TRAIK-EOTOMY: Does Joe Thornton still have a place in the Maple Leafs lineup? – Toronto Sun

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The numbers don’t add up.

After acquiring Nick Foligno and Riley Nash at the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs have 14 NHL forwards. The number increases to 15 if you include Nick Robertson, who has played in the past two games and not looked out of place.

So where does that leave Joe Thornton, who has no points in the past 14 games and has gone almost two months without a goal?

For most of the year, the 41-year-old has filled an honorary role alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on Toronto’s top line, where no one has minded all that much if he produces or not. But with the playoffs approaching, Thornton has been working his way down in the lineup while Alex Galchenyuk and others move up in the pecking order.

With William Nylander on the COVID protocol list, Thornton found himself skating on a line with John Tavares and Zach Hyman for Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Calgary. But it was a strictly temporary move.

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When Nylander returns, there won’t be a place for Thornton on the top two lines. And there won’t be a spot for Thornton on a third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev once Foligno finishes his quarantine.

That leaves the fourth line. And even there, keeping Thornton around just for the sake of it may not be a luxury the Leafs can afford.

A few years ago, Patrick Marleau was playing in the top-six because the team didn’t have anyone better to take his spot. Now, there’s plenty of options. More than the Leafs have ever had.

While that’s a good thing, it also poses a problem.

Who on the fourth line would you play Thornton ahead of these days?

It’s not Wayne Simmonds, whose grit and size is exactly what you need from a bottom-six winger in the playoffs. It’s not Jason Spezza, who has as many even-strength goals (8) as Tavares, despite playing eight fewer minutes a night.

Thornton, who has been used primarily as a winger this year, is not bumping Pierre Engvall or Nash out of the centre spot. Maybe you’d rather have Thornton’s experience and his presence in front of the net over Robertson’s youthful speed. But even then, that puts him somewhere between 14th and 15th on the Leafs’ depth chart.

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In other words, Thornton might not be good enough to warrant a roster spot in this improved lineup. The only question is whether head coach Sheldon Keefe, who has been loyal to his veterans all season long, agrees with that assessment.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT

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Forget about Foligno, David Rittich or Nash. If the Leafs win the Stanley Cup, I predict that we’ll be talking more about the March trade that sent Alex Galchenyuk from Ottawa to Toronto than any of the other deadline deals that GM Kyle Dubas made … You can criticize Winnipeg for not doing more than acquiring Jordie Benn at the deadline, but what hurt GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was that the market shrunk considerably in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Nashville wasn’t trading Mattias Ekholm or Ryan Ellis after playing themselves into a playoff spot. A similar situation took St. Louis’s Vince Dunn, Dallas’ Jamie Oleksiak and Arizona’s Alex Goligoski off the trade board, while Tony D’Angelo of the New York Rangers was reportedly not waving his no-movement clause for any type of deal … After acquiring Erik Gustaffsson and Jon Merrill at the deadline, I’ll put Montreal’s defence against any other team’s in the North Division. Trying to pick a top-six once Ben Chiarot returns from injury is going to be a fun challenge for head coach Dominique Ducharme, especially after seeing how Alexander Romanov was able to physically keep Matthews in check the other night … Didn’t GM Ken Holland owe it to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to make a significant move at the deadline? When you have the two best players in the world, you have to go for it.

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

The reward for finishing in first place in the Central Division is getting to play Nashville in the first round of the playoffs. That’s more of a punishment than a reward. In the past two months, the Predators have moved up from seventh to fourth place in the division after recording the second-most points in the entire NHL. I smell an upset cooking … I don’t dispute that Jack Eichel is injured. But had Buffalo been able to move him at the deadline, do you still think he’d be done for the season with a neck injury? … With a month to go, the Calder Trophy race just got interesting. Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov remains the man to beat with a rookie-leading 34 points. But Jason Robertson, who appeared in only half of Dallas’ games during the first two months of the season, is now five points back after recording 23 points in his past 24 games … Connor Brown, who has become Ottawa’s version of Zach Hyman, has 14 goals in 43 games — and 26 goals in his past 82 games. Not bad for someone who ranks seventh on his team’s small-market payroll … Alex Ovechkin is 10 goals back of Auston Matthews with 13 games remaining. That’s quite the gap. And yet, knowing what Ovechkin’s done in the past, I’d still hold off on engraving the Rocket Richard Trophy.

