After years of pleading with the universe, Leafs fans finally had their wish granted when the team announced the signing of veteran centre Joe Thornton to a one year league minimum contract last October. After what felt like decades of hoping only to see the man they call Jumbo re-up with the team he carved out the bulk of his (potential) Hall of Fame career with, it was announced on October 16th that when Thornton would eventually leave his stint in Switzerland with HC Davos to return to North America, it would be to play with his “local” boyhood team in Toronto rather than the Golden Coast.
However, within nine months, the Toronto Maple Leafs decision to bring in Joe Thornton went from “long overdue” to “three years too late” to outright lamenting ever doing it in the first place. After visions of Thornton, a man (fairly or not) maligned for his own personal shortcomings in the postseason, teaming up with the Leafs to shake their long drought of not only a playoff series win, but hopefully a Cup win as well, were conjured up amongst fans, we find ourselves here, in a familiar spot. Lamenting another lost season, and questioning why on earth did the Leafs front office think this was the guy to help them?
It is hard to properly analyze Joe Thornton’s season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. On face value, 20 points in 44 games from a 41-year-old on a league minimum deal seems like a success. However, it was how we got there (combined with the fact that Thornton turns 42 and has a history of knee issues) that makes even entertaining the idea of Joe Thornton returning next season unpalatable to many.
For starters, despite the idea of Thornton coming in to play a depth role as a team mentor type who could pitch in a few points here and their on a fourth line, his most common line-mates at 5v5 were Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, the former being two months old when Thornton was drafted, the latter yet to be born at all. Then there was of course, thee powerplay, a point of contention virtually the entire season, which Thornton was also made a constant fixture on, getting more time than the likes of Jason Spezza and Zach Hyman, all while the power play cratering to unthinkable levels of ineptitude.
Ultimately, the point of this article was to lay out whether or not I think Joe Thornton should be brought back next season, but that feels too easy of a question to answer. As beloved as he may have been upon his arrival, the Leafs can not afford another year with an older Joe Thornton playing meaningful minutes. As we continue to see a game that skews towards favouring speed, they would be much better off trying to replace the minutes played by Thornton with a more versatile forward, preferably with two working knees.
I admittedly love Joe Thornton. He is easily my all-time favourite player, at least among players who did not spend a bulk of their career with the Leafs. However, he is destined to join the like of Ron Francis, or Eric Lindros, or Brian Leetch. An all-time great, beloved by those who remember them in their prime, only to have a brief stint with the Leafs tacked on to the end of their Wikipedia pages, and that section will say nothing of a Stanley Cup.
I am glad that he came. I would be equally glad to see him go.