I wonder if, in the history of the NHL, more has ever been said about the signing of a player to a league minimum contract than has been said about Joe Thornton signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If an occasion has surpassed this, it can’t have been by much. Granted, it’s only natural given what the team and player have created in terms of potential storylines.
Take a sec to lay it out: An Ontario kid, a first-overall pick, plays 23 seasons and some 1,700 total games between two U.S. cities without ever winning a Cup. He’s a star, he’s famous. He makes all-star teams, and wins Olympic gold, the World Cup and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s best player. He gets older, he gets grey, he grows increasingly desperate for that Stanley Cup championship.
He goes home. He goes home for (likely) one last kick at the can, right as a talented young team sees its prized core hit its prime age. It’s all so Disney.
You’ll often hear media say they don’t root for players or teams but rather for stories, and if that’s true, there’s gotta be some journalistic types out there right now picking up blue and white pom-poms at their nearest dollar store.
All that’s been written and said about the potential storybook narrative brings me to two important questions that fans will actually want to kick around, which are: Where does Thornton practically fit in the Leafs’ lineup, and (sacrilegious though this is to question) was his signing actually a good use of that bottom-six roster spot? There’s also the question of if it’s even possible to divorce Thornton of All That Is Joe Thornton and just consider his value as a player, so we’ll touch on that, too.
The Leafs had a few issues against Columbus in the play-in round, but one was really glaring. Their top two lines were stacked, and therefore supposed to draw the opposing team’s best players, meaning their third line could feast against weaker competition. In reality, they didn’t feast — not at all.
While Kasperi Kapanen and Alex Kerfoot were busy not feasting – fitting for those two to say they were fasting? – they also weren’t providing much else. And because of the type of players they are and what their job was supposed to be (depth scoring), they couldn’t even be used for heavy D-zone starts to prop up the other lines. They had to be protected to do their non-scoring, which is an overall drag on a team given the positions it puts other lines in.
That led to much speculation that this next version of the Leafs would have a bottom six that could at least do other things (defend, hit, wear opponents down) if they weren’t going to produce offence. Which brings me to Thornton and how, if he’s not going to produce offence, I’m not sure he’s going to do much else.
I’m confident he’ll be more willing to hang on to pucks in the offensive zone, control play, and play at the net, but let’s not kid ourselves about what he’s supposed to do. His role will be to help get some offensive punch out of the bottom six, and I’m not overly confident a ton of punch still exists.
I’m also pretty sure he won’t be taking more D-zone starts off the table from the top lines, meaning he may need some protecting himself. So there’s some justifiable grounds in questioning his addition, as has been done by my Hockey Central teammate Brian Burke:
But let’s not overthink this too much. Let’s lay the reality out much more plainly. We’re basically talking about swapping Joe Thornton in for Frederik Gauthier, not Thornton for Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, as those guys and their dollars went to improve the team’s defensive corps. Thornton can take that spot as a bottom-six centre (call it third-line centre for now), and create some offence at both 5-on-5 and on the second power play unit.
Keep in mind that while Thornton had only 31 points last season, he also had 18 assists at 5-on-5, which if you look at league-wide comparables (names like Jack Eichel, Nicklas Backstrom and Blake Wheeler) was pretty decent. That was all while playing the bulk of his minutes with a pretty meh Marcus Sorensen (18 total points) and Kevin Labanc (33 points).
So he didn’t exactly play with big talent (his minutes away from those two saw him drive play at a much more successful rate), and he also saw his power play assists fall off the map, tallying only five on a quite-bad Sharks special teams unit. It’s tough to play chicken-or-egg with laying fault for his limited power play points, but certainly some of it had to do with an overall bad unit.
It’s not at all unreasonable to think that if the Leafs play him 13 or 14 minutes a game (instead of 15.5 as with San Jose), if he sees power play time with more talented players (almost a certainty), and if he just has a little better luck, his numbers could tick up this season. Whatever mix of linemates he hops the boards with, from Wayne Simmonds to Ilya Mikheyev to Jimmy Vesey to Jason Spezza or whoever, he’ll almost certainly have quality finishers alongside him.
