Can a deeper, tougher Leafs squad find its playoff ‘killer instinct’?

After 15 seasons in San Jose, Thornton endeared himself to and entrenched himself within the young Leafs well before training camp opened. Renting a rink-equipped quarantine home in Toronto, he celebrated Christmas with Matthews, Nylander, Rasmus Sandin and Mac Hollowell in a sort of flophouse for hockey stars. It was there, stuck in communal isolation, that Thornton christened Nylander with the moniker “Willy Styles,” which the fashionable playmaker then had stamped on the shaft of his sticks.

“You just get close to him right away. He’s that special guy,” says 21-year-old Sandin, on target for his post-season debut. “It’s great. Those [veteran] guys act the youngest, I would say.”

With the forward core finally at full health for post-season puck drop, Thornton will join Spezza and Simmonds on a unique fourth line that will feature two of the top 100 all-time scorers and a ridiculous 3,007 combined career points.

In 2019–20, head coach Sheldon Keefe, a contemporary of both players, noted that Spezza’s voice stood out as one of the only ones he’d hear in-game on the bench, calling out encouragement, outlining instruction, pumping morale.

Today, there is a chorus.

“They’ve brought a lot of spirit to the group,” Dubas says. “All of the players acquired in the off-season have really improved the spirit of the team. Unlike in previous seasons, where you go through a bit of a stretch where it’s not going well and you feel the group…

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