Jumbo Joe is coming to Toronto on a one-year, league-minimum $700,000 contract.

It’s now officially the offseason of the Ontario-boy homecoming — Wayne Simmonds, TJ Brodie, now Thornton — and after the Simmonds addition on October 9, this is the second signing this week of an Ontario-born player linked to the Leafs in the rumour mill for the majority of his NHL career (both played junior in the Soo, too).

In the words of departed Mike Babcock, “Mark my words: They’re coming home.”

This Thornton acquisition conjures up memories of the 2004 trade deadline when the Leafs added 41-year-old future HHOFer Ron Francis in the final season of his NHL career ahead of their last pre-lockout Stanley Cup chase. While unlike Thornton, Francis had multiple Cup rings by that stage of his career, Thornton, like Francis, is a former Soo Greyhound who has played over 1600 NHL games and sits top 10 in all-time assists (1,089). 

Joe Thornton’s age in perspective:

Some of his former teammates include Jason Allison, Ray Bourque, Patrice Bergeron, Travis Green, Brian Leetch, Andrew Raycroft, Dave Andreychuk, Paul Coffey.

Wendel Clark was still with the Leafs in Joe’s rookie season. Jaromir Jagr, Peter Forsberg, Pavel Bure, Wayne Gretzky, John LeClair, Ziggy Palfy, Ron Francis, Teemu Selanne, Jason Allison, and Josef Stumpel were the top 10 scorers that year.

Joe once got the orbital bone in his face busted in a fight with Eric Lindros.

– MLHS user, Xxxxxnew

Let’s start with the off-ice aspect here, because it is an essential part of the reasoning behind the signing.

The need for more veteran presence to help guide this Leaf team through the highs and lows of an NHL season and, hopefully, over the playoff hump has been brought up a lot in recent weeks/months by GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe.  In this respect, the outspoken Thornton is a HHOF-bound legend who has seen it all (except a Cup) and brings a ton of character, liveliness, fearless honesty, and a lightness — oftentimes a hilariousness — to an NHL dressing room.

From a team leadership perspective, having not just one or two veteran voices but a wide variety of them now — Simmonds, Thornton, Spezza, Muzzin, Bogosian, Tavares (who more leads by example as opposed to Jumbo’s louder voice) — is a significant team culture shakeup and should have appreciable intangible value. A veteran leadership group like this will be a handy resource for Keefe, who won’t have to be the only voice motivating, harping on players, or holding guys to account (Worth noting: It got to the point in February of last season where Keefe seemed to be openly bewildered as to why he was in the position of having to call out the team — which he called immature — in the media after it got blown out three times in a little over a week). 

On the ice, the Leafs’ bottom-six makeup with Thornton now added has transformed into… well, something entirely different, for sure. Time will tell if it is any better, but is certainly bigger-bodied, more experienced, and the mix of player types has been notably altered. Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, and Joe Thornton in the bottom six creates a mix of players whose peak production days are well in the rear-view mirror, and none are fleet of foot. But there is a lot of veteran savvy there, and it will be fascinating to see how much is left in the tank for those three. While he’s not an overly physical player shift after shift, Thornton is a big man who has a short temper and will lay the body or drop the gloves when his fuse blows (he can hold his own, too).

It will be interesting to see how Sheldon Keefe mixes and matches the trio of grizzled vets — Spezza, Thornton, and Simmonds — with some of the younger, faster players in the lower half of the lineup — Alex Kerfoot, Nick Robertson, Pierre Engvall, Alex Barabanov, Joey Anderson — as he assembles his bottom-six lines.

All three of Simmonds, Spezza, and Thornton could play on the second-unit power-play together as well: Thornton on the half-wall/in his office down low, Spezza opposite him on his one-time side, and Simmonds at the net front. An all-time top-10 passer of the puck, maybe the Leafs take some looks at Thornton as a distributor on PP1 with the young stars. There is no shortage of options here for new Leafs assistant coach Manny Malhotra.

As for his 5v5 contributions, it is a wait-and-see as to how much Thornton has left in the tank. It’s always been more about elite vision, hockey sense, playmaking skills, reach, and puck-protection abilities for Thornton than it has been his skating legs, but father time is as of yet undefeated, and Jumbo will be halfway to 42 once the season starts.

Thornton is a year removed from a 50-point season, and his underlying numbers have held up remarkably well up late into his career — that is until a step-back last season in both his offensive production and underlying metrics, albeit he was on a horrible Sharks team and experienced a below-average PDO playing primarily third-line minutes with some combination of Kevin Lebanc, Marcus Sorensen, and Patrick Marleau.

Joe Thornton RAPM & SKATR: 2018-19 vs. 2019-20



Thornton, historically a high-end faceoff taker, also dipped below 50% (49.4%) on the dot in 2019-20 for the first time since his early 20s when he was still with the Bruins.

That said, when Thornton moved up the lineup shortly before the pandemic hit, he had a convincing final stretch that showed he could still play with good players and make his linemates better, posting 12 points in his final 19 games next to Timo Meier.

He can still power play, for sure. Can he keep up well enough to be the answer at 3C, with Kerfoot shifted to LW? Does he slot in at 4C with Spezza on his wing (seems too slow and old)? Could we see the Leafs run out a Matthews – Tavares – Thornton – Spezza center group? Does Thornton slot in as a playmaking LW next to shooters Tavares or Matthews on occasion?

Is Kerfoot even still here come January? Do the Leafs have any plans at all to build out a real checking line that could take on a share of the matchup burden and defensive-zone starts?

We may also be living in an entirely different reality when it comes to roster limits in a COVID-impacted 2020-21 season — do we see a more active rotation of bodies in and out of the lineup with a potentially high number of back to backs in a compact schedule (Spezza in one night, Thornton the next)?

Whatever the answers to those questions turn out to be, it is very low risk at one-year, $700,000 with no performance bonuses included. What we know for sure is that there is a lot more size, experience, veteran leadership, and “there-is-no-next-year”-level urgency to win added to the Leafs roster to surround its core four than there was a week ago. 

It’s a tantalizing vision for Leafs fans, to be sure: Thornton, Simmonds, and Spezza embarking on a deep playoff run close to home, in maybe Spezza and Thornton’s last ever chance at a Cup ring, serving as the veteran supporting cast behind the Leafs’ young stars as they lead the way.

Joe Thornton Scouting Report 

from prior to the 2019-20 season via Gus Katsaros of McKeen’s Hockey:

‘Jumbo Joe’ is sizable, average mobility, winding down a career as a playmaker .. frame and wingspan provide space cushion – excellent puck protection skill .. operates efficiently below the goal line before it became vogue .. difficult to manage one-on-one when bent on determined efforts .. signed a one year contract to return for one more kick at the can, coming off a career high four goal playoffs (19-46-10) .. suspended for an illegal hit to the head on Vegas’ Tomas Nosek .. broke 50 points for the second time in three seasons, sandwiching an injury riddled 2017-18 that played a part in missing nine games in the first quarter .. scored 10 goals at 5v5, the first double digit season since 2011-12 .. most with Marcus Sorensen, and Kevin Labanc as most common third on the line .. declining power play time .. just like his age, he may creep into the 40’s next season.

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