On Episode 5 of the MLHS podcast, Ian Tulloch and Anthony Petrielli discussed the impact Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza have made on the Leafs’ on-ice play and team culture by embracing their respective roles in the late stages of their careers.
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Tulloch: Thornton can play on the top line if you need him there. He can pass it to Tavares or Matthews. He is such a non-shooting threat that he just kind of lives behind the goal line now. That is an effective spot for him. When you are in the offensive zone or you are on the power play, he is at the net front, and his real job is to provide an outlet behind the goal line. If you are running into trouble, Thornton will pick it up and pass it to an open man.
He can pass it from behind the goal line to someone in a one-timer position. Ryan Stimson and Corey Sznajder’s research and data show that if you complete a pass from behind the net, it increases the shooting percentage like crazy. It is like passing the puck east-west in the offensive zone. Not many players are setting up in the offensive zone and looking to thread passes from behind the goal line to someone in the shooting position. Thornton is still doing it at a high level.
I get that you might be worried about him defensively, but if you give him a specific role as a low-post, behind-the-net guy, it is an area of the ice he can still dominate and thread passes. Those puck retrieval numbers we see, his work in the offensive zone — I am a big Joe Thornton truther.
Petrielli: I want to give him some love, too. You talk about where his spot is on the ice. This is a guy with a couple of 100-plus point seasons, a couple of 90-plus point seasons, and multiple 80-plus point seasons on top of that. That’s almost a decade of ridiculously elite production. To be that good and to kind of accept his role now is not easy.
A lot of guys live in denial about where they are at or what stage of their career they are in. They think that if they could once do this, they can do it again. There is none of that from Thornton. He is just here and he wants to win: “My job is to forecheck, and my job is to go to the front of the net.”
I was watching him on the power play, and he was standing in front of the net. Joe Thornton replacing Wayne Simmonds in front — could you imagine telling Joe Thornton 10 years ago to go stand in front of the net on the power play?
Tulloch: There was a great picture of Thornton, Spezza, and Tavares the other night. The tweet was, “If you told me Dubas acquired these guys 5-6-10 years ago, no one would’ve bought it.”
Petrielli: Just imagine going to Thornton 10 years ago and telling him he is not going to play half wall or in the passing corner — that he is going to go in front of the net and screen the goalie for point shots. You would get fired.
Thornton knows now. He is looking around and he sees the young guys. He knows what his job is. He is saying, “I want to win games.” I think that has a really positive impact on the overall culture of the team. They’re looking at him. He has the respect.
Patrick Marleau was a really good player in his prime, but he was never Joe Thornton-level good.
Tulloch: Thornton was Hart-winner good.
Petrielli: Thornton was the next level, and Joe Thornton is sitting there and sacrificing.
As a side note: When Patrick Marleau refused to sit and load manage himself, that bothered me to no end. If he had won a Cup and he wanted the record, I get it. But he hadn’t won a Cup. That should have been the most important thing.
Back to Thornton, he is sitting there, and what an example. Everyone can look at him and say, “He is here to win. It is the only thing that matters to him. He is taking whatever role the Leafs are giving him. He is going to do it with a smile on his face. He is doing his best.”
We talked about Matthews leading the way — and he 100% is — but now you can look down the roster. There is Jason Spezza on the fourth line, playing on the right wing of Travis Boyd. He knows his role.
Tulloch: And he still contributes to PP2 pretty well. He is still gaining the zone like no one else. It’s a side thing, but with Jason Spezza’s efficiency at gaining the zone at the power play, he is arguably Toronto’s best player at it. Marner struggles sometimes. Matthews struggles sometimes. Spezza skates as fast as he can, loads up, and gains the zone. He goes north, makes a play, and you’re in. It is something he can still do at age 37.