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Considering it seems the Toronto Maple Leafs have been around since the invention of electricity it’s hard to fathom that Joe Thornton just became the franchise’s all-time oldest goalscorer. He entered the team’s record book on April 24th by finding the back of the net in a 4-1 away victory over the Winnipeg Jets at the ripe old age of 41 years and 296 days. This broke the previous record set by Allan Stanley in 1967-68 when the relative youngster was 41 years and 252 days of age.
Scoring goals and racking up assists is nothing new for Thornton though as he’s currently the active NHL scoring leader with 424 goals and 1,524 points in 1,673 regular-season games to rank 14th all-time. In fact, he reached another milestone during a 4-1 win in Montreal over the Canadiens on April 28th when he earned his 1,100th assist to help the Leafs clinch a playoff spot. He became just the seventh NHL’er to reach the milestone alongside Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier and Ray Bourque.
This isn’t to say the oldtimer is burning up the league this season as he had four goals and 15 points in 37 games and had missed several weeks of action due to injury. Still, he’s doing the job he was acquired to do when the Leafs signed him to a one-year $700,000 deal as a free agent before the season began. Thornton was basically brought into the fold to provide some veteran leadership and to contribute while playing limited minutes per night.
Thornton realizes he’s past his peak when it comes to accumulating points as his goal against Winnipeg was his first in 28 games. But he still has a lot to offer both on and off the ice. And if any team is in need of leadership it could be argued that the Leafs rank right at the top. This is a club that features some of the NHL’s brightest young stars in Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner and also boasts veteran presence and scoring in John Tavares. However, the franchise hasn’t won a playoff round since 2003-04.
In case you haven’t heard, the Leafs, who were founded in 1917, last won the Stanley Cup in 1966-67 and currently possess the longest cup-winning drought in the NHL. The squad failed to make the postseason last year as they were downed in the maximum five games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round. However, they did reach the postseason the previous three seasons, only to be sent golfing after the very first round, much the same as what happened in 2012-13 when they blew a 4-1 lead in Boston in game seven with 10 minutes to play.
It might be a stretch to say if it wasn’t for bad luck the Leafs would have no luck at all. But the franchise can only blame itself for its shortcomings over the years. The lack of leadership was meant to be addressed by the addition of Thornton and fellow veteran forward Jason Spezza and so far it’s paid off. Spezza has been contributing offensively and also leads by example and has chipped in with 10 goals and 26 points in 47 games. Spezza recently picked up his 966th career regular-season point to tie the legendary Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard to rank number 100 on the league’s all-time scoring list.
But even though Thornton and Spezza are meant to push the Leafs over the edge in the race to the Stanley Cup, they’ve yet to taste champagne from the famous mug themselves as of yet. Neither of them has skated on a cup-winning team but Thornton has posted 31 goals and 133 points in 179 career playoff contests while Spezza has registered 25 goals and 70 points in 85 outings. Spezza was one of the best Leafs in last season’s postseason disappointment and the 6-foot-4-inch, 220 lb Thornton typically provides a physical edge to his game in the playoffs.
With Thornton and Spezza typically playing together on the team’s third or fourth line, Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe is hoping they can raise the squad’s emotion and effort level once the postseason arrives. The club also added more physical presence in the offseason by signing fellow veteran forward Wayne Simmonds and recently acquired forward Nick Foligno from the Columbus Blue Jackets but it still may not be enough if the youngsters don’t follow their lead.
Even with the additions to the lineup the team ranks 28th out of 31 when it comes to hits per game at just 17.23. It’s an improvement over last season when they ranked 29th with 16.72 hits per outing but it’s probably not going to cut it once the playoffs start. Unless the team’s young stars can raise their game to a more determined physical level and play with more energy the Stanley Cup drought will likely continue.
The team’s goaltending situation will also determine how far Toronto goes in the playoffs as regular-starter Frederik Andersen is still sidelined with an injury. But even when he has played he’s often been blamed by the club’s fans for their early postseason exits. Jack Campbell has been filling in admirably in the regular season but has never played an NHL playoff game while fellow goalies Dave Rittich and Michael Hutchinson have appeared in just one and four respectively.
The road to the Stanley Cup isn’t paved with gold for the Leafs this season but it is the easiest it’s been in years. The team is playing in arguably the weakest division in the NHL in 2020-21 as it consists of the seven Canadian-based franchises. The team which emerges from the North Division will already be halfway to the cup and in the semifinals.
But only time will tell how much of an effect Thornton, Spezza, Simmonds and Foligno actually had on the rest of the team.