In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I want to specifically focus on the topic of player development inside the Maple Leafs’ organization. I’m probably reading too much into recent activities, but when I look at three things that have happened over the past few days I’m seeing a pattern. And, I wonder what it might mean.
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The three events are in chronological order of occurrence, (1) the Toronto Marlies re-signed Rich Clune its 34-year-old captain. Clune doesn’t play everyday, but is legendary for his work helping to develop the young Marlies and help them become ready for the big club; (2) Joe Thornton was seen at a recent UFC event with Auston Matthews; and, (3) the organization hired Dean Chynoweth as an assistant coach. There had been “rumors” – or perhaps hopes is a better word – that someone like Bruce Boudreau would be coming to the team.
Item One: Toronto Signs Dean Chynoweth as an Assistant Coach
The Maple Leafs’ organization announced yesterday that they had hired Chynoweth as an assistant coach. I have to think that signing Chynoweth means the Boudreau bandwagon just lost a horse or two. I’ve read tons of desire that the team would bring in the long-time, old-school NHL head coach to help heal the distressed Maple Leafs’ power play.
That likely won’t be the case after yesterday’s hiring of 52-year-old Chynoweth to take over Dave Hakstol’s old job with the team. Hakstol recently signed on with the expansion Seattle Kraken as the team’s first head coach in franchise history.
When speaking about the hiring, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe noted, “after spending time with Dean, it became clear that his knowledge, passion and personality would make him the right fit.”
Keefe added, “We’re fortunate to add someone of his quality and experience to our staff.”
Chynoweth suggested, “As someone who grew up in western Canada and watched the Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada every weekend, I’m thrilled to join the team’s coaching staff. I’m very excited for the opportunity to work alongside Sheldon, the rest of the staff and the talented group of players in Toronto.”
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Chynoweth was a first-round draft choice (13th overall) in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft but never became an NHL star. Instead, the former right-shot defenseman was a journeyman who split 10 NHL seasons between the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins. In his 241 NHL games, Chynoweth scored four goals and 18 assists (for 22 points). He also totalled 667 penalty minutes.
Thinking about the hire, Chynoweth is an interesting choice because he brings such a large coaching resume to his new job. For the last three seasons he’s been an assistant with the Carolina Hurricanes. However, he began his coaching career as a head coach in the Western Hockey League and spent nine seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds (2000-04) and the Swift Current Broncos (2004-09). He then spent three seasons in the NHL as an assistant with the Islanders (2009-12), moving to become an AHL head coach with the Cleveland Monsters and San Antonio Rampage (2012-16).
Interesting to me in this context is that Chynoweth was part of the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence, serving as the head coach of Canada’s Under-18 National Team and assistant coach of Canada’s Under-20 World Junior Team (2003-04).
When I look at this rich experience, I have to wonder if that player development focus might offer Maple Leafs’ fans a hint that the organization could be looking to move up a number of prospects onto the big team’s roster. Chynoweth has that background in spades.
Item Two: Is Joe Thornton on the Maple Leafs’ Plans?
Also speaking in the area of player development, is there anything to be made about the fact that soon-to-be NHL Hall of Famer Jumbo Joe Thornton is still in the Toronto area (or at least in North America).
A recent photo released by the UFC two days ago suggests that he’s now taken Frederik Andersen’s place as Auston Matthews’ right-hand man at various sporting events. Thornton and Matthews were photographed together attending the UFC match. Could be just two friends hanging out; but, then again, could it be more?
Seeing such photos of Thornton and Matthews at sporting events obviously suggests that Thornton remains in Canada and that he and Matthews are pals. Knowing that Thornton’s offseason home is in Davos, Switzerland, and has been for several years, does showing up at a UFC fight with Matthews offer any hint about Thornton’s future or about the Maple Leafs’ interest in him as a roster addition for next season?
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And, if there is interest in Thornton being on the roster, in what capacity? Here’s where Rich Clune comes into play. As I reported in a previous post, Clune is the Marlies captain who’s played six seasons with the team. Two days ago, the AHL team re-signed him to another one-year contract with the team.
The 34-year-old Clune doesn’t play every game these days, but he captains the Marlies because he’s had such a strong presence on the younger members of the team. Many of the Marlies who move to the Maple Leafs share stories about the mentoring impact Clune’s had on them. He’s good with these young players.
On one hand, playing Thornton 2020-21 season with the Maple Leafs can’t be seen as a huge success. It also seems that the general mood is to NOT return Thornton to the roster. Still, like Jason Spezza whose desire is to play until he wins a Stanley Cup, Thornton also wants to win before he retires.
If Thornton isn’t ready to retire and would be willing to come back in any role the team wanted, even as a fourth line player or a healthy scratch, would the Maple Leafs want him in that role? There’s no doubt he adds positive energy and leadership to the team.
I’ve let my own sentiment be known about Thornton. Even if he never scores another goal for the team, I think he’s worth an NHL league-minimum salary to have on the roster simply for his character and leadership. That might be especially true if the team brings up its youngsters – Nick Robertson and Joey Anderson come to mind, but they’re not alone.
Is the Organization Moving in the Direction of Player Development
As I say, I might be going out into left field by knitting these three recent events together. However, as a coach Boudreau wasn’t a developer of young players. Chynoweth is. Clune’s continuation with the Marlies as a player and not a coach suggests that the organization values on-ice leadership. Might Thornton thrive in a similar role?
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Wild speculation, perhaps; but, might Thornton have a place with the Maple Leafs as an on-ice player developer? Nothing I’ve seen suggests that he didn’t have a positive impact on the Maple Leafs’ regular-season success in the area of on-ice coaching and during- the-game education.
From my perspective, he’s a great addition to the team. I would be happy should the organization resign him again at the NHL league minimum salary.