The 2020-21 season is officially underway. The five-game opening night showing on Wednesday offered a glimpse into some of the burning questions you might have been asking yourself since the Lightning hoisted the Cup back in the summer/fall (who even remembers months anyway?): Like, can Steven Stamkos return to form after playing just 2:47 of one hockey game in the last 10 months? Or…what does Nathan MacKinnon have to do this season to take home some individual hardware?
But if you’re like me you were more interested with how your eyes would adjust to the unique sights. You know, hockey games without fans and pumped-in crowd noise; helmet ads obstructing my view of William Nylander’s sick flow; and Joe Thornton not wearing teal. The latter of course being my realest of real concerns.
Thornton, also known as Jumbo, 41, was the first overall pick of the Bruins in 1997. He played seven full seasons in Boston and recorded back-to-back 100-point seasons, too. But his last 15 years were all played in San Jose. While the timeline of his career and my hockey-viewership suggests that I watched the now bearded treasure play for the black and gold, my mind can’t seem to recall anything other than that teal and white sweater with a shark biting through a wooden hockey stick.
But as the season kicked off on Wednesday, Thornton’s 23rd, by the way, it was the definition of ‘grizzled veteran’ on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner—insert Steve Buscemi gif here. To his credit, he skated for 17:30 in his debut in the blue and white while recording a shot-on-goal. And with sky-high expectations increasing as each season passes by the core Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan has assembled, there’s a certain ho-hum attitude about Thornton that’s appreciated.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Thornton said following his debut, a 5-4 victory in OT after trailing three times in regulation. “Great game, boys were down early but we managed to come back and what a great finish by (Morgan Rielly). I think the 40-plus players and coaches really enjoyed being out there again.”
Thornton was just one of the offseason additions made aimed at trying to increase the compete level of a team that has been criticized for not having enough of it in the biggest spots. Wayne Simmonds, a 12-year vet and hometown kid, was another addition to the squad. Though he entered the contest one point shy of his 500th in the league, he added to his more than 1,000 career penalty minutes, scrapping with Canadiens’ defenseman, Ben Chiarot mid-second period with the Leafs down by two.
“I think this is my fifth team in the last year—I’m comfortable coming to new surroundings,” Simmonds said. “It felt good. That’s my first real game action in like 10 months, 28 days and I can probably tell you to the second. It felt really good and I thought the boys needed a bit of a spark there. I know my role on this team. I asked Chiarot and I didn’t think he wanted to go at first, but then he dropped his gloves before me so it was green light—go. I’m happy he gave me that one and helped turn the tide for our team.”
Turn it did, Toronto answered back with two goals to close out the second period even. Rielly, who netted the game-winner on after the two teams traded goals in the third period, appreciated Simmonds contribution.
“I think that’s what Wayne brings to this group,” Rielly said. “He’s been doing that in his career for a long time. It’s incredibly valuable. He brings a whole lots of aspects, of great things to our team. The way that he’s able to play and that part of his game, and then his off-ice leadership. He’s incredibly valuable to this team and we’re very, very lucky to have him.”
For now, the gelling of a still young enough core meets veteran presence with defined roles and lauded experience. It’s a small sample size, but as the Leafs try and navigate what will be a difficult season with astronomical expectations, it’s a positive development–even if a little unsettling to the eyes.