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HERE’S ONE FOR YOU

The most dangerous mistake a GM can make at the deadline is believing that a 20-goal scorer on a terrible team is a 20-goal scorer on a good team. It doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Oilers, who acquired 30-goal scorer Andreas Athanasiou at last year’s deadline … With that being said, can someone explain to me why Washington traded Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik and a first- and second-round pick for Detroit’s Anthony Mantha? Vrana and Mantha, who were born a year apart, each have 11 goals this year. But Vrana’s role is about to get bigger in Detroit, while Mantha’s should be getting smaller in Washington … Following the trade deadline, the Red Wings have 12 picks in this year’s draft and 10 already in next year’s. Considering that they have made 44 picks in the last four drafts, their cupboard is about to be overflowing with prospects … If there’s a stat that should make you concerned about Canada’s dominance on the world stage, it’s this: there is not a Canadian goalie ranked among the top three in wins or among the top five in rookie wins. Right now, the best goalie in the country is Marc-Andre Fleury, who will be 37 by the time of the 2022 Olympics.

TORONTO VERSUS TAMPA BAY IN THE CUP FINAL?

With the trade deadline behind us — and the playoffs now only a month away — I have Boston, Colorado, Tampa Bay and Toronto in my Final Four.

Even before the deadline, those had been my picks to win the division and reach the conference final. My opinion hasn’t changed since then. If anything, it has been bolstered by what transpired on Monday.

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No team made more of an impact than what Boston, Colorado, Tampa Bay and Toronto were able to do at the deadline. No one even really came close.

This wasn’t about making the splashiest moves — although those four teams did get some of the biggest names on the market. Rather, it’s about recognizing where the holes are in your roster, however big or small, and filling them with the appropriate players.

The Avalanche needed insurance in net and an upgrade for their No. 3 spot at centre. So they got goalie Devan Dubnyk, who might have been the best backup goalie in the market, and brought Carl Soderberg back to Colorado in a role he has played before.

The Bruins won the bidding war for Hall. But it was more about need than want. They needed secondary scoring. They needed someone who could play alongside David Krejci. They got that in a player who still has the potential to play at an MVP level, despite what his numbers in Buffalo may have shown. And they also got Mike Rielly, who adds experience to a very young defence.

The Lightning, who will soon welcome back Nikita Kucherov for the playoffs, needed a defensive specialist on the backend, someone who could take the load off Victor Hedman when it came to killing penalties and sacrificing his body. They got the best man on the market in David Savard.

The Leafs needed a bunch of things: they wanted to be grittier in their top-nine, they wanted a safety net in goal, depth on defence, and another centre to kill penalties and take defensive draws. Their checklist is complete with the acquisitions of Nick Foligno, David Rittich, Ben Hutton and Riley Nash.

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Who knows how this will end up? So much of the playoffs are based on luck and circumstance and having all the stars line up at the exact right time. But barring a major injury, I’m calling for a Tampa Bay versus Toronto final.

That being said, we could still see a final between the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. I just don’t necessarily want to see it.

WHO HAS THE EDGE IN NET COME PLAYOFF TIME?

After acquiring David Rittich at the deadline to be their No. 3 starter, the Maple Leafs may have the deepest goaltending in the NHL. But whether they have the best goaltending in the league is a different question altogether.

Would you give Toronto the edge against Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy? Would you put Jack Campbell and Frederik Andersen ahead of Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner? How about Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer?

In a North Division that includes Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, Edmonton’s Mike Smith and Montreal’s Carey Price, the Maple Leafs might not even have the best goaltending in Canada.

Here is a look at how the playoff-bound Canadian team rank in the category that means the most come playoff time:

The Jets didn’t get a top-four defenceman at the deadline. But when you’ve got a reigning Vezina Trophy winner cleaning up any mistakes in the defensive end, you don’t need to. Hellebuyck, who is putting up similar numbers to last year, remains a top-five goalie in the NHL.

In case of emergency: Heading into Wednesday’s game against Montreal, Laurent Brossoit was 5-3-0 with a .919 save percentage. But of those five wins, only one came against playoff-bound team.

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We keep saying that Carey Price isn’t the same goalie who won the Hart Trophy six years ago. And yet, as the Penguins can attest, you never know when he’s going to flip the switch and steal a series for you. Since the Habs hired Sean Burke, Price’s save percentage has improved from .887 to .920.

In case of emergency: Jake Allen has better numbers than Price this year, plus he has won a Stanley Cup — although it was in a strictly backup role.

Jack Campbell has a 1.98 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. But having played just 12 games, he is the definition of a small sample size. Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, has been hurt all year and hasn’t won a playoff round since joining the Leafs.

In case of emergency: David Rittich is the best No. 3 goalie in the NHL. Then again, if the Leafs are relying on their No. 3, something major has gone wrong.

Yes, Mike Smith is 39 years old. But with a 14-4-2 record and a .918 save percentage, he isn’t playing like someone whose career is winding down. If there’s a concern, it’s that he has managed to win only two playoff rounds in his career.

In case of emergency: Only nine goalies have a worse goals-against average than Mikko Koskinen, who has three playoff games under his belt.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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