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Joe Thornton in Toronto: the right fit or a jumbo mistake?

Joe Thornton is ninth in games played and seventh in assists, but is heading to Toronto still seeking his first Stanley Cup.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

It’ll be fun to see Joe Thornton in blue and white. If Old No. 97 erases the curse of 1967, well, who doesn’t love a storybook ending? Nostalgia trips are great.

Count me as skeptical about the hockey fit, however.

Do the Maple Leafs need 41-year-old Thornton to compile a few assists at even strength, a few on the second-unit power play, and be a good dude whose love for the game rubs off on the under-pressure core? Or could they get 13 to 15 minutes a night of buzzsaw forechecking from a player who neutralizes other teams' top lines?

Like so much of the 2020-21 NHL season, TBD.


Thornton is a Southern Ontario boy but said his move to Toronto was 1 percent mom and dad, 99 percent hockey.

“I think this team is ready to win now. I’m ready to win,” he said. “This team is a very, very good team. I need to win a Stanley Cup.”

How close are the Leafs, who had been chasing Thornton since 2017? If Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, who take up 49.7 percent of the salary cap, aren’t better, they’re not winning. They have solid pieces everywhere, from Zach Hyman and Morgan Rielly to T.J. Brodie and Frederik Andersen, but good teams don’t always reach the summit. Ask Tampa Bay. Ask Washington. Heck, ask San Jose.

“It’s a really good team,” Thornton said. “I think it’s going to be a great team at the end of this.”

Thornton said he likes Andersen — “a big part of my decision here, I think he’s a great goalie” — and strength up the middle. He feels the addition of Brodie solidifies the defense.

Thornton, who spent 15 years as a Shark, said he talked to old pals Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and “a lot more” before making the call. He connected with Joe Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback, who left the Bay Area in the early ’90s. They’d come across each other before, Joe Cool and Jumbo Joe.


“That conversation meant a lot,” Thornton said. “He was one guy who offered me up some good advice.”

He’s ready for the media attention in Toronto, too.

“I don’t mind you guys at all,” he said.

Good thing. The dissenting voices were out this past week.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” former general manager and league executive Brian Burke said on Sportsnet. "This doesn’t make any sense to me at all . . . They signed a veteran [Wayne Simmonds] for this role.

“It almost looks like doing something to show the public you’re doing something, and pulling out all the stops, but it’s not quite what you need. Why don’t they spend this time and effort and get some ugly, big, mean, nasty guy, that’s preferably . . . [sigh] they’re adding a piece they don’t need. And I love Joe Thornton. I tried to get him [in Anaheim, before the Bruins traded him to the Sharks in 2005]. I admire him. But this, to me, if you list the things they need: a big, veteran center that can’t play in the top six. Yeah, let’s get that.”

Hard to argue with that.

But the Leafs fans have hope, like the Sharks did for so long with Thornton and Marleau as running mates. Around these parts, we think of Jumbo Joe as the shaggy-haired man-child who became a superstar traded during his MVP campaign.


For those who never saw him in his prime:

“Those passes that he made, cross-ice, in stride . . . ” recalled former Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft. “He was so strong, just a flick of the wrist and it was a laser on the tape.”

Sergei Samsonov, drafted No. 8 in the same 1997 draft headlined by Thornton, believes he’s still a premier playmaker.

“He might be slowing down,” said Samsonov, now working for the Hurricanes’ player-development unit. "He might be not as quick to get to A to B. But he’s still as smart as he was in his 20s. He can still make those plays. He can still be a factor on the power play.

“What Joe brings off ice can’t be measured. His love for hockey is contagious. I’ve never seen a happier guy to be around the rink.”

Mike Knuble, who began living in the 25-to-30-goal range when he teamed with Thornton and Glen Murray — “those two changed my life,” he said. “They might have gotten me 10 more years in the league” — thinks Thornton will be able to deflect some of the white-hot spotlight from Matthews and Marner.

“Those guys can just play hockey,” said Knuble, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., and assists the Red Wings’ AHL coaching staff. “Toronto is an incredibly difficult market. It’s not going to rattle him.”


Murray, the Kings' director of player development, was Thornton’s roommate in their Boston days, when Knuble-Thornton-Murray was the “700 Pound Line.” They remain close today. Surprise, Murray also thinks Thornton has a few more assists left to dish out.

“He would put it in an area you didn’t think he could,” Murray said. "It was always where you could shoot it in stride. He had an unbelievable gift. He can still do it today. He used to do it with one or two guys hanging on him.

