The Toronto Maple Leafs signing of center Joe Thornton on Friday was greeted with excitement by many in the club’s long suffering fan base, but has also brought about questions of what it will mean for the club’s lineup construction next season.
The 41-year-old has played up the middle for most of his 22-year NHL career, so it is expected that he will slot in at center either on the third or fourth line, with head coach Sheldon Keefe likely using Auston Matthews and John Tavares in the neighborhood of 20 minutes per night.
Thornton played on the first power play and averaged 15.5 minutes per game in San Jose playing on the third line with Kevin Labanc and Markus Sorensen last season, so it is possible that he play 12 to 13 minutes per night playing on the third line and second power play.
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One concern is a decrease in team speed of the bottom six with the departure of Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson and the addition of Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Jimmy Vesey. A potential pairing Thornton on the fourth line with veteran Jason Spezza shifting to the wing has been thought by many to be too slow, but Spezza did not seem to be lagging behind the play during the regular season or in the qualifying round.
A potential option could be the shifting of Alex Kerfoot to the wing to make room for Thornton at third line center. Kerfoot played the left side in the top six when the Leafs were without Ilya Mikheyev and Johnsson last season. One possibility could be to play Kerfoot with Tavares and Mitch Marner and shifting Ilya Mikheyev to more of a checking role.
Another could be to shift Kerfoot to the wing with Thornton former college linemate Vesey (who can play both sides), and having Simmonds paired with Spezza on the fourth line.
What the addition of Thornton gives GM Kyle Dubas is a great deal of lineup flexibility. The Leafs now have as many as 16 forwards (if you include Pierre Engvall, KHLer Alexander Barabanov, Travis Boyd, Joey Anderson and Nick Robertson) and nine defensemen (including Timothy Liljegren). These numbers could increase the probability of a trade to clear cap space to re-sign Mikheyev and Dermott, whether it be Engvall’s $1.25 million cap hit or Justin Holl’s $2 million AAV.
In ex-Leafs news, the Pittsburgh Penguins have signed defenseman Cody Ceci to a one-year, $1.25 million deal. The 26-year-old blueliner had eight points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 56 games for Toronto last season and appears to be a bottom pairing replacement for the recently bought out Jack Johnson.
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