There’s also the matter of what his more reliable presence can do for the rest of the lineup, which includes allowing Kerfoot to play more at wing — where he looked at his best for the Leafs last season. With that, Thornton too can play wing when needed, allowing Sheldon Keefe some versatility not just in-game, but in-season as injuries mount and lineup juggling becomes standard.
I’ve been trying not to, but it’s also tough to not come back to the money in the end. How many minutes or points would constitute value on a league-minimum deal like Thornton’s? Elven or 12 decent minutes a night? Thirty-one points again, over 82 games? If you consider the type of players (usually just-OK prospects) that play for his number, the bar is pretty low.
Let’s go deeper into that part.
Was signing Thornton the best use of a bargain-basement spot on next season’s Leafs?
When looking at the potential UFAs available on Oct. 8, I dedicated a paragraph to some of the bigger names. With Thornton, I hinted at the things I mentioned above – he can still get assists and retains some effectiveness, but I closed with this:
At some point, though, the pace just slows too much, and the “getting some points” thing isn’t enough. If Thornton’s willing to play a minimal role (fourth-line minutes) and play for a fourth-liner’s salary, you could maybe talk me into it (and he is, by all accounts). The hard truth though is that even then, I’d probably prefer to spend the money on some young forechecking machine who can make your team tough to play in other ways.
When I wrote that, I don’t think I considered the idea that he’d play for just $700,000 (I figured $1 million was likely). That changes things. So while I outlined Thornton not being a perfect fit for the changes the team may have wanted to make, we also need to consider the fit of their salary cap, and how his addition may allow the Leafs to keep another valued contributor, someone who may not have been able to stay had the Leafs spent even as much as $1 million on that bottom-six centre spot instead. The fit consideration isn’t purely about his game — it’s the fit of the Leafs puzzle as a whole. When considered like that, Thornton looks like more of a win than just what his on-ice, tangible game will offer.
Speaking of fit, though, how much of his gains will be provided off the ice? I realize this stuff is unquantifiable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Is it possible to just consider Thornton for his value as a hockey player in this upcoming season, as we’ve aimed to do above?
I mean, of course not. Where the conversation about the “fit” of Joe Thornton takes me is from the hockey fit, to the money fit, then to the intangibles. The Leafs have dedicated their off-season to finding one thing: hockey obsessives. I thought that was one of the reasons they kept Kerfoot over Johnsson — he’s a serious hockey diehard, extremely passionate about his craft. That was the stated reason they wanted Joey Anderson from the Devils, too – he’s a hardcore, committed, hockey obsessive.
Y’know who else is? Leafs’ rising star Nicholas Robertson. Also motivated? Simmonds, come home to prove his last season was a blip and not the end. Vesey wants to do the same, saying he’s “going to come out with his hair on fire.” Thornton – Cup-chasing and hungry – fits that mold, too, as the type of desperate player the Leafs want to put around their core.
So yes, Thornton fits reasonably well for the Leafs on the ice. But it’s when you pull back that it really makes sense. The core players all finally have their big comfortable contracts, and the last thing they need is for those guys to actually get comfy.
Surrounding them with pros with passion, with veterans like Thornton and Spezza who can serve as examples that nothing is promised, and no single shot at the Cup should be taken for granted, should help get the most of them, too. To me, that fits what the Leafs are chasing here as much as anything else.
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Every Monday during the season, theScore’s Justin Boone runs down the recommended waiver wire pickups.
Rostered percentages are based on Yahoo leagues. Free Agent Budget (FAB) amounts are set off a $100 salary cap. Only players rostered in less than 60% of leagues are considered.
Kirk Cousins, Vikings
Cousins has quietly emerged as a reliable fantasy starter – averaging the 12th most fantasy points since Week 3. He’s also thrown for two or more touchdowns in six of his last seven games.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars have been the third easiest matchup for opposing quarterbacks and have permitted multiple passing scores in five straight games, as well as eight of their last 10 outings.
Even without Adam Thielen, Cousins put up 307 yards and three touchdowns on the Panthers this week. Whether Thielen plays or not, Cousins is a quality streamer in Week 13.
