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Why Joe Thornton chose Toronto (and 8 more Maple Leafs notes)

TORONTO – If you’re still struggling to wrap your head around the full and complete range of Joe Thornton’s living-legend status, consider this.

Thornton called up Joe Montana to pick the iconic quarterback’s mind about whether he should leave the Bay Area and join the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The 41-year-old centreman did not take the decision to walk away from the San Jose Sharks after 15 meaningful years lightly.

Thornton had blunt conversations with friends Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau about the pros and cons of leaving what’s comfortable. He spoke with several Maple Leafs and sought the opinions of people outside of hockey before finally making up his mind only four or five days ago.

But his conversation with Montana especially resonated.

“I actually talked to Joe Montana. And I think Joe gave me some good advice. He just talked about leaving San Francisco and going to Kansas City (late in his career),” said Thornton, Zooming in his first meeting with Maple Leafs reporters from Davos, on a football Sunday no less. “It was probably the hardest hockey decision I’ve ever had to make.

“I had so many people I’ve talked to over the last week. I’m just blessed that I had a chance to talk to some great people, but he’s one guy that offered me up some good advice.”

Just a couple of extraordinary Joes.

That Thornton’s parents still reside in St. Thomas, Ont. — a 100-minute drive from his new club and, soon, their cherished grandkids — is certainly a bonus.

But the oldest forward in the NHL wanted to be crystal clear why he’s returning to Ontario and joining the Maple Leafs for $700,000 and ready to take whatever role coach Sheldon Keefe assigns.

“It’s because of the hockey team, honestly,” Thornton said. “I need to win a Stanley Cup.

“This team is ready to win now. I’m ready to win.”

Thornton and his family will remain in Switzerland until NHL camps open; he notched an assist and skated 15:46 in his HC Davos debut Saturday, a 9-2 win over Rapperswil-Jona. And he confirmed that the Leafs had nearly lured him to Canada in the summer of 2017.

“I gave it a long, hard thought, and it just didn’t work out back then,” said Thornton, whose Sharks failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2020.

He rhymes off a roster loaded with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie, and figures this was the right time to make the leap.

Asked why he believes Toronto has an edge over his other free-agent suitors, Thornton pointed first at Frederik Andersen.

“I love their goalie. I really, really do. I like Freddie a lot. I think he’s a great goalie,” Thornton said. “This is a really good team — and it’s going to be a great team at the end of this.”

General manager Kyle Dubas aggressively pitched Thornton on a homecoming because the organization prioritized boosting the “spirit and energy of the group.” In addition to being a beloved dressing-room character, Thornton can be both a calming and driving influence.

Dubas notes that, on the ice, Thronton is still “high-end playmaker” able to complement the forward group on the power play and one still driving play (52.7 Corsi-for in 2019-20) at even-strength.

“He’s a different type of personality, and he’s got a great spirit to him, and I think adding anybody like that can always be very helpful to a group at any time,” Dubas said.

The young Leafs exec has always been forthcoming in trying to follow the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blueprint for building organizational balance and depth, but for this one, he points to the other 2020 Cup finalist, the Dallas Stars.

Dubas observed Jim Nill’s recruitment and success with past-their-prime Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera, and decided to hunt down “more experience and personality” in his own lineup.

Welcome back Jason Spezza. Enter Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, and now, Thornton.

The question will linger: Is the guy with Joe Montana on speed dial too old?

Are the Leafs — formerly known for flash and dash throughout the lineup — all of a sudden getting too creaky in the bottom six?

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Dubas said. “It’s up to us to show what we can do.”

While it remains to be seen if Thornton’s legs are up for the challenge, there is no question his spirit is as ready as ever.

“I think I got lots of hockey left in me,” Thornton smiled.

“Just super, super excited, man.”

One-Timers

• Thornton is happy he and the second-oldest Maple Leaf, Spezza, are both FaceTime guys. Spezza FaceTimed Thornton to offer up his No. 19 sweater. “Nope, I’m not taking anything from ya,” said Thornton. He appreciates the gesture, but is happy wearing 97, his current number with HC Davos.

• Thornton on making the jump from a mellow hockey town like San Jose to the media spotlight of Toronto: “I don’t mind you guys at all, so I’ll be fine with it.”

• “It doesn’t appear we’ll have to move anybody else out,” said Dubas, who believes the Leafs can be cap compliant without another trade. That sound you hear is Alexander Kerfoot breathing a deep sigh of relief. Prepare for fringe players to dance between the AHL Marlies and the big club all season.

• The GM is “open to anything,” but doesn’t foresee adding any of the remaining free-agent bargains on the market. Names like Sami Vatanen, Travis Hamonic and Andy Greene are out there. UFAs now look at Toronto’s cap picture and crowded roster and don’t see open opportunity for themselves after a week of additions.

• The Maple Leafs plan to address RFA Travis Dermott’s extension once they’ve settled Ilya Mikheyev’s arbitration case, set for Wednesday.

• UFA signing Bogosian — “a big addition,” in Dubas’s mind — will kill penalties and be given a chance to crack the top four. “We haven’t had the success as a group to where anything is owed to anybody based on previous performance,” Dubas said. “So, Zach can challenge anybody is as high up as he wants.” Creating internal competition has been a major priority over the past two weeks.

• Dubas believes signing third-stringer Aaron Dell (another former Shark) and letting Kasimir Kaskisuo walk to the Nashville Predators now gives the Maple Leafs their best one-two-three punch in goal since he joined the organization.

• Thornton, laughing, on what he remembers about crossing paths with 11-year-old Greyhounds employee Kyle Dubas when he played in the Soo: “I don’t remember two weeks ago, to be honest with ya.”

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