Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Maple Leafs have signed Joe Thornton, theoretically filling their third-line center role without putting too much strain on their cap. More importantly, though, it’s just a great story, with a future Hall of Famer coming to Toronto in hopes of being the final piece to end the franchise’s Stanley Cup drought. It’s like a movie.

But if so, it’s a movie we’ve seen before because the Leafs have had a bit of a habit over the years of making exactly this sort of move. In the decades since they won their last Cup in 1967, the Leafs have made more than a few moves to bring in Hall of Famers whose best years were behind them, but they hoped could still contribute. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. So today, let’s look at ten ways the Joe Thornton signing could play out, with help from other moves from Leafs history.

Level 1: The worst-case scenario

The player: Doug Gilmour

The transaction: The big trade that brought Gilmour to Toronto in 1992 was arguably the best the franchise ever made. But that’s not the one we’re referring to here. Instead, we’re looking at the 2003 trade deadline move that saw the Leafs send a sixth-round pick to Montreal to reacquire their 39-year-old former captain for one last run.

The outcome: Well, the first four shifts went well.

That’s about the best you can say for this story, one of the worst in modern Leafs history. On just the fifth shift of his big return, Gilmour collided with Dave Lowry, stayed down, and then crawled off the ice. He’d blown out his knee and never played again. He didn’t even get a game back in Toronto.

I’m bummed out even thinking about it. Please keep Joe Thornton away from Dave Lowry.

Level 2: The whipping boy

The player: Larry Murphy

The transaction: Cliff Fletcher acquired the 34-year-old blueliner from the Penguins in 1995, hoping a player who’d had three top-five Norris finishes in the last four years could spark the Leafs’ fading offense.

The outcome: For reasons nobody is quite clear on to this day, Toronto fans never took to Murphy. He was never a bruiser, and he certainly had his share of shoddy defensive moments. But he also racked up 61 points in his only full season in Toronto, which made it strange to see him all but booed out of town. The Leafs shipped him to Detroit midway through the 1996-97 season for literally nothing at all, then watched him help the Red Wings to two Cups.

Luckily, there’s no way this market would glitch out and turn on somebody as universally beloved as Joe Thornton, right? (Laughs nervously while imagining Toronto Sun headlines saying stuff like “Dumbo Joe.”) No, of course not, let’s move on.

Level 3: Don’t remember him but if you say so

The players: Ron Francis and Phil Housley

The transaction: Fair warning, the Pat Quinn-era Leafs will show up on this list a lot, so much so that we can combine a pair of similar acquisitions. In 2003, his Leafs acquired a 39-year-old Housley for a pick. A year later, it was a 41-year-old Francis coming over from Carolina, also for a pick.

The outcome: No idea because nobody remembers anything about either of these moves.

OK, that’s not completely true. Francis was at least passable in Toronto, putting up 10 points in 12 games down the stretch before sputtering to just four assists in two rounds of playoff action. Housley barely did anything, appearing in just one regular-season game and three in the playoffs without recording a point.

Thornton isn’t a deadline acquisition, so with a full season he’s unlikely to fall into this category, but it remains to be seen if he’ll look as weird in a Leafs uniform as Francis did.

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