National Post (Latest Edition)

Thornton a cautionary tale for Maple Leafs

Veteran centre knows all about playoff struggles

- Michael Traikos

If you want to know why the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Joe Thornton — and then promptly put the 41- year- old on the top forward line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to start training camp — listen to how he answered a question about the pressures of winning a Stanley Cup in Toronto.

“I got no stress, man,” Thornton said in his characteri­stic laid- back drawl. “Honestly.”

It sounded like something Jeff Spicoli might tell a teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or the type of slogan that you might find on a coffee mug, motivation­al poster or T- shirt — tiedyed and made out of hemp, of course.

If you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs, who last won a championsh­ip 54 years ago, it’s a phrase that might seem foreign.

No stress? Man, tell that to the players who were dodging frozen waffles back in 2010.

Better yet, tell that to Matthews and Marner, who enter Year 5 without having a single ounce of playoff success. Tell that to John Tavares, who has only once captained a team to the second round of the playoffs.

Tell that to Frederik Andersen or William Nylander, who could both be gone if Toronto doesn’t take a giant step forward this year. Tell that to Kyle Dubas or Brendan Shanahan.

With the start of the 56- game season about a week away, no team in Canada is under more pressure to win than the underachie­ving Leafs. They are the favourites to finish first in the all- Canadian North Division. Some have them as the country’s best chance at winning the Cup.

And yet, this is a team that hasn’t even won a playoff round since 2004, which is still fighting off the ghosts of 1967, as well as a bunch of Game 7 losses to the Boston Bruins.

For Matthews and Marner, who are the team’s two-highest players and arguably their most talented players, the stress is very much real. All eyes will be on them as they match up almost nightly against Edmonton’s Connor Mcdavid and Leon Draisaitl, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, or Calgary’s Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

And yet, winning a scoring title won’t be as important as winning a playoff round.

This is the year when the kids — and at 23 years old, Matthews and Marner aren’t really kids anymore — are expected to grow up, take a giant leap forward and contend for a championsh­ip.

This is the year when they put team wins ahead of individual achievemen­ts, where they do what Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane did for Chicago or what Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finally did for Washington.

That’s where Thornton comes in.

He’s been in the spot that Marner and Matthews are in right now. He was the No. 1 overall pick who had the weight of the world on his shoulders in Boston and then got traded during a year in which he won the Art Ross Trophy.

He’s the guy who lost his captaincy and who repeatedly lost in the playoffs and who critics said you couldn’t win with.

For Matthews and Marner, he is the cautionary tale. Only you wouldn’t know it looking at him today.

Wearing a hoodie and with a perma- smile peaking out behind an unkempt greying beard, Thornton doesn’t look like a guy who has been beaten down by the game. Instead, he looks like someone who has happily spent the past decade living a hedonistic life out of his van on the beach with Brent Burns.

And he’s bringing that surfer- like mentality to Toronto.

Clearly, head coach Sheldon Keefe believes Thornton’s “no stress” approach can benefit a Toronto team that is under the gun. Not necessaril­y on the ice, where a cynic might suggest Thornton lacks the legs and endurance to keep up with Matthews and Marner. But off the ice, where he should be able to calm down Matthews after a loss and be a reminder to Marner that he is playing a game — a game that is supposed to be fun.

“I think (it can be) incredibly contagious,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Thornton’s “positivity,” “energy” and “confidence.”

Those are all great things. But at the same time, this isn’t exactly a team that is lacking in the confidence department. The Leafs know how good they can be. What they don’t know is how to get there.

In that way, the team doesn’t need a Surfer Joe. They need a Sargeant Joe.

They someone to push them — not coddle them. The reason they haven’t won a championsh­ip — much less a playoff round — despite having some of the highest- paid talent in the NHL has nothing to do with stress or mounting pressures or squeezing the sticks too tightly. It’s the other thing.

The Leafs lack urgency, consistenc­y and desire. They haven’t been willing to join the fight. They need to look at Thornton’s career as a reminder that they could be in his place very soon if they don’t take advantage of the opportunit­y in front of them.

Maybe he’ll bring that, too. Maybe, like Jaromir Jagr did in Philadelph­ia and Florida, he’ll bring the fun but also the work ethic that has kept him around as one of the best players in the league for so long.

Maybe he will introduce his much younger teammates to midnight skating sessions and gut- wrenching workouts.

Maybe he’ll bring a hunger to the room that hasn’t existed.

Just as long as he doesn’t sit back and chill. The team has been doing that for long enough.

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