While playing in Toronto during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Joe Thornton impulsively toured the CN Tower, recalling how much he enjoyed the view as a kid.
The city will be at his feet again, at least its Maple Leafs fans, after what’s surely the club’s most popular October addition of a veteran to try and change the culture in the room. ‘Jumbo Joe’ signed Friday night for one year at $700,000 US, a likely NHL sunset season for the centre after 22 seasons spent between Boston and, most recently, San Jose.
While unclear how much this 41-year-old can help Toronto’s young guns, it further addresses the team’s need to be gnarly, get past the first round of the playoffs and beyond. It’s been an active couple of weeks for general manager Kyle Dubas, who brought in Wayne Simmonds, defenceman Zach Bogosian and goalie Aaron Dell on one-year deals, signed free-agent blueliner TJ Brodie to a multi-year deal, acquired winger Joey Anderson and topped it with another ex-Soo Greyhound, though Dubas would’ve been in grade school when Thornton last played in the OHL.
Thornton will be the second-oldest Leaf in the past 25 years behind Curtis Joseph’s second coming, signing a couple of days after joining HC Davos in Switzerland. He wanted to stay in game shape while the NHL is on its long COVID-induced off-season and will likely speak to the media Saturday or Sunday. Thornton was also mulling a return to the Sharks where he’s played since 2005-06, but agonizingly, is still without a Stanley Cup after starting in Boston as the league’s top pick in 1997.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds with more than 1,800 regular-season and playoff games, he had 31 points in 70 appearances last season. That production was his lowest in 12 years of 70 games or more, but brought him to 1,509 in the regular season.
With his physical style, leadership and perhaps re-growing his ZZ Top-style grey beard (which was shorn in Switzerland), he’ll be welcome to mentor Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. A couple of years ago, former Leaf Nazem Kadri yanked out part of that famous thatch in a Scotiabank Arena scrap.
The London, Ont.-born Thornton will have to find a spot on the bottom-six forwards, to be sorted among young talent challenging for jobs and 37-year-old Jason Spezza, who was already brought back for fourth-line centre among other roles.
BRACCO TO TOBACCO ROAD
In other Leafs news, after the club didn’t qualify 2015 second-round pick Jeremy Bracco last week, the 23-year-old winger inked a two-way deal Friday with Carolina.
Bracco was second in AHL scoring two years ago, but had a poor playoff with the Marlies and struggled since to get past Marner, Nylander and, until recently, Kasperi Kapanen for a job on the right side.
The Marlies have also signed forwards Scott Sabourin and Tyler Gaudet to one-year AHL deals. Sabourin played with the Ottawa Senators part of last year and had a comical pre-season run-in with Matthews, who checked Sabourin’s sweater nameplate for his NHL authenticity after he slew-footed teammate Morgan Rielly.
BIG Z BUZZES OFF B’s?
It would fall under the category of ‘believe it when you see it’.
But it’s a week after free agency began, Zdeno Chara is unsigned and his agent isn’t guaranteeing he’ll be back for a 16th season with the Bruins.
The 43-year-old has lost a step, but certainly hasn’t shrunk from being 6-foot-9 and covers a lot of ground for a defenceman. On Thursday night, Pierre LeBrun on TSN said agent Matt Keator told him Chara is “looking at all options”.
While Chara has become synonymous with Boston, its future as a Cup contender isn’t as strong as before. Conversely, most teams have already made their big-dollar commitments for UFAs. If the money isn’t much different than Boston’s offer, it’s unlikely he’d jump elsewhere, unless for family considerations.
Karl Alzner is reportedly under consideration by Boston as a UFA.
CAT SCRATCH FEVER
In the past few years, Nashville’s team was ‘Predators’ in name only.
The sabre-toothed logo belied a club that made its mark with skill rather than scrape through games with edgy forwards and defencemen. While they’ve played determined hockey at playoff time through the years, their record in series is 1-3 since losing the 2017 Cup final to Pittsburgh.
Their philosophy is changing, however, as GM David Poile told The Athletic Nashville this week. The Preds added Matt Benning, Mark Borowiecki, Nick Cousins, Luke Kunin and Brad Richardson, none of whom will win an Art Ross Trophy, but bring other attributes.
“You can see the type of players that we have signed,” Poile said. “We are not the same team as last year. We have a different makeup. We certainly have a little bit more physicality, a little bit more grit.
“Maybe we’ve taken a little bit of a step back from the most skillful lineup we’ve ever had (led by Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Ryan Ellis) to more of a balance between the will and the skill.”
When the Red Wings turn the corner in a couple of years as many hope, big Jan Bednar could be part of that in net.
Announcing Bednar’s name in the fourth round of the draft earlier this month seemed to trigger equal commendation and criticism from scouts, who couldn’t agree if the 6-foot-4 Czech deserved to go at that stage or much lower. He was the eighth goalie taken, right after Artur Akhtyamov went 106th overall to Toronto. The Wings have only veteran Jonathan Bernier as a proven starter right now.
Bednar said the right things during a media Zoom call, that he liked trying to make the same unorthodox saves as countryman Dominik Hasek and he’d studied video of Hasek and all Detroit’s stars from the 2002 Cup. He knows former Wings’ goalie Petr Mrazek and met with Detroit more than any club prior to the draft.
Kris Draper, the Wings’ director of amateur scouting, raved about Bednar’s stops during two tournament games against the powerful U.S. national development team. Bednar is playing against men in the Czech League and hoping the COVID-19 situation eventually settles enough to cross over and join Acadie-Bathurst in the QMJHL.
STANLEY STAYS PUT FOR NOW
A day with the Cup in their hometown is a remote possibility for players and officials of the Tampa Bay Lightning in these COVID-clouded times.
While Stanley has remained in the city the past few weeks, where it was shown off at a Bucs NFL game, select bars, a golf course, a bridal shower, schools and law enforcement offices, it’ll be hard to move around on display, especially if accompanying personnel must quarantine in Canada, New York State and Europe.
“(We’re) working with the league and Hall of Fame to try and determine what is and isn’t doable,” a team official said. “Health and safety remain at the forefront for everyone involved.”
It might be those players still in the city will just have to arrange a local celebration for themselves. By now, the Cup should’ve been in Montreal for engraving, but with next season up in the air, the team asked to keep it for now.
Andrew Mangiapane was among the first NHLers to avoid a scheduled salary arbitration, signing a two-year, $4.85-million contract with the Calgary Flames on Friday. The 24-year-old forward, with a career-high 17 goals and 32 points, was to have had his hearing on Tuesday … Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 overall pick earlier this month, signed his entry level deal with the Los Angeles Kings on Friday. The 6-foot-4 Byfield will wear No. 55 … The much smaller Ozzy Wiesblatt, taken at the end of the first round by San Jose, also agreed to an ELC … AHL president Scott Howson told Sirius XM radio on Friday that his league is still hoping for a Dec. 4 start, but notes its NHL ties could also see it look to Jan. 1 and beyond with a compacted schedule.