Just before he concluded his first media session of the new season, Sheldon Keefe dropped a (line combo) bomb he knew would immediately explode. Joe Thornton, said Keefe, would start training camp on left wing with… Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“I didn’t get the question, so I’ll just give you guys the information so that you’ve got a little more to talk about,” offered Keefe.
The Leafs coach also shared the makeup of his other lines for Day 1 of on-ice activity on Monday: John Tavares between Jimmy Vesey on his left William Nylander on his right side; Newcomer Wayne Simmonds will skate alongside centre Jason Spezza and Alexander Barabanov; and crucially, on the third line, Alex Kerfoot will centre Ilya Mikheyev and Zach Hyman.
Leafs' Day 1 lines
1Joe ThorntonAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
2Jimmy VeseyJohn TavaresWilliam Nylander
3Ilya MikheyevAlex KerfootZach Hyman
4Alexander BarabanovJason SpezzaWayne Simmonds
There’s plenty to chew on there, but nothing bigger than Thornton joining forces with another fellow former No. 1 overall pick in Matthews, as well as Marner, on his first official day in a Leaf uniform.
It’s an alluring combination. You’ve got Thornton, one of the best passers in NHL history — seventh all-time with almost 1,100 career assists — pairing up with perhaps the best sniper in the game today in Matthews. Add in Marner, another passing wizard himself who led the league in primary 5-on-5 assists two seasons ago, and well, you’ve got a potentially explosive top line.
But, of course, there are some complexities here worth exploring.
Is this asking too much of a 41-year-old?
Thornton was the Sharks third line centre last season. He averaged just under 13 minutes a night 5-on-5 — tied for eighth among their forwards. A year before that, he was No. 6 on the depth chart up front — again, right around 13 minutes per game.
Overall, he averaged about 15.5 minutes per game those two seasons.
Do you know who averaged more 5-on-5 playing time than any other forward in the NHL after Keefe became Leafs coach? That would be Matthews, at 17:03 on average. Marner wasn’t far behind, 10th overall at a hair under 16 minutes per game. It was among the most striking shifts behind the bench after Keefe took over from Mike Babcock: Keefe playing his stars as much as he possibly could.
So is Thornton going to suddenly play first-line minutes again in his 23rd NHL season? And how will he handle the kind of scrutiny and attention it demands at this point in his career? Few guys his age kick around this long, let alone play a prominent role. The only one that managed to make it work in a similar capacity in recent years was Jaromir Jagr.
As a 43-year-old for most of the 2015-16 season, Jagr played well alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau on the Florida Panthers No. 1 line, scoring 27 times with 66 points in 79 games. Like Thornton today, Jagr wasn’t the fastest fella back then, but he put that big ol’ caboose and genius hockey brain to good use.
Keefe must believe Thornton can do the same.
But this isn’t going to be a normal season. The 56-game schedule kicks off in mid-January and wraps up the first week in May. It’s going to be a sprint. Is it asking too much of Thornton to keep pace in such a high-profile role? At the very least, Thornton has his recent Swiss League experience to get him revved up for Leafs camp.
“He looks sharp,” Matthews said. “He just looks like Jumbo out there.”
Another potential saving grace for Thornton: He’s only facing the six other Canadian teams, none of which feature particularly imposing defence core. Most are relatively young and inexperienced. There’s room for Thornton to exploit them with his grey beard wisdom the more he sees them.
Keefe can scale back his minutes too.
The Leafs coach can plug different wingers (Tavares, Nylander, Hyman) onto the left side of Matthews and Marner here and there. And he can also pull back the minutes a bit for those two as well. It probably doesn’t make as much sense in this kind of season, given the pace, to drain those two in particular before the playoffs.
The way the lineup is currently structured (and let’s stress that soooo much can change), maybe the Leafs play the Matthews and Tavares lines in somewhat equal amounts — around 15 minutes a game 5-on-5, as was the case two seasons ago. That left around 13 minutes a night for Nazem Kadri, which, in this case, would be Kerfoot. A Spezza-led fourth line would play more sparingly.
One thing we wondered about in the long weeks before camp opened was how Keefe would construct a line he could stuff in the defensive zone. In Mikheyev, Kerfoot, and Hyman, we have the coach’s hopeful answer. Keefe used Pierre Engvall, Frederik Gauthier, and Colin Greening in a similar role during the Marlies Calder Cup run in 2018. Put two hard-working wingers in Mikheyev and Hyman around the brainy Kerfoot and perhaps the Leafs can form their own stout line for countering top lines across Canada.