“If he makes one bad pass during a game, I’ll text him. He just laughs.”

Same old Joe.


Hard to circle any dates

Will fans be allowed back in arenas when the next NHL season starts?Bruce Bennett/Getty

We’re on a two-week break here in Massachusetts. At 5 p.m. Friday, the state health department shut down amateur hockey until Nov. 7. No games, no practices, no nothin'.

It stinks. And who knows how long it’ll last?

That was the backdrop to Friday’s call with NHL general managers: The future remains a tangled, thorny mess. The GMs gathered virtually to hack away at the thicket for the first leaguewide meeting since early March, when they were all together in the same room (imagine!) in Boca Raton, Fla. That was back when they had little grasp of a virus that was pounding Asia and Europe and heading for North America. A few days later, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the sports world’s Patient Zero.

The whens, wheres, and hows of 2020-21 remain COVID-19-dependent. Some of the big-picture issues the NHL and NHLPA have to sort out:


▪ The restart: Will the teams, divisions, and conferences travel freely? Given the anticipated winter spike in cases, it seems like we could be heading for smaller geographical hubs, if not tiny bubbles. If the Canada-US border is closed, we could see an all-Canadian division.

Spitballing here: Separating the Canadian teams from their American pals would leave the Bruins hanging around the geographically close Rangers, Devils, Islanders, Flyers, and Capitals. Or they could all hang in a Hub of Hockey (all royalties payable to @GlobeKPD).

Is there an appetite for bubbles at all? Fair question. The players — who by Halloween were supposed to receive their first paychecks since April, TSN reported, at 8.1 percent of their 2020-21 salaries — did not exactly offer rave reviews of the summer camp.

▪ The date: The NHL remains locked on Jan. 1 until it’s not feasible, even as it postponed two fan-friendly events scheduled for January: the Winter Classic in Minneapolis and All-Star Weekend in Sunrise, Fla.

January could become February or March. For regular games, almost certainly no one would be allowed in the building at the start of the year. Later on? It’s possible, but that’s a rosy view.

What would let fans back in is “almost impossible to quantify. What’s the benchmark? Are we looking at infection rates in the community? That’s one standard,” said Gil Fried, chair and professor of sport management at the University of New Haven. “How good are the ventilation systems? Are they using UV lights within the air exchanges? If they don’t have the ability to provide clean, fresh air, people are going to be scared to be indoors.”

Even if fans come back on a limited basis, mask usage and social distancing will be difficult to enforce for myriad reasons.

“When someone scores a goal, you want to be able to celebrate. You want to give a high-five or a chest bump,” Fried said.

▪ The schedule: If the games return in January, the league might be able to pull off 82 games and playoffs by July 23. That’s when NBC’s network of channels will start showing the Tokyo Olympics. Maybe they go to a shorter schedule. Many NHL teams share buildings with NBA teams, and 2-3 games per week for each will be tough to map, with rest days and travel. The NFL, for example, can move a weekly Sunday game to a Tuesday.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney deferred when asked for speculation on a potential restart date — “You’re going to have to check the New York area code on that” — but pointed to the length of training camp as a factor.

“I think it’ll always sort of evolve around that,” he said.

In the July restart, players were given three weeks of training camp before departing for Toronto and Edmonton.

The league gave players the go-ahead to train at NHL rinks as of Oct. 15. About 10 teams are hosting players. The Kings' facility in El Segundo, Calif., for example, hosts nine NHL players for voluntary workouts. They are tested for COVID-19 several times weekly.

▪ The non-playoff teams: Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Buffalo, and New Jersey have been off since March 11. They proposed starting a minicamp earlier than the 24 clubs who played summer bubble hockey, but the timing of that remains unclear.

▪ The minors: The AHL’s tentative Dec. 4 start date doesn’t seem likely. Their parent clubs would like to know where their more developed prospects can play until then, if they’re not in Europe. Can AHL teams afford to test players multiple times a week? Can they afford to operate without fans?

Typically, development camp comes right after the NHL Draft, and sets the course for players' pro careers. That has yet to happen. Teams have been keeping up with their prospects via Zoom and watching videos of games. One Eastern Conference scout said teams are becoming more accustomed to scouting virtually, so staffs may become more streamlined and home-based even after the pandemic.

