TORONTO — You make a change in pro sports when an injury situation forces your hand or something specific stops working. Or when everything careens so far sideways for your team that you need players to show up for the next game wearing casual clothes and work boots in order to shift the mojo.
Otherwise, you stick with what’s working.
So it did not rank as a ground-shaking surprise to see Joe Thornton back alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in a Sunday practice that served as the 41-year-old’s last mandated sweat before returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup.
That this had become a local point of debate underscores just how well things went during the 10 games Thornton missed with a crack rib. The Leafs went 8-1-1, Marner put up 16 points and Matthews scored nine times despite also missing one of those games himself.
That’s a sign of how fabulously everything progressed with Zach Hyman skating in Thornton’s left-wing spot on the top line. But it didn’t produce an overwhelming case to keep him stationed there in the larger context of what’s best for the team from top to bottom.
Remember that Thornton was signed by Toronto with a specific role in mind and placed alongside Matthews and Marner right from his first skate before training camp. Remember, too, that 97-34-16 dominated in nearly 50 minutes of 5-on-5 play together before Thornton was injured on an innocent-looking…