Free Agency Preview Part I: Is Shawn Thornton's time done in Boston?
For the past seven years, Shawn Thornton has been the straw that sirs the drink for Boston's energy line. Other players have come and gone since 2007, but Thorty has remained the one constant as the 12th forward on the roster.
Will Thorty be back in Black for the 2014-15 season? (via rantsports.com)
When the duo of Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell arrived for the 2010-11 season, Thornton finally had teammates that were set in stone skating with him. The Merlot line brought energy, grit, and toughness each and every night through their heavy play on the body and in the case of Thornton and Campbell, a willingness to drop the gloves to settle business on the ice. Whenever the Bruins were in a rut and couldn't establish any sort of offensive presence, or if the opposing team had gotten into a groove and pounded the B's with constant pressure, it was the Merlot line that would step in to to stem the tide and push back in the other direction, or get pucks in deep and work a pounding cycle game in the corners to relieve the attack.
The trio of players have been mainstays on Boston's fourth line for four years running, but it seems that this might be the off-season where the line undergoes an identity change for the first time in a long time.
The emphasis no longer seems to be on grit, sandpaper and toughness. Instead, the Bruins may be looking to revamp their energy line by introducing speed, skill and puck possession. With the NHL continuing to trend away from what a traditional fourth line is supposed to look like, complete with bruising fighters and a lack of overall hockey skill, could Shawn Thornton find himself pushed out of a role with the Bruins?
After the 2012 year, Shawn Thornton signed a two-year, $2.2 million contract that secured the enforcer's time in Boston for another two seasons. That contract has now run up, and things the way they are now are much different than what they were then. Thornton experienced somewhat of a down year for his standards of playing by the hockey code, never mind his actual play on the ice. The Brooks Orpik incident in December was a black mark for both his reputation and the organization, an act that that saw him banned for 15 games. The squirting of P.K. Subban this past postseason again cast a negative look upon himself and the Bruins, as the act, as well as his chuckle on the bench after the fact, was seen as childish and unnecessary. The Bruins brass was disappointed with Thornton's actions, so don't be surprised if his antics are one of the reasons why he is not brought back this off-season.
On the ice, Thornton tallied just five goals and three assists for eight points, his lowest total since 2007 when not counting the lockout-shortened season last year. Thornton also saw a dip when serving the role of the enforcer for the Black and Gold, as he totaled just 74 penalty minutes and only 10 fighting majors this season, with the 74 minutes tying the 07-08 season for his lowest total as a Bruin and the 10 fighting majors being the fewest in a full NHL season for him, again when not counting the lockout season from last year. If Thornton isn't producing in the points column (which he isn't expected to) or performing his role as the enforcer on the team, then what is he doing?
The NHL is evolving. The traditional role of having a fourth line playing only with muscle and knuckles are on the way out. Replacing it is line that skates younger players with a chance to showcase their speed and skills to reinvent the way we see the energy line. That's not to say you can totally abandon the toughness aspect of the game. You still need it to let other teams know that you won't be pushed around on a night to night basis. But the rules have changed, and so to have the philosophies. And they will continue to trend in that direction. Adapt or die.
The Verdict: Thornton does not resign with Boston
With the likes of Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, Matt Fraser and Alexander Khokhlachev all itching to jump up to the big club and inject the bottom line with a youthful jump, as well as all being cheap on the cap hit, it seems Thornton may have played his last game for the Black and Gold.
Thornton is simply part one of an entire re-imagining of the bottom line for Boston. Both Paille and Campbell are entering the final years of their deals, and by this time next year, both of those players will be in the same conversation as Thornton finds himself in now: can we upgrade the line? Do we need speed over toughness? Skill over grit? Skating ability and puck possession over muscle?
For the case of Thornton today, it isn't looking good for the 11-year NHL veteran. Don't expect to see #22 resign with the Bruins this summer. The Bruins will need to fit other contracts under the cap, with the likes of Reilly Smith, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski all needing new deals. Signing Thornton to a deal will only serve to hinder the natural evolution of the hockey club as they aim to introduce a different element of their team with the bottom trio of skaters.