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Maple Leafs’ pursuit of Joe Thornton raises hopes and concerns

Joe Thornton will be playing professional hockey for free this weekend.

Or, at best, an IOU note.

This is what unfinished business looks like. A dream that won’t die. Legs that refuse to rest and 41-year-old knees that, even after churning through nearly 1,900 games, are still churning with a mission.

Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day.

“I’ve been hunting this thing down for 22 years,” Thornton said of the Stanley Cup this past winter.

The future Hall of Famer’s eyes weighed with disappointment in late February, when a trade out of cellar-dwelling San Jose to a contender never materialized.

“As you get older, you realize you only have so many shots at this thing, and it would have been nice to have a chance.

“I wanted a shot.”

By agreeing to delayed, modest compensation with HC Davos — Thornton’s go-to lockout club team in wife Tabea’s native Switzerland — Jumbo is gearing up for one more shot.

“Joe is not someone who joins the team. He is already one of us,” Davos coach Christian Wohlwend told Swiss reporter Kristian Kapp, as Thornton gears up for Saturday’s game.

Sure, having a $109-million NHL career on your resume and a Swiss passport in your pocket helps in agreeing to sell tickets for a pandemic-hurting club that Thornton previously starred for during the 2004 and 2012 lockouts.

“It’s like my home away from home. I’m comfortable here,” Thornton told My Channel.

“I just love playing hockey. I really do. I have a passion for the sport. I like helping out the younger guys. I was born to play hockey, and I’ll play as long as I can, as long as I’m healthy.”

Thornton fell fast in love with the Alps and has held his own key for the arena and Davos training facilities for years. He can come and go as he pleases.

“It is a great honour that Joe chose to be with us for a third time in his incredible career,” said GM Raeto Raffainer. “And from what I have seen of him in practice, he is absolutely capable to help our team. His puck control and his pass quality is still on an enormously high level.”

Make no mistake: Thornton isn’t lacing them up purely to aid Davos’s bottom line.

He’s sharpening his timing and ramping up his conditioning for whenever the NHL resumes, in hopes he will sign a contract with a powerhouse.

That Thornton, a free agent, did not deny mutual interest with the Toronto Maple Leafs when asked by Swiss reporters is telling.

Thornton reportedly had some trade interest midseason from a few NHL clubs in the rental market, but none of those were one scraggly-bearded assist legend away from championship.

“I was willing to go somewhere and try to win my first Stanley Cup,” Thornton said at the time. “I’ve been dreaming about that ever since I can remember, and it just didn’t come to fruition, for whatever reason. I wanted to get something back for the Sharks, obviously, to help them continue this process with young guys. It just didn’t work out.”

So, the question is this: Would a Thornton-Leafs marriage work out, assuming the veteran would accept a bargain contract sweetened with 35-plus bonuses?

For the Thorntons, Toronto would bring a legitimate Cup shot and yet another storybook hometown tale. (Thornton was born in nearby St. Thomas, Ont., and played junior in the Soo.) Playing in Canada — and, potentially, in an all-Canadian division — during COVID-19 is not a bad selling point for a family man, either. And certainly, close friend Patrick Marleau could give Thornton all the info he needs about life inside the Leafs’ walls.

For the Maple Leafs, Thornton represents a true bottom-six centreman and, more importantly, another dose of veteran leadership. The NHL’s active assist leader (1,089) would be more of a culture signing than a PP2 signing. That is the sales pitch Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe and the players are making here.

Importing such a large character should not come without its concerns, however. And it would create a compelling dynamic where a cluster of the most experienced and influential voices in the dressing room (Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jake Muzzin, Jason Spezza) don’t belong to the star core wearing letters.

Thornton’s numbers, frankly, were not good in 2019-20.

His goals (seven) and points (31) totals were the lowest since his 1997-98 rookie campaign, when he played just 55 games. His minus-19 rating was the worst of his life, and even his face-off percentage (49.4) dipped below 50 for the first time ever.

How much of that decline do you chalk up to lack of inspiration punching the clock outside of the playoff race? How much do you attribute to Father Time’s knack for wearing us all down?

Another question should be fit. Does Thornton automatically supplant 26-year-old Alexander Kerfoot at 3C? Or would a guy accustomed to playing no less than 15:30 a night accept a role on the far fringes of the roster?

And how much speed is too much speed for a roster to sacrifice in order to gain the intangibles Thornton could inject?

There is no doubt Dubas was unsatisfied with the mix on his bottom six, and a mass turnover and a landscape laid for internal competition was already in full swing before the pitches to Thornton went public.

Simmonds’ no-move clause assures him a spot. Rookie Nick Robertson will be gunning for ice time after his NHL taste in the bubble. The slew of new faces Jimmy Vesey, Joey Anderson, Travis Boyd and Alexander Barabanov don’t arrive with dreams of playing for the Marlies. And fringe skill forwards like Denis Malgin, Nic Petan and Adam Brooks all believe their best hockey lies ahead.

There is plenty to sort through still, and we’ve yet to mention the added cap strain of unsigned RFAs Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott.

The Maple Leafs are in no way done.

And if Joe Thornton has a say, neither is he.

The question is no longer, “Are they interested in hunting this thing down together?”

But rather: “Should they be hunting this thing down together?”

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