Joe Thornton will be on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner when the Toronto Maple Leafs hold their first on-ice workout of training camp on Monday.
The Maple Leafs hope the 41-year-old forward, who is 14th on the NHL scoring list with 1,509 points (420 goals, 1,089 assists) in 1,636 games, can use his size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) to create space for his linemates in the offensive zone.
Thornton, entering his 23rd NHL season, signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with Toronto on Oct. 16 after playing 15 seasons with the San Jose Sharks.
“I’m really excited,” Marner said Sunday on the first day of camp. “I’ve watched him for a long time. What he does with the puck, how he controls the puck in the O-zone, it’s very impressive to watch. It’s going to be fun to play with such a very talented playmaker. And for me, I think it’s just trying to find holes in the middle of the ice that I can get in open spots to be more of a shooter, more of a threat.
“I’m super excited by both guys. We’ve been practicing in and out for a couple days. The chemistry is getting better every day. And for me it’s about trying to find soft spots for outlet [passes].”
Having played much of last season at right wing on a line with Matthews and left wing Zach Hyman, Marner assumed that line would remain intact when he took the ice for an informal workout last week, but Hyman informed him that Thornton, a longtime center, would be taking over at left wing.
Matthews said he’s been impressed by what he’s seen of Thornton, who scored 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists) in 70 games last season.
“He’s looked good,” Matthews said. “He’s spent the past couple of weeks at the Ford [Performance] Centre (the Maple Leafs practice facility) skating, and he’s looked sharp. He just looks like Jumbo.
“It’s been great having him here. He’s a great addition and he brings great energy to the rink every day. It’s been great having him here. I think everyone is super excited to have him here.”
Matthews, who scored 80 points (47 goals, 33 assists) in 70 games last season, and Marner, who scored 67 points (16 goals, 51 assists) in 67 games, were the top two scorers for Toronto last season. They credit the grunt work of Hyman, who scored 37 points (21 goals, 16 assists) in 51 games, for part of that success. Thornton’s ability to cradle the puck and fend off defenders could produce similar results, if not better.
“He’s a big frame, so I think it’s nice to know whenever we’re in trouble that we’ve got an outlet because he hangs around the net, in front of it or behind it,” Matthews said. “He’s so big and strong and can protect the puck so well, so you know a little give-and-go can get you open because he’s got such great vision, especially with guys draped over him.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe said Hyman will start camp on the third line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot. Jimmy Vesey, John Tavares and William Nylander will be on the second line, and Alexander Barabanov, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds will make up the fourth line.
Matthews said camp will give him, Thornton and Marner a chance to get even more comfortable with each other before the Maple Leafs open the season Jan. 13 at home against the Montreal Canadiens.
“For us, it’s just about finding that chemistry in camp,” Matthews said. “We’ve been skating a bit the past couple of days so we’re just trying to build off that and get better every day.”