BOSTON (CBS) — The abrupt end to the Bruins’ season has led many minds to look to the next possible step: the offseason.
With a number of players hitting the free-agent market, and with some key players entering the last year of their deals, wheels have begun to spin with regard to envisioning the roster of the 2014-15 Bruins and beyond.
And in much of that thought process, the idea that the sun has set on “best fourth line in hockey” has started to gain some real traction.
To that, I say, what a shame.
As Shawn Thornton enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, the movement has begun to overhaul the fourth line. While it’s been largely noticeable on Twitter, particularly in the flow of the games, Boston Herald beat reporter Steve Conroy surmised the situation thusly:
“At this stage of his career, the 36-year-old Thornton, an unrestricted free agent, may have better value to a team still looking to establish its identity and add a veteran with a couple of rings (Calgary, maybe?). … It’s doubtful that team will be the Bruins. If Thornton doesn’t return, that would free up the B’s to get a little faster on the fourth line. And with the Habs now standing in their way every spring with the new postseason alignment, the B’s could benefit from getting a little quicker all around.”
To be sure, the Merlot Line clearly was not effective in the seven-game series loss to Montreal. Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille combined for just one goal and one assist in the entire playoffs, and that goal came when Paille was skating with Carl Soderberg’s line.
Over the past few seasons, despite the fact that he remains in tremendous physical shape, Thornton’s play has slipped. I know advanced metrics don’t always tell a captivating story, but the Bruins’ player usage chart from this past season paints a pretty strong picture:
The small circle shows his limited number of minutes. Its red color shows that opponents are typically sending more shots toward net than the Bruins are when he’s on the ice. His location at the bottom of the chart displays that among his teammates, he is on the ice against the lowest quality of competition. His placement at the far right of the chart shows that he begins the vast majority of his shifts in the offensive end, a sign that head coach Claude Julien does not have much trust in the player to stop the other team from scoring.
On top of that, Thornton didn’t fight a ton this year (in part due to a 15-game suspension), finishing tied for 20th in the NHL with 10 bouts, roughly seven fewer fights than his average in five full seasons as a member of the Bruins.
It is a very fair suggestion to say that perhaps the Bruins would be best suited to move on without Thornton.
But that doesn’t mean Shawn Thornton should be tossed to the curb like a bag of garbage.
Here in Boston, it’s not just the Bobby Orrs and the Phil Espositos who become hockey legends. There’s a reason Terry O’Reilly’s No. 24 hangs in the rafters at the Garden, and it’s not because of his 204 career goals. It’s more because of his 2,095 penalty minutes and badass attitude on the ice.
No. 22 won’t hang in the rafters next to O’Reilly’s, but the punishing winger brought the exact type of mentality that personifies what it means to be a Bruin.
The Bruins’ having the “best fourth line in hockey” became a bit of a cliché over the past couple of years, but it earned that reputation. The Thornton-Campbell-Paille trio was simply tremendous in 2011, and though they scored no goals in Game 7 against Vancouver, they were the most important line that night. The Merlot Line sent the puck deep, punished any Canucks D-man willing to chase after it, and sustained long possessions in the offensive end, far away from their own net, to prevent any chance of Vancouver generating any offense. It was a championship effort from the “workers,” and they got to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup as a result.
What also shouldn’t be forgotten about the 2011 Cup Final is that the Bruins lost the first two games of the series when Thornton was a healthy scratch and the Canucks were taking liberties with some of the Bruins’ best players. Alex Burrows’ biting of Patrice Bergeron’s finger might ring a bell. Julien inserted Thornton for Game 3, and the enforcer racked up 12 penalty minutes, scared the bejesus out of the Canucks (and the refs, getting a 10-minute misconduct simply for being a frightening individual) and helped set the tone as the Bruins would go on to win four of the next five games by a total score of 21-4. Thornton scored exactly zero of those goals, he didn’t even fight, and he averaged just eight minutes on the ice per game, but if you don’t think he played a major role, you must not have been watching.
His role in the playoffs was not dissimilar to his entire arc with the Bruins. After winning the Cup with the Ducks, he joined the Bruins in 2007. The Bruins were coming off a miserable 35-win season under Dave Lewis, finishing last place in the division and having the third-fewest points in the entire Eastern Conference. They bettered their output by 16 points the following year, which was the start of a franchise turnaround as they’d finish with an average of 106 points per season since then (lockout-shortened season excluded).
The Bruins rose from the basement of the NHL to the very top. Thornton’s presence, while not close to being the main reason, was no coincidence.
He also did this once. And it was awesome.
While the reputation gained from that 2011 postseason may have covered some warts that have grown over the years, there is still something with Shawn Thornton that makes him worth a roster spot. Unlike in a more individual sport like baseball, chemistry is real. Over the course of an 82-game season, passion levels can go up and down among the players who carry the load in the scoring department. But a lack of fire is never a problem for Thornton.
He’s never hesitated to do whatever it is the team needs, whether that be dropping the gloves with much bigger fighters or whispering sweet nothings into the ear of a particularly pesky opponent. He took some heat for “inspiring” the Canadiens with his water bottle squirt in Game 5, but come on. It’s a squirt of water.
Of course, he got carried away with Brooks Orpik this year and crossed the line, but it was clear that he never intended to knock out Orpik. When Thornton wants to inflict real pain, it’s obvious. The Orpik punch, while still wrong, was not one of those times, and it remains the only real blemish on his 559-game NHL career.
Thornton has done a masterful job tiptoeing the line and obeying “the code,” a job that’s become increasingly difficult in the new era of the NHL. The terms “energy guy” and “heart-and-soul player” may be tired and overused, but they’re spot-on with regard to Thornton.
There’s no exact way to forecast what the impact would be if the Bruins let Thornton walk via free agency. There certainly could be other players out there who could fill that role while providing more of a scoring punch, but there’s no way Thornton can really be replicated.
Back in 2002, during O’Reilly’s banner ceremony, he thanked the fans: “You were patient with me as I stumbled and slipped through my first few years and through my last few years. I loved playing hockey for you people and this will always be my home.”
The words from O’Reilly, an Ontario native, sounds a whole lot like something you regularly hear from Thornton, who hails from Oshawa but has embraced not only the culture of the Bruins but the entire city of Boston. In fact, he said as much on Friday.
“This is where we live now,” Thornton said. “This is home. That stuff won’t change.”
If Charlestown held a mayoral race, Thornton could win it in a landslide.
So whether or not he returns for another season will be up to Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely. If they move on without him, it will be because of perfectly defensible hockey-specific reasons. If they elect to keep him, it will be because despite his age and lack of offense, he provides the backbone to the identity of a team that thrives on passion and intensity.
Those may just be words, but in a sport like hockey — and especially in a city like Boston — they mean something. So does Shawn Thornton.
MORE BRUINS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON