In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at two newcomers to the Maple Leafs roster. Currently, Jumbo Joe Thornton is playing (for free) at his Swiss home in Davos and Mikko Lehtonen just had his KHL contract terminated and will be soon heading to North America to prepare for the upcoming 2020-21 NHL regular season.
Although both players have different resumes, their presence on the Maple Leafs roster has been greeted with enthusiasm by fans. By current hockey salary standards, the Maple Leafs haven’t invested a lot of money in these players – Thornton is signed to an NHL league-minimum $700,000 contract and the 26-year-old Lehtonen is on an entry-level contract at $925,000.
However, there’s a lot of organizational investment in these players. Both are expected to positively impact the team’s success.
Item One: More Than One Hockey Person Thinks Thornton Will Improve Maple Leafs
Two days ago, I wrote about Maple Leafs newcomer Joe Thornton playing for free with his home HC Davos team. For those who don’t know Thornton’s story, during the 2004-05 season when the NHL season was canceled because of a lockdown, Thornton – then in his mid-20s – traveled to the small Swiss city of Davos because he wanted to play hockey.
He not only helped lead Davos to the Swiss national title that season, but during that trip he met and married a local young woman Tabea Pfendsack and his family now lives in Davos during the NHL’s offseason. Thornton’s become a community fixture and has been given the keys to the Davos arena by general manager Raeto Raffainer so he can skate and work out whenever he wants.
This season, Thornton struck a deal with Raffainer to play for Davos; but, when the Swiss general manager noted that the organization didn’t have much money because they lacked fans in the seats, Thornton choose to play for free this season and said Raffainer could pay him “whenever.” By the way, so far the 41-year-old center has two goals and four assists in six Switzerland’s National League games this season.
Recently, Raffainer shared his expectations of the impact he believes Thornton will have with the Maple Leafs this season with Toronto. He noted, “They (the Maple Leafs) know exactly what they bought with him. The fire in his eyes and his whole body to win something is going to be huge. And he will help this organization to win, that’s for sure.”
Undoubtedly Raffainer is biased because of his team’s ties to Thornton and because they have become friends. However, Scott Wheeler of The Athletic doesn’t share that bias. In a recent article, he examined the expectations the Maple Leafs have for Thornton entering the 2020-21 NHL regular season and Thornton’s ability to meet them. (from “What watching Joe Thornton play for HC Davos suggests he can do for the Leafs,” Scott Wheeler, The Athletic, 19,11/ 20).
Specifically, Wheeler wondered whether Thornton could do what the Maple Leafs hoped, which is to become their third-line center and give Alex Kerfoot a chance to play wing higher in the lineup now that Andereas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen were traded.
Like any good researcher, Wheeler designed a research question and studied the data. His question was “Can Thornton successfully play as a third-line center on the 2020-21 Maple Leafs?” Then Wheeler studied Thornton’s first six games of the season with Davos.
Given Thornton’s production to date, based on a small sample size of six games played, his findings spell good news for the Maple Leafs organization and Toronto fans.
First, Wheeler reports that Thornton is a point-per-game player after six games. He’s scored two goals and four assists in an improved Swiss National League. Thornton’s HC Davos team outscores its opponents 5-3 when Thornton plays at even strength. Second, Thornton has been a fixture on the Davos power play. Third, Thornton still has great hands, protects the puck well, and has started strong. He joined the league late but was effective immediately. He’s averaging 16:39 TOI per game and his 3.6 points per 60 minutes rank first on his team.
However, Wheeler noted concerns with Thornton’s game. These included (a) faceoffs, (b) shot generation, and (c) Thornton’s lack of speed. He reminded fans that Thornton wasn’t the fastest skater on the ice; however, as Wheeler noted, that isn’t why the team signed him.
Wheeler believes Thornton could have a better season in 2020-21 than during 2019-20 – if he’s used wisely. On the flip side, Wheeler notes that last season wasn’t anything for Thornton to tweet about and reminds Maple Leafs fans that he was eighth in scoring on a weak San Jose Sharks team.
In the final analysis, during a shortened season, Thornton could play well. However, if the season is compacted and games squeezed closer together to fit a smaller window, Thornton could have issues of stamina as the season progresses. Perhaps that’s why general manager Kyle Dubas signed so many forwards to bargain contracts in expectation of such a season.
Item Two: Mikko Lehtonen and KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki Mutually Terminate His Contract
This move might be a good sign for hockey fans that a 2020-21 NHL regular season is on the way. In news yesterday, KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki and Mikko Lehtonen agreed to terminate his contract. That means that Lehtonen will travel to North America almost immediately to prepare for an upcoming NHL season.
When Lehtonen’s time with Jokerit and the KHL ended, he led all defensemen in scoring – although he had missed a large number of games because he tested positive for COVID-19 and Jokerit’s games were postponed. He had scored eight goals and 17 points in 17 KHL games for the team’s 2020-21 season.
Last season with the same club, he scored 17 goals and 32 assists (49 points) in 60 games. Lehtonen and Maple Leafs fans look forward to his NHL debut. He’s signed to a one-year, entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
On one hand, all this activity with Thornton and Lehtonen is happening as if the 2020-21 NHL regular season is a given. On the other hand, there’s speculation it might not be that easy.
A Sportsnet article from Thursday reported that Elliotte Friedman believes that, for a Jan. 1 regular-season start to be possible, a deal between the NHL and the NHLPA must be reached by the end of November. However, Friedman also reported that players were angry with the league’s recent proposals that asked players to defer more salary for the 2020-21 season and to pay more escrow. As Friedman noted, these proposals have “knocked things off course” because the players feel angry and betrayed.
Player agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Hockey believes the proposals are a threat by the NHL with the 2020-21 campaign hanging in the balance. Although it’s perhaps rhetoric at this point, Walsh says he believes a New Year’s puck drop “is not viable at this point.”
Specifically, he noted “I don’t believe – despite what we might be hearing now, even though now it comes with a little bit of a caveat of it’s not etched in stone the way it was previously – we’re probably looking at more like a mid-January or even the possibility of a Feb. 1 start date.”
Obviously, there’s more to work out prior to a 2020-21 NHL season. Is it possible that, just like 2004-05, we might miss hockey this year?