The Leafs didn’t have (or create) that option last season. Not even their fourth line, primarily including Spezza and Gauthier, could be trusted for heavy d-zone time.
In light of that, maybe Keefe also greatly boosts how often the Thornton-Matthews-Marner threesome — assuming it sticks — starts in the offensive zone. Maybe the Leafs begin using their No. 1 line like the Boston Bruins do theirs. Matthews and Marner had an offensive zone start percentage of 57 percent when they shared the ice last season. Maybe that number rises into the low 60s this season — where David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand have been for some time now.
Maybe not requiring Thornton to start that 6-foot-4, 220-pound body of his below the goal line lightens the load on him. And maybe that puts all kinds of pressure on opposing coaches, having to handle a threesome like that with Tavares and Nylander to follow.
“He has a big frame, so I think it’s nice to know that whenever we’re in trouble that we got an outlet,” Matthews said of Thornton. “And he’s so big and strong and can protect the puck so well.”
Matthews was excited for the potential of give-and-gos with Thornton and “just trying to get open for him, because you know he’s got great vision, even with guys draped all over him. For us, it’s just finding that chemistry throughout camp.”
What kind of damage can Matthews do with Thornton and Marner?Matthews led the league with 30 5-on-5 goals last season. He’s No. 1 with a bullet since he entered the league in the fall of 2016, totalling 12 more 5-on-5 goals than the next closest player, some guy named Alex Ovechkin.
What kind of damage can he do with Thornton setting him up from along the walls and below the goal line? I mean, look at this guy:
Nowhere near the shooter that Matthews is, Joe Pavelski had consecutive seasons of 41, 37, and 38 goals playing primarily with Thornton, including a whole bunch on the power play. Jonathan Cheechoo famously had a 56-goal season thanks to Thornton. The risk is assuming that that Thornton, a 26-year-old who won the Hart Trophy, is this Thornton. He’s not. But that doesn’t mean the passing ability has disappeared. Far from it. Thornton had Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen on his wings last season and still finished with the same number of 5-on-5 assists (18) as Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Jack Eichel.
He’s bound to open up shooting opportunities not just for Matthews, but for Marner, who finished with career lows in goals and shots per 60 minutes 5-on-5 last season.
On the other hand, the more time the puck is on Thornton’s tape the less it’s on Marner’s. That might not be optimal. Playing extensively with Matthews for the first time last year, Marner seemed to have the puck on his tape a lot less than usual. And that was with Hyman, a guy who hunted down the puck only to give it up, playing left wing. Marner still managed to stack up a bunch of points, but his value didn’t feel quite as pronounced. Does having Thornton there take something away from Marner — namely, control of the rock and the opportunity to exploit it?
“What he does with the puck, how he controls the puck in the o-zone, it’s very impressive to watch,” Marner said of Thornton. “It’s going to be fun to play with a very talented playmaker. For me, it’s just trying to find holes in the middle of the ice that I can get in open spots and be more of a shooter and more of a threat.”
Another curiosity: Does Thornton gets a shot with Matthews, and maybe Marner too, on the Leafs’ top power-play unit?
Yet one more interesting element of this particular experiment is just that — it shows that Keefe won’t stray from his experimenting ways after the summer misfire against Columbus when he stuck Nylander at centre for the first time all season in Game 5 and rolled with a star line of Matthews, Marner, and Tavares to limited effect. Keefe’s willingness to try things (much like Nick Nurse on the Raptors’ side) is a clear strength, though you wonder how much time he’ll give a combination like this to marinate.
Training camp will be over by next Tuesday. The Leafs have no preseason games to see this new combo in action — though Keefe said there would be a pair of scrimmages, including one at Scotiabank Arena. It might take a few regular-season games for the Leafs coach to really know what he has with this new combination. Also uncertain is whether Kerfoot can hang at centre on a potential shutdown line, or if the Leafs can get enough offence from a line like that. (Do Hyman and Mikheyev repeat last season’s offensive flurries?) It’s also conceivable that Nick Robertson, or someone else from lower in the forward ranks, emerges and forces a change in the currently assembled puzzle pieces.
Maybe Thornton is better suited to play a more limited role, centering the third line, even if that destroys the potential of a defence-oriented unit. It’s also worth noting that Thornton started at left wing in only one game for the Sharks last season.
If it works, at a league-minimum $700,ooo, Thornton would be the ultimate first-line bargain.
“I’m super excited about it,” Marner said. “We’ve been practising together for a couple days — the chemistry is getting better every day.”
–Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, and hockeyDB