Toronto Maple Leafs: Joe Thornton’s absence presents opportunity

Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Joe Thornton to a one-year, $700,000 contract, it felt like a borderline no brainer.

Even at 41-years-old, the longtime San Jose Shark is still capable of being a productive middle-six player for any team with playoff aspirations, even if his 20 goal seasons are long since in the rearview mirror.

However, what did cause a few fans of the Leafs to scratch their heads was the… unique decision by head coach Sheldon Keefe to play Thornton at left wing on the same line as franchise faces Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

While Thornton is surely still a plus-passer even at this point in his career – as you don’t just become the NHL’s reigning assists leader on accident – how would he play in a more expansive role alongside a pair of players nearly half his age? Would he be able to help set up Matthews with even more open shots with a second prescient passer off the wing, or would his presence limit the line’s potency and cause the unit to struggle?

Well, as it turns out, it’s been a little bit of both.

Over the first five game sample size of the 2020-21 NHL season, the line has a +/- of -1 thanks in no small part to a few initial rough outings in their first few contests of the game, but as the games progressed on, the line slowly but surely started to click… at least until disaster struck.

After turning in a pair of solid performances against the Ottawa Senators and the Winnepeg Jets respectably, the Leafs suffered a loss to the Edmonton Oilers made all the more biting by the news that Thornton would be out for the next month with a fractured rib.

But hey, don’t feel too bad for the Toronto Maple Leafs: Thornton’s loss may be someone else’s gain.

The Toronto Maple Leafs can use Thornton’s absence to audition new top lines.

More from Puck Prose

Can a line of Joe Thornton, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner work? Sure, but with Thornton sidelined for a month and Matthews out for the team’s second straight contest versus the Edmonton Oilers, the Toronto Maple Leafs had to shuffle up their lineup pretty considerably for the first time all season.

That meant giving Zach Hyman and John Tavares a longer look alongside Marner on Keefe’s top line, and even more opportunities for players like William NylanderAlexander Kerfoot, and even Jimmy Vesey to step into bigger roles than in previous outings.

Though the game was not without its issues, the Leafs were able to escape the contest with two points and their egos largely intact – as they were able to split the series against Connor McDavid and company despite being through their best player.

Tavares especially made the most of his extended playing time, scoring a goal on four shots logging 21 shifts in 22:30 TOI, as did Nylander, who had two assists and a takeaway versus only one giveaway in 16:09.

Could either of those players earn a look at left wing whenever Matthews returns to the top line? Or will the Leafs stick with Hyman, who had a rather quiet outing against the Oilers despite earning the most playing time of any forward on the ice?

Needless to say, how Keefe and the Maple Leafs’ brass decide to handle Thornton’s absence once Matthews returns is going to be fascinating.

Next. The Montreal Canadiens already look like the juggernaut to beat in the North. dark

When Joe Thornton returns to the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs at some point in February, this will be a different hockey team. They’ll have about a dozen more games under their belts, the playoff picture will have shaped up ever so slightly, and most importantly of all, his active teammates will have hundreds of additional minutes on tape from which to judge the team’s best lineups moving forward. Could Thornton still be viewed as the perfect linemate for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner? Most definitely, but he could just as easily be viewed as a better fit in a middle-six center role, with a player like William Nylander, Zach Hyman, or John Tavares entrenched as the team’s top left winger.