The Bruins lost their ECHL affiliate, the Atlanta Gladiators, for this season after the club opted out of 2020-21. Nothing yet resolved there. Sweeney, who is on the NHL task force guiding the AHL, said player personnel director John Ferguson has been in contact with some ECHL clubs about possible assignments.


A few fashion statements

Word around the docks is that teams are going retro for next season’s line of alternate jerseys. Leaked images surfaced this past week of “Pittsburgh” running down a white jersey, and bright citrus colors in Anaheim and Vegas. San Jose, unfortunately, threw salt water on the rumors of a 1970s California Golden Seals vibe — the groovy teal and yellow, with “Sharks” rather than “Seals” on the front.

It led to speculation in this market that the Bruins might wake up their slumbering Pooh Bear sweaters (1995-2006), with the gaudy yellow, jagged stripes and sedate-looking Bruin on the front.

“Holy [expletive], they’d better not,” Glen Murray said. “Imagine walking in the room and seeing 20 of those hanging in the stalls? It’s a nightmare. It’s a sad sight.”

Sergei Samsonov: “Nothing wrong with it. I loved the Original Six uniforms, but I think we wore them at home and had a pretty good record in them.”

Andrew Raycroft: “I like them. Played my first game in them. Would love to see them rolled out for an afternoon game.”

“I think it’s pretty cool, to be honest,” current Bruin Matt Grzelcyk said on NHL Network. “It’s got that unique yellow look and I’m sure not everyone’s a fan of it, but I certainly am.”

The Bruins' alternate 'bear' sweaters, seen here in a 2004 game.Chin, Barry Globe Staff

Loose pucks

The Blues brought together new teammates Robert Thomas and Torey Krug to talk about the latter’s hit in Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. On Zoom, both agreed it was a legal hit (though the league since adopted a rule that bans helmetless players from remaining in the play). When Thomas visited the Cape Cod home of the Tkachuks recently, “Sure enough, [Keith Tkachuk’s] brother has that photo, signed [by Krug], sitting in the basement,” Thomas said. “He made me sign it.” No word if Krug and David Perron, who got the whole thing started, are as buddy-buddy . . . The earners of the NHL’s top three base salaries in 2020-21, according to PuckPedia, make sense: Mikko Rantanen ($12 million), Alex Ovechkin ($10m), and Sidney Crosby ($9.6m). Would you have guessed that Justin Faulk ($9m) is fourth? That’s almost as much as the salaries of Bruins first-liners Brad Marchand ($4m), Patrice Bergeron ($3.375m), and David Pastrnak ($3m) put together . . . Whenever the restart comes, watch for good players in camp on tryouts. “So many guys will be willing to take show-me deals just to stay in the league,” Raycroft predicted. “It has that lockout feel.” The Bruins could get a long look at a few cheap depth options, including a left-shot defenseman (31-year-old Karl Alzner?) if they don’t re-up Zdeno Chara. “If someone’s going to win Seventh Player on a PTO,” Raycroft said, “this is the year” . . . What does free agent Alex Galchenyuk, 26, have left? . . . One positive from this extended layoff: time to grow. “There’s a lot of good young prospects that need to get stronger,” Murray said. “Now they have the time in the gym to work out hard, recover, and go again. They really benefit from the time with their trainers. We’re hopeful it translates to the ice.” . . . Patrick Marleau (1,723 games) returned to San Jose to chase Gordie Howe’s NHL record (1,767, which doesn’t include six years and 419 games in WHA). Joe Thornton (1,636) sits ninth. Thornton might add a few assists to his ledger (1,089, seventh all time). At 1,509 points (14th), he could move past Paul Coffey (1,531) and Mark Recchi (1,533), but might have trouble catching Ray Bourque (1,579) for 11th . . . The Professional Womens’ Hockey Players Association said the deodorant brand Secret contributed $1 million to fund its 2021 Dream Gap barnstorming tour. Elsewhere, the National Women’s Hockey League still hopes to begin play in January . . . Colorado’s Pepsi Center is now Ball Arena, which is promoting the use of recyclable aluminum cups instead of plastic . . . Happy trails to the retired Doc Emrick, a wonderful broadcaster who approached his craft with care and curiosity. He was properly feted this past week for his various verbs and how his voice rode the roller coaster of the action, and his spot-on soliloquies to set up a big game or close a Stanley Cup clincher. I will also never forget how gracefully he handled the Bruins-Sabres game after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “The most moving thing to all of us wasn’t what was said,” he recalled of the stirring pregame scene, “but what we got to listen to.”

Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him @mattyports.