Philip Rivers, Colts
Jacoby Brissett‘s newfound presence in goal-line packages is far from ideal for Rivers‘ fantasy value, but he’s regularly finished inside the top-13 quarterbacks since the Colts’ Week 7 bye.
Rivers’ weekly results over the last five weeks: QB5, QB28 (tough matchup with Ravens), QB13, QB10, and he’s the QB11 in Week 12 prior to the Monday nighter.
Though the Texans defense has recently put up better numbers, some of that success is attributed to a softer schedule. Rivers should have no problem spreading the ball around and putting up another solid fantasy performance.
Taysom Hill and Derek Carr are around the 60% rostered mark and would be the top options if they’re still available in your league.
Streamer options: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. CIN (20% rostered), Mitch Trubisky vs. DET (4% rostered), Baker Mayfield at TEN (35% rostered), Sam Darnold vs. LV (8% rostered)
Injured streamer options (if healthy): Gardner Minshew at MIN (12% rostered)
Cam Akers, Rams
As much as we need to stay grounded and not overreact to one big run, it was great to see Akers pour in a career-high 84 yards with a touchdown this week.
The bad news is the rookie was third in the backfield in snaps with 17, behind Malcolm Brown (25) and Darrell Henderson (20). This performance could go a long way toward establishing Akers as the hot hand since Henderson has struggled following his midseason injury and Brown is an average talent.
Akers has another opportunity to showcase his abilities against the Cardinals this week before the Rams get two very winnable games against the Patriots and Jets in the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs.
This may remain a three-headed committee, but you should want Akers on your roster in case the second-rounder continues to emerge down the stretch.
Benny Snell/Anthony McFarland Jr., Steelers
The Steelers are scheduled to take on the Ravens this Wednesday in a Week 12 game that’s been postponed several times already. If that contest is finally played, it’s possible my feelings about these backs could change based on performance or injury.
At the moment, James Conner is on the COVID-19 list after testing positive. As a cancer survivor, you can be sure the 25-year-old and team will be very cautious with his health.
That should set the stage for Snell to get at least two consecutive starts after head coach Mike Tomlin identified him as the lead back while Conner is sidelined.
That means Snell needs to be rostered as a low-end RB2 with upside for more if he can find the juice he displayed in the opener when he rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.
McFarland can be rostered as a stash until we see how this situation plays out with Conner.
J.K. Dobbins, Myles Gaskin, Zack Moss, Jamaal Williams, Latavius Murray, andJames White are around the 60% rostered mark and should be rostered in almost all leagues.
High-upside backups Alexander Mattison (32% rostered), Boston Scott (28% rostered), Carlos Hyde (38% rostered), and Tony Pollard (19% rostered) should be rostered in most leagues.
Flex options: Frank Gore vs. LV (25% rostered), Ito Smith vs. No (1% rostered), Brian Hill vs. NO (46% rostered), Devontae Booker at NYJ (9% rostered)
Risky flex options: J.D. McKissic at PIT (59% rostered), Joshua Kelley vs. NE (19% rostered), Gus Edwards vs. DAL (54% rostered)
Other backups to roster: Adrian Peterson at CHI (46% rostered), Royce Freeman at KC (6% rostered), Sony Michel at LAC (20% rostered), D’Onta Foreman vs. CLE, Jordan Wilkins at HOU (17% rostered), Kerryon Johnson at CHI (15% rostered), Devine Ozigbo at MIN (1% rostered)
Deeper stashes: Peyton Barber at PIT (1% rostered), DeAndre Washington vs. CIN (1% rostered), Jeremy McNichols vs. CLE (1% rostered), Jeff Wilson Jr. vs. BUF (3% rostered)
Allen Lazard/Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers
Investing in the Packers’ passing attack is a wise decision, so acquiring one of these wideouts off waivers should be an obvious move.
Lazard reached the end zone again Sunday – the third time he’s done that in five games this year.
Valdes-Scantling was shut out in the boxscore this week after suffering a mild Achilles injury in practice, but he’s still taking the field for SNF. In the previous three games, MVS delivered stat lines of 2-53-2, 4-149-1, and 3-55-0.
Don’t overthink this. Scoop these guys up now and consider using them as WR3/flex plays during their favorable upcoming schedule, which features the Eagles, Lions, Panthers, and Titans over the final month.
