While other players may make more of an impact than the fourth-line tough guy, it’s easy to see why general manager Peter Chiarelli had no hesitation in keeping the popular pugilist around for two more years when he signed him to a two-year, $1.625 million extension on June 3.
Thornton was one of the few Bruins who lived up to expectations last year, performing one of the most grueling jobs in sports without complaint. Thornton is the Bruins’ primary enforcer, and it is his responsibility to take on the toughest guy in an opposing sweater whenever a teammate requires protection or if the club needs a spark.
Few did it more often than Thornton last year, as he finished sixth in the league with 21 fighting majors. That was a new career-high for Thornton, at least as far as the NHL goes. Thornton spent the bulk of his first 10 pro seasons in the AHL, where his knuckles received far more frequent workouts. He had 219 fighting majors and 2,473 penalty minutes in 605 AHL games before getting called up for good by Anaheim in 2006-07, then signing his first one-year deal with Boston the following summer.
"Career-highs up here, but nothing compared to my AHL days," said Thornton at the end of last season. "There were some injuries this year, some guys couldn’t do it as much so it got thrown in my lap a lot more, which is fine. I don’t expect anyone else to do it anyways."
There weren’t many Bruins dropping the gloves other than Thornton last year, as the rest of the club combined for just 26 fights. That means Thornton was personally responsible for 44.7 percent of Boston’s fights last season. Only three players — Paul Bissonnette (19 of Phoenix’s 30 fights, 63.3 percent), Brad May (10 of Detroit’s 19 fights, 52.6 percent) and Zenon Konopka (league-leading 33 of Tampa Bay’s 73 fights, 45.2 percent) — had a higher percentage of their team’s fighting majors than Thornton.
But can Thornton handle the load by himself again this year? He turned 33 last month, an age when even the best tough guys usually start to slow. It’s one thing to pile up 20 or 30 fights a year in your first few pro seasons, but can he really be expected to do that in his 14th season?
Adding to the challenge facing Thornton is the fact that the heavyweight landscape has changed dramatically this offseason. The bulk of the league’s premier heavyweights had been out West in recent years, but this summer witnessed a relocation of a number of top fighters to the Eastern Conference.
Thornton will now have to worry about facing new Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard (6-8, 257) four times this year, as well as Philadelphia’s new heavyweight Jody Shelley (6-3, 230) and Washington’s addition to the arms race, D.J. King (6-3, 230). That trio joins a conference already featuring Toronto’s Colton Orr (6-3, 222), Ottawa’s Matt Carkner (6-4, 231) and Pittsburgh’s Eric Godard (6-4, 214), while the Islanders are expected to have veteran AHL ruffian Trevor Gillies (6-3, 215) up with the big club this year and also added last year’s NHL fight leader Konopka.
That’s quite a murderers’ row for Thornton to have to face, especially since he’ll be giving up considerable size and reach to most of his potential opponents. Thornton is generously listed by the Bruins at 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, though to believe that means he somehow grew an inch after he turned 30, as he was still listed at 6-foot-1 as recently as his lone season in Anaheim in 2006-07.
Of course, size alone doesn’t determine the outcome of all hockey battles. The likes of Stan Jonathan and Tie Domi carved out long and successful careers cutting bigger opponents down to size. Thornton, thanks to his extensive experience, is also one of the most technically sound fighters in the NHL. He rarely loses fights decisively and has proven adept at tying up bigger fighters and getting inside to land his own blows.
He fought Boogaard once already in a preseason game in 2005 and challenged him in 2008, but Boogaard declined with the Wild up 4-1 at the time. Thornton has also fought King twice, Carkner three times and Orr twice, plus once more in the AHL. He’s also battled Shelley twice in the AHL, though their most recent bout was all the way back in 2002-03, Gillies twice in the AHL and Godard once in the NHL and twice in the AHL. So Thornton has survived these challenges before. The question is whether he’s ready to face them all again in one season at this stage of his career.
And even if Thornton can counter those heavyweight threats, he could still stand a little help, as most of those opponents will be dressing additional tough guys against the Bruins. Players like Brandon Prust (Rangers), Dan Carcillo and Ian Laperriere (Philadelphia), John Erskine (Washington), Mike Brown (Toronto), Chris Neil (Ottawa) and Mike Rupp (Pittsburgh) might not be as imposing, but they can still wreak havoc, especially when they’re riding shotgun with heavyweights like Boogaard and Co.
The Bruins don’t have the cap space to sign another true heavyweight to patrol alongside Thornton, but they do have Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Mark Stuart, who can each handle themselves when needed. All three were hampered by injuries much of last year, and the Bruins won’t want to see them risk further injury or have them sitting in the box regularly, but they can chip in occasionally. Still, it will be Thornton’s job to handle the bulk of the rough stuff.
"I try to bring more than just fighting, but when that needs to be done I try to take it upon myself to get it done," said Thornton. "That’s my job. So 21 [fighting majors] isn’t astronomical in the course of my career, but it was a busier year than years past because other guys were injured and couldn’t do it as much."
Thornton’s increased workload last year also reflected the overall rise of fighting in the league after several lean years for fight fans immediately after the lockout. That trend is likely to continue this year, especially in the East with the additions to the conference’s collection of tough guys.
"It isn’t like the AHL 13 years ago when I was getting 35 or 36 [fights a year], it’s changed a little bit," said Thornton. "But it seems like it's starting to come back a bit. I don’t know what the numbers are, but it seems like there’s been a lot more [fighting] the last couple years then there was right after the lockout."
And there will probably be even more fights, against tougher competition, for Thornton this season.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Sunday, Aug. 8: Will Zdeno Chara return to his Norris Trophy form?
Tuesday, Aug. 10: What are the key training camp battles to watch?