monday to face the Ottawa Senators. He also discusses his injury further and his excitement to get going on a team that is playing well.

TORONTO -- You make a change in pro sports when an injury situation forces your hand or something specific stops working. Or when everything careens so far sideways for your team that you need players to show up for the next game wearing casual clothes and work boots in order to shift the mojo.

Otherwise, you stick with what’s working.

So it did not rank as a ground-shaking surprise to see Joe Thornton back alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in a Sunday practice that served as the 41-year-old’s last mandated sweat before returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs' lineup.

That this had become a local point of debate underscores just how well things went during the 10 games Thornton missed with a crack rib. The Leafs went 8-1-1, Marner put up 16 points and Matthews scored nine times despite also missing one of those games himself.

That’s a sign of how fabulously everything progressed with Zach Hyman skating in Thornton’s left-wing spot on the top line. But it didn’t produce an overwhelming case to keep him stationed there in the larger context of what’s best for the team from top to bottom.

Remember that Thornton was signed by Toronto with a specific role in mind and placed alongside Matthews and Marner right from his first skate before training camp. Remember, too, that 97-34-16 dominated in nearly 50 minutes of 5-on-5 play together before Thornton was injured on an innocent-looking check from Edmonton’s Josh Archibald -- with the Leafs not surrendering even one high danger-chance against in those situations, while controlling shot attempts (73.5 per cent), shots (63.2 per cent), expected goals (73.7 per cent) and scoring chances (79.1 per cent).

There was enough there for head coach Sheldon Keefe to restore the line as soon as Thornton’s health allowed. They’ll likely be sent out to start Monday’s visit by the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena.

“I think the line had enough success and did enough good things in that short window that I didn’t want just an unfortunate injury to Joe to disrupt what was our plan to go with at the start of the season,” Keefe said. “I don’t think the sample was big enough to make any real determinations either way, for the matter. But we want to give it a little more runway here and we’re obviously hoping that it can stick.”

You need to get a true read on whether it works before deciding it doesn’t. There could also be an ancillary benefit gained if John Tavares and William Nylander manage to get some traction with Hyman after seeing a rotating cast of players cycle through the open audition on the team’s second line, and the previous underlying results for that trio suggest they likely will.

But this is about Thornton, too.

While his Hall of Fame talents may be diminished with age, he clearly had something to offer in those first handful of games with the Leafs. His infectious personality remains a source of curiosity here in his new home -- “I think it’ll be a big boost, especially with just the vibe in the room, the team morale,” Morgan Rielly said Sunday when asked about Thornton’s impending return -- but we should not let it completely overshadow what he can still do on the ice.

Keefe always figured Thornton would complement Matthews and Marner nicely because of his ability to control the puck down low, plus the legendary passing ability that’s seen him amass more assists than all but six other players in NHL history.

“Probably the area that I had maybe underestimated a little bit was Joe’s ability to win the puck back,” Keefe said. “Just the number of times where he was tracking guys from behind and with his reach got a stick on puck, created so many loose pucks and turnovers and opportunities for Mitch and Auston going the other way.

“Those kind of things really stood out.”

His is a specialized role, which makes sense given how unique the player is.

There will be some shifts at 5-on-5 where Hyman or even Tavares takes a turn in Thornton’s spot -- a nod to the fact he can’t handle 17 or 18 even-strength minutes per night like his much younger linemates.

Thornton was beaming Sunday at the prospect of rejoining the lineup. He’s been outfitted with extra padding around his ribs and feels comfortable with the pain management after taking plenty of contact during recent skates, saying, “The hardest part is over.”

He’s also had a chance to get in some extra skills work with the player development staff and watch his new teammates climb to the top of the North Division. There’s a healthy appreciation for the role he’s stepping back into with Marner and Matthews, too.

“Feels good,” he said. “Obviously two very talented players that are playing really well right now, so I’m just hoping to keep the good play going I guess.”

Under the circumstances, it only made sense to give it another go.

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