Columnist image

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

| Archive

TORONTO — The Maple Leafs may be mired in a season-worst three-game losing streak, but Joe Thornton isn’t bothered.

In fact, the veteran centre is wielding his infectious personality more than ever to keep teammates focused on the good they've already done, and can continue to do with a win in Thursday’s rematch against Winnipeg.

“It's a long year, and you've got to enjoy the process. You really do,” Thornton told reporters on a Zoom call after Toronto’s optional morning skate.

“There’s going to be ups, there's going to be downs, but you’ve got to fight through it all. I think the team in general has just been great with that. We've responded a lot this year, and we're going to need to in the future. But I think just keeping the guys fresh, keeping them light, it tends to show up when you play at night for a good game.”

Toronto hasn’t had many of those recently, dropping two contests out West to Vancouver and returning home to another loss against Winnipeg on Tuesday. Prior to this stretch, the Leafs hadn’t suffered consecutive regulation defeats all season, and suddenly those negative outcomes can feel on the verge of snowballing.

That’s where Thornton’s even-keeled presence comes to the forefront. Lately he’s taken to handing out more nicknames in the dressing room, including ‘Willy Styles’ for William Nylander, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘9-0’ for Jimmy Vesey and, reportedly, ‘Fredzilla’ to Frederik Andersen, although Thornton jokingly refused to take full credit for that one. 

And then there’s Thornton’s commitment to routine, which starts hours before game time. He’s one of the few regular skaters who always participates in the Leafs’ morning skates, an endearing trait that his young counterparts can appreciate.

Even if it’s only for a few minutes, Thornton openly relishes every interaction he has on the ice, touching base with players and coaches alike, going through a few exercises, and then heading off with a wave and ear-to-ear smile. 

“It makes me eat lunch a little bit easier, makes me nap a little bit – just a light a little sweat,” Thornton said of his need for morning skate. “I've always done it, so it is something I've always known, but it just helps me relax for what tonight brings.”

Alex Kerfoot often takes part in optional workouts as well, where he and Thornton share more ice time during drills than they normally would at a more crowded session. 

“He just comes to the rink every day and he's got more excitement every day than anyone else,” said Kerfoot. “I think we can all learn a lot from that, and it’s his love for the game that’s been able to keep him around for so long. A lot of it is just his energy and attitude; you have to love [the grind] and you have to love every aspect of it.”

It’s a mindset head coach Sheldon Keefe hopes rubs off on the rest of his group, particularly when they’re going through a rough patch. Thornton has been struggling to produce offensively since returning from a lower-body injury on Feb. 27, recording just two assists in that six-game stretch, but Keefe never sees adversity shake his confidence.

“The way that [Thornton] conducts himself, he's just all about getting better and giving himself the best opportunity to succeed,” Keefe said. “He's very open to being coached, and that's great not only for him but for the rest of our team. It sets a terrific example that he continues to want to get better and allows himself to be pushed and coached.”

The Leafs have recently been pushed in the wrong direction, while the Jets are gaining ground in the North Division, cutting Toronto’s lead to just five points with two more games in hand.

There have been a lot of little issues adding up for the Leafs in their losses, like sputtering special teams (Toronto is 1-for-5 on the penalty kill and 1-for-5 on the power play in its past three games) and blown leads in each of their past two games.

To shake things up, Keefe will be inserting Kenny Agostino for Travis Boyd on the fourth line in this second of three meetings with Winnipeg this week. 

A veteran of 85 NHL contests with eight goals and 30 points to date, Thursday will not only mark Agostino’s Leafs’ debut, but will also be his first NHL action since April 6, 2019 with the New Jersey Devils.

Agostino signed a two-year, $1.475 million deal with the Leafs in June 2019, but has only seen time so far with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Over 53 AHL games last season, Agostino led the Marlies with 27 goals and 49 points, which also ranked 12th overall in the league. 

The 28-year-old started this season in the AHL, skating in eight games with seven points, before Toronto recalled him to the taxi squad on Feb. 27. 

It’s a minor move, but Keefe is hoping it will pay at least some dividend in getting Toronto back on track. 

“We just think with the way things have gone here for us in the last little bit, [it’s the right move],” Keefe explained. “Both in the fact that I haven't liked what we've gotten out of our fourth line, and then also just getting a fresh body in on forward, someone that is hungry for his opportunity, his chance, and hasn't played and all those kind of things. We just think it'll inject something into the group.”