Breshad Perriman/Denzel Mims, Jets
The Jets’ outside receivers remain available in the vast majority of leagues, but that shouldn’t be the case based on their recent play.
Consider their last three stat lines:
With Sam Darnold healthy and matchups with the Raiders and Seahawks on deck, Perriman and Mims are flex options with significant fantasy upside.
Deebo Samuel, Sterling Shepard,Curtis Samuel,Cole Beasley, Corey Davis, Michael Pittman Jr.,and Jakobi Meyers are around the 60% rostered mark and should be rostered in almost all leagues.
Flex options: Jalen Reagor at GB (29% rostered), TY Hilton at HOU (38% rostered), Sammy Watkins vs. DEN (44% rostered), Gabriel Davis at SF (3% rostered), Tim Patrick at KC (22% rostered), Keke Coutee vs. IND (1% rostered), Keelan Cole at MIN (27% rostered), Laviska Shenault at MIN (18% rostered), Henry Ruggs at NYJ (28% rostered), Nelson Agholor at NYJ (43% rostered), Emmanuel Sanders at ATL (46% rostered)
Risky flex options: Russell Gage vs. NO (8% rostered), Darnell Mooney vs. DET (7% rostered), Josh Reynolds at ARI (9% rostered), KJ Hamler at KC (4% rostered), Damiere Byrd at LAC (5% rostered)
Dart-throw flex options: Michael Gallup at BAL (42% rostered), Rashard Higgins at TEN (11% rostered), Hunter Renfrow at NYJ (17% rostered), Collin Johnson at MIN (0% rostered), David Moore vs. NYG (4% rostered), Olabisi Johnson vs. JAX (0% rostered), Chad Beebe vs. JAX (0% rostered)
Injury stashes: Julian Edelman vs. ARI (26% rostered)
Deep bench stashes: Isaiah Coulter vs. IND (0% rostered), Kenny Stills – free agent (1% rostered), Mohamed Sanu at CHI (1% rostered), Demarcus Robinson vs. DEN (1% rostered), Steven Mitchell Jr. vs. IND (0% rostered)
Trey Burton, Colts
Burton isn’t even playing the most snaps among the Colts’ tight ends, and yet he’s still the one we’re targeting.
That’s because the Colts have gone out of their way to get the ball in his hands in scoring position and it’s resulted in touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.
Now Indy has a three-game stretch against the Texans, Raiders, and Texans again. The Colts should find themselves in the red zone often against those defenses, and that means opportunities for Burton to come through as a fantasy streamer.
Jordan Akins, Texans
Akins had a quiet Week 12 with no catches on two targets, but the news of Will Fuller‘s six-game suspension means changes are coming for the Texans’ offense.
Akins is only one week removed from catching five passes for 83 yards and displaying the kind of yardage upside most tight ends don’t possess.
Since the receiving corps is limited behind Brandin Cooks, Akins might be the best option to see an expanded role in Fuller’s absence, making a worthwhile stash this week.
Robert Tonyan and Mike Gesicki are around the 60% rostered mark and would be the top options if they’re still available in your league.
Streamer options: Logan Thomas at PIT (41% rostered),Jordan Reed vs. BUF (25% rostered), Dalton Schultz at BAL (22% rostered), Kyle Rudolph vs. JAX (15% rostered)
Injury stashes: Irv Smith Jr. vs. JAX (6% rostered), Zach Ertz at GB (59% rostered)
Risky streamer options: Will Dissly vs. NYG (4% rostered), Jacob Hollister vs. NYG (2% rostered), Tyler Eifert at MIN (6% rostered), Darren Fells vs. IND (3% rostered)
Greg Vanney, who led Toronto FC to respectability and then helped fill its trophy case, is stepping down as the Major League Soccer club’s head coach and technical director.
The club made the announcement Tuesday, in the aftermath of last week’s playoff loss to Nashville SC.
Vanney’s departure was not expected although delays in sorting out a new contract had raised questions. His current deal expires at the end of the 2020 season.
An emotional Vanney thanked his players, staff and TFC’s ownership, saying it was the right time to move on.
