Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks Legacy: Toronto

Joe Thornton

We’ve reached the final article in our four-part series on the legacy of San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton.

1: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Brilliance

2: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Folklore

3: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: California

Now: Joe Thornton Sharks Legacy: Toronto

Thornton’s move to the Toronto Maple Leafs no doubt stirs up memories of Patrick Marleau’s exit to Toronto a few years earlier. But there are major differences in this case.

Thornton signed one season deal for $700,000, while Marleau signed an $18.75 million deal over three seasons. The massive price tag difference speaks to a massive expectations difference. Thornton will not be expected to play a top-six role forward in Toronto, Marleau’s contract demanded it.

Joe Thornton and the Best Hockey Decision

Was this Thornton’s best move? I can’t speak to the personal aspect of the decision (Toronto is the closest NHL city to Thornton’s parents), but it is a questionable hockey decision if the goal is a Stanley Cup.

The Maple Leafs look far more competitive than the Sharks, but this isn’t the issue. Thornton didn’t need to sign anywhere. Indeed, he could simply skip the first 15-25 NHL games (assuming roughly a 50 game season) and make a decision on where to sign during the season. His willingness to take a low-end contract meant salary cap issues would be minimal for any suitor. He could see how things were shaking out with various teams, find the best fit and sign there.

For Thornton, who has played for plenty of coaches and in plenty of systems, adapting would not be an issue. Nor would conditioning. Indeed, playing in Europe (home to his wife’s family) would allow him less ice time, less travel and fresher legs. With so many factors, taking his best shot at Stanley Cup probably would have been helped by waiting. Instead, he is on the Maple Leafs, whether it goes right or goes off the rails.

Joe Thornton Helps?

Will Thornton help the Maple Leafs? Probably. Though there isn’t much point putting him on a line without at least one strong goal scorer. Thornton is known for passing the puck and creating scoring opportunities, so having wingers who can score makes a lot of sense. So while the Leafs have enormous talent in their top-six forwards (including two former first overall draft picks), the talent thins out quickly. The Leafs would likely benefit from spreading out scoring talent down to Thornton’s line.

Thornton has always been an elite power-play contributor and while there might be some improvement to offer, the Leafs’ power play was sixth-best last season. Thornton is unlikely to unseat any of the first unit sorts and the second unit simply isn’t as talented. If there is an upside, it is modest.

In recent seasons, the Leafs have been excellent at scoring goals, and not so good at preventing them, allowing the fifth-most goals in the league last season. Thornton isn’t going to fix this.

One thing Thornton does bring, and something every team needs, is depth. Injuries happen and having a player who can move up the lineup if needed is a very useful player. It doesn’t seem right to think of Thornton as an insurance policy, but this is also part of what he brings. He’ll be especially useful if the top power-play unit needs help.

Leadership?

Can Thornton’s leadership add value? Perhaps. He won’t wear the ‘C’, he may not even receive a letter (nor did Joe Pavelski in Dallas). The Leafs have a balance of younger players and declining veterans with Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza and now Thornton. Sometimes, a veteran can steady a ship or get a younger player back on track. Given the high talent level in Toronto, a bit of guidance or the right encouragement could well pay off.

Still, Toronto has had veteran leaders on the team over the past two seasons, including the aforementioned Marleau and Matt Martin. They’ve also had Stanley Cup winners Jake Muzzin, Kyle Clifford and Ron Hainsey. While Thornton brings his own unique demeanour, it is fair to say that Leafs management has provided role models and leaders for the team in prior seasons. Thornton, along with Simmonds and Spezza (who was also with the Leafs last season), isn’t breaking new ground when it comes to veteran leadership. It is the same ground, with different players.

Game-Changing?

All in all, I don’t see Thornton’s arrival in Toronto as game-changing. It does give the Leafs a third-line center with playoff experience. The price is certainly right. In a flat cap era, there’s simply no doubting that Toronto got a bargain. I’ll also note, Thornton spent most of his career underpaid relative to his performance (the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons were exceptions, with the Sharks paying him what amounted to ‘thank you’ money). Money has never been his primary motivator.

Forward depth can often make or break a top team and Thornton, along with his bargain price tag, will make the Maple Leafs roster deeper.

Defining Success

But Thornton’s ability to drive play, as Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas hopes, is more questionable. Success in the current NHL relies on things like quick-strike goals off of turnovers, and Thornton has been on the wrong side of the turnover equation in recent seasons (including a single shift from last season where he managed to give the puck away three times). Thornton’s game is less about quick-strike scores and more about puck possession. What worked well for Thornton a decade ago is less important to the NHL game now. Plus Thornton doesn’t solve the Leafs’ biggest challenge, which is giving up goals. It’s the same issue the team had when they signed Marleau in 2017.

For what he’s getting paid, it’ll be hard to underachieve. But the Thornton signing isn’t about getting good value for the contract. The NHL is a league where the margin between winning and losing a playoff series can be staggeringly slim. If Thornton enables a key Leafs goal or two in the playoffs and changes the result of a series, he’ll have paid off his deal multiple times over. It is what Toronto brought him there to do. A few key plays at a few key moments that make enough difference for a Stanley Cup – that is why he is now a member of the Leafs. Both Leafs fans and Sharks fans will be pleased if that occurs. But if that doesn’t happen, then it will be another season of a missed opportunity for both Thornton and the Leafs.

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