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Why the Maple Leafs Are Better with Joe Thornton on Their Roster

Joe Thornton just signed today with the Maple Leafs. Why is the team better because he’s on it?

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Today the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Joe Thornton has signed a one-year contract with the team. That contract will pay Thornton the NHL league minimum of $700,000.

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That Thornton, who’s been used to much higher contracts, would sign at that level is a surprise. He’s obviously assessed that the Maple Leafs have a chance to take a run at the Stanley Cup, which is something that’s eluded him for a career. He also obviously assessed that the San Jose Sharks – the team he’s leaving – did not offer him that same opportunity.

With the Maple Leafs, Thornton joins forces with another aging veteran who also doesn’t hide the fact that he’s chasing the Cup as well – Jason Spezza. (Sounds a bit like the movie The Bucket List.)

Is Thornton Too Old and Slow to Help the Maple Leafs?

Thornton has played for the San Jose Sharks for the past 15 years. The 41-year-old forward registered seven goals and 31 points over 70 matches last season. That’s nothing compared to what Thornton has brought to his teams over his 20+ season career.

Joe Thornton - San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs

Certainly, I could rattle off his statistics – 1,636 career NHL regular-season games; 1,509 points (420 goals, 1089 assists) in those games; and 133 points (31 goals, 102 assists) in 179 playoff games. He’s also been a six-time All Star player and won both the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Memorial Trophy in 2006. 

But that was then; and this is now. Although my own interest would be seeing if head coach Sheldon Keefe might play him with Wayne Simmonds or Spezza, at least seeing that line together would be interesting. However, speculation is that Thornton will likely center the Maple Leafs third line next season. 

Joe Thornton Is Jumbo and That Matters

I know that many hockey fans pan the idea of bringing Thornton into the Maple Leafs lineup because they believe he’s too old and too slow to be effective. My response is that Thornton has been old and slow for years now; however, he’s “Jumbo.”

By “Jumbo” I mean that he brings huge attributes and skills to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Are these attributes and skills enough to move the team to their first Stanley Cup since 1967? We’ll see in a year.

Still, even the most cynical Maple Leafs fans (perhaps with good reason) must be at least curious. Given the way that the Maple Leafs are creating this team – with equal dashes of elite young forwards, young players who have a chance to rise to the roster, and now experienced “elderly statesmen” – this is becoming a team that will be exciting to watch every game.

What Does Thornton Bring to the Ice?

The Maple Leafs organization has now spent its money and salary-cap space betting that Thornton will effectively add value to the lineup. So, what will that value be?

First, Thornton brings size. He’s called Jumbo for many reasons, not the least of which is his size. He’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. That’s a lot of hockey player to move.

Second, Thornton brings skill. As noted in a previous paragraph, he’s scored 20 or more goals 11 times in the NHL, and in 1,636 NHL games he’s scored 420 goals, 1,089 assists (1,509 points in total).

Third, Thornton brings experience. He’s played 23 seasons and almost 200 playoff games. That experience has taught him how to protect the puck and patiently set up his wingers for scoring chances. Given his almost point-a-game career pace, it’s worked.

In summary, Thornton’s a large man with the size, experience, skill and will to create space for himself and his teammates on the ice. He’s not easily – or ever –  intimidated. And, given the lineup that general manager Kyle Dubas has created – with the added experience and grit of Thornton, Zach Bogosian, and Wayne Simmonds – it’s a very interesting group.

For Maple Leafs fans who were seeking a “dash of physicality” you got more than your wish. To extend the cooking metaphor, you got yourself a dollop.

But Thornton Brings More

It goes without saying that players who are facing the end of their careers with a goal not yet met will play hard. Given that Thornton was upset when the Sharks didn’t move him to a contender at last season’s trade deadline, we’ve got to believe he desperately wants another crack at the Cup. He seems interested in one more chance with a good team that could help him chase that Stanley Cup that’s so far escaped his reach.

It matters that Thornton hasn’t won a cup and that motivation is an extra dimension of what he brings to the team. Today, he surely proved he’s not motivated by money.

Second, Thornton also seems to have his head screwed on straight. Stories about his career suggest he just loves to play hockey and carries the attitude that “there are no bad days at a hockey rink.”

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks 1
Joe Thornton, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs

Third, if Thornton is any kind of a leader, it matters that others advocated for him. It was rumored that a number of Maple Leafs players reached out to “sell” Thornton on the team’s upside. Those Maple Leafs players had to think he’d help. Now that he’s here, he carries a bit of a burden (or motivation), depending upon how you look at it.

Fourth, about two years ago, an article written about Thornton spoke named his personality as a “mixture of happy-go-lucky, competitive, loyal, warm, and zany.” His teammate and friend Brent Burns called Thornton “a piece of work.”

In that article, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson recalls, “I first met him in 1997 at the world juniors, and he had it then and he hasn’t changed to this day. Pure, unadulterated passion, and love for the game. I’ve been in the business for 40 years, and I’ve never been around anybody like that.”

Then-Sharks coach Pete DeBoer called Thornton’s presence in the dressing room a “nucleus of joy.” Specifically, DeBoer named him a “magnetic personality” and encouraged others “to find him in the morning, really, because after a bad game he energizes you, always in a positive way. There are no bad days at the rink for Joe.”

Next: The Maple Leafs Being Hit Hard by Flat Salary Cap Era

Why are the Maple Leafs Better with Joe Thornton in the Lineup?

The Maple Leafs are better because Thornton is on the roster because he brings size, experience, skill, desire and motivation, a joy for the game, a calmness under pressure, and positive leadership to the dressing room.

Thornton is, after all, Jumbo.

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