“I’m a builder. I like to build things and I like projects and I like big things,” he told reporters. “And this club is in a really really good place. There’s not a lot of building to do. It is an incredible club that is positioned, from where we started to where we are, to be great.”
WATCH | Nashville ends Toronto FC’s season early:
Daniel Rios scored in the 108th minute as Nashville SC upset Toronto FC 1-0 in round one of the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. 1:40
The father of four said his departure had nothing to do with money or other contract terms, calling it a “personal family decision.” He praised the club for its patience “while I worked through this entire process.”
Toronto says the search for Vanney’s replacement will begin immediately.
The 46-year-old Vanney, who also broke up in thanking the Toronto fans, said he had been mulling over his future for some time but especially after finally being able to spend some time with his family after the regular season.
He said he had not thought “a ton” about the future but wanted to spend time with his family and “regroup.” There are openings elsewhere, including the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Vanney is the longest tenured coach in TFC history, holding every coaching record, including games coached (250) and wins (112).
2017 MLS coach of the year
A finalist for coach of the year, Vanney led TFC to the second-best regular-season record at 13-5-5 in a difficult 2020 campaign. Forced to play all but four games away from BMO Field because of travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, injury-plagued Toronto limped into the playoffs losing three of its last four regular-season games.
The post-season ended quickly in a 1-0 extra-time loss to expansion Nashville.
Vanney originally joined TFC in December 2013 as the club’s assistant general manager and academy director. Named head coach in August 2014 after Ryan Nelsen was fired, Vanney inherited a 9-9-6 team that had never made the playoffs.
He turned [Toronto FC] into an MLS champion. More than that, he is of high character and a great family man.— Team president Bill Manning on Vanney
He took the club into the post-season in 2015 and went on to guide TFC to the MLS Cup final in 2016, 2017 and 2019, winning the title in 2017 on home soil.
Vanney also coached Toronto to the Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship in 2017, becoming the first MLS club to win a domestic treble. He was named MLS and CONCACAF coach of the year that season.
Toronto qualified for the playoffs under Vanney five of the past six seasons and captured three Canadian championships since 2016.
TFC president Bill Manning praised Vanney in a statement.
“I wish Greg nothing but the best in the future,” Manning said. “Back in 2014 he took over the head coach duties for a team that had never made the playoffs and turned them into an MLS champion. More than that, he is of high character and a great family man. I thank him for time well served for our club, his legacy here in Toronto is secure.”
Vanney had all three of his sons in TFC colours. His twins were part of the academy while his youngest boy was in the TFC Juniors program.
Greg Vanney has stepped down from his position of Toronto FC head coach and technical director, the club announced Tuesday.
Vanney led Toronto to a treble in 2017, winning MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship. He holds every coaching record in TFC history, including matches managed (250) and wins (112). He originally took charge during the 2014 season.
“I want to thank Mr. Tanenbaum, the board of directors and MLSE for their unwavering support for the past seven years. I recognize that I have been extremely fortunate to work for one of the best ownership groups in all of sports. I also want to thank Bill [Manning] and Ali [Curtis] for their support and leadership and most importantly the relationships we’ve developed over the years,” Vanney said in a club statement. “Thank you to all of the TFC staff and players for the incredible experiences we’ve shared together during this journey. I’m forever grateful to each of you. Lastly, to the TFC Fans. You’re truly amazing and the memories and emotions from our biggest nights together will be cherished.”
Toronto did not have the reputation they enjoy today prior to Vanney taking over as head coach. The club failed to make the playoffs in their first eight seasons in MLS, then broke that streak in Vanney’s first full season. On top of the treble in 2017, Vanney helped guide the club to two more Canadian Championship titles and two more trips to MLS Cup.
They also got to the Concacaf Champions League final in 2018, losing in penalties. No MLS club has ever won that competition.
“I wish Greg nothing but the best in the future,” said TFC president Bill Manning. “Back in 2014 he took over the head coach duties for a team that had never made the playoffs and turned them into an MLS champion. More than that, he is of high character and a great family man. I thank him for time well served for our club, his legacy here in Toronto is secure.”
Toronto will begin their search for a head coach immediately.
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