Leafs' Thornton set to Return Against Senators

After missing the last 10 games with a rib fracture, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joe Thornton "can't wait to play" against the Ottawa Senators on Monday.
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After a little over a week of skating with the team while wearing an inactive jersey at practice, Joe Thornton put on a blue shirt, indicating a return to the lineup was imminent.

"I feel really good now and I can't wait to play tomorrow," Thornton said on a Zoom call with reporters on Sunday.

Thornton suffered a rib fracture after taking a hit from Edmonton Oilers forward Josh Archibald on Jan. 20. He was subsequently placed on long-term injured reserve, requiring the forward to miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days. 

Monday's game against the Ottawa Senators is the first game Thornton is eligible to return.

The 41-year-old took regular reps with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the same linemates he skated with for the team's first five games of the regular season.

"His presence is going to have a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup," Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Just his voice and his energy, all those things we haven't had around, it's good to have those back as well."

Thornton was one of a handful of veteran additions the Leafs signed during the offseason. Wayne Simmonds, another savvy veteran with an upbeat presence in the locker room, suffered a broken wrist last week in the team's 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

Thornton's return could help the team's power play. Since the injury to Simmonds, the Leafs are 0-for-5 over the last three games.

The Leafs didn't practice the power play on Sunday, but Thornton served in the bumper spot on the team's first power-play unit before his injury. Nic Petan, who had skated in that spot for the last couple of games, was dressed in a taxi squad extra jersey on Sunday.

Thornton's return could help bolster the team's second line that has struggled to produce offensively.

Zach Hyman skated with John Tavares and William Nylander on the second line.

Nylander has two goals in his last 14 games.

"He, like some of our other guys, are trying to find a way to generate offense within more of a structured game," Keefe said.

Ilya Mikheyev was bumped down to the team's third line alongside Pierre Engvall and Alex Kerfoot.

Jimmy Vesey moved down to the team's fourth line with Jason Spezza and Scott Sabourin.

Although Thornton played with Matthews and Marner in the first five games, his deployment was controlled. Different wingers subbed in for Thornton, particularly later in games.

With this game marking his first in nearly a month, conditioning will be a factor and the Leafs will have other options at their disposal.

"Right now I feel really good and I have no restrictions," Thonrton said. "The hardest part is over. The rehab's pretty much over and now I can just go out and focus on playing."

Thornton has averaged 15:26 of ice time this season.

Keefe stressed that the lines Toronto practiced with on Sunday would not necessarily hold for tomorrow's game against the Senators. But if they do, it will be a sentimental season debut for Sabourin playing against his former team for the first time. 

Sabourin scored two goals and four assists in 35 games with the Senators last season.

The 28-year-old sophomore initially signed an AHL-only deal with the Toronto Marlies. The Leafs converted that into an NHL deal at the minimum $700k with a $250k AHL-level salary.

Frederik Andersen will likely make his ninth-consecutive start in goal on Monday. He left early in practice on Sunday but did some work with goalie coach Steve Briere and took the rest of the day off.

Andersen has started every game since Jack Campbell went down with a leg injury against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 24.

The Leafs run into their first string of games in back-to-back days of games since Campbell's injury on Wednesday and Thursday against the Senators. 

Michael Hutchinson, currently the team's backup, has yet to make a start.

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