Pricey Fourth Line an Investment Bruins Hope Will Pay Off

Pricey Fourth Line an Investment Bruins Hope Will Pay Off The NHL is a copycat league. Whenever one team succeeds, there are always others ready to try to follow the same formula.

But Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is bucking at least one popular trend in the way he has built the Bruins.

While many teams have sought to go cheap with their depth players, signing minimum-salary veterans or using young players on entry-level deals to round out their fourth lines in order to allocate more cap space to the stars on the top lines, the Bruins value a more balanced approach.

As a result, Boston boasts one of the most experienced — and most expensive — fourth lines in the league this season. The trio of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton has played a combined 18 years in the NHL and 26 total professional seasons. They also combine for a cap hit of just a hair under $3 million.

With the Bruins facing a cap crunch and a need to shed salary before Marco Sturm returns from long-term injured reserve, there’s reason to question the use of such resources on fourth-line players. But the Bruins don’t use their fourth line like a lot of teams.

Coach Claude Julien prefers to roll all four lines regularly when possible. To do that, he needs a fourth unit he can trust. They have to be able to play significant minutes, which helps keep the other lines fresh, and they have to be able to contribute in other areas in addition to the typical “energy role” most teams expect out of their fourth line.

Campbell, 26, who signed a two-year deal worth $2.2 million ($1.1 million cap hit) after being acquired from Florida, adds toughness and versatility to the lineup.  

"Gregory is a hard-nosed, smart, two-way player," said Chiarelli. "He is strong in his zone and can play a variety of roles."

Campbell has experience at both center and left wing, but is expected to take over the center spot on the fourth line from Steve Begin, who was not re-signed this summer. Like Begin, Campbell will also be a mainstay on the penalty kill and provide a physical presence. He had 158 hits and 72 blocked shots last year with Florida and 202 hits and 82 blocked shots the previous season. Campbell is also always willing to stand up for a teammate (seven fights last year, six in 2008-09), despite not being the best pugilist and standing just 6-foot, 199 pounds.

He posted just 2-15-17 totals in 60 games last year, but did have 13-19-32 totals in 77 games the previous year, so he could slide up higher in the lineup if injuries hit. Overall, he has 29-56-85 totals with 312 PIMs and 26 FMs in 363 games.

"He’s a very versatile player," said Chiarelli. "He blocks a lot of shots, takes a lot of face-offs, logs a lot of good minutes. With Gregory, it’s versatility and it’s grit [that he brings to the lineup]."

Paille, 26, provides plenty of versatility and some key intangibles as well. He brings some much-needed speed to the lineup and although his lack of finishing touch makes him miscast as a regular on a scoring line, he’s capable of filling in on a higher line when needed.

Paille had 10-10-20 totals in 76 games last year, but his biggest contribution came on the PK. He led all Bruins forwards in short-handed ice-time at 1:59 and helped turn around that unit. The Bruins were struggling on the PK (10 goals on 33 chances, 69.7 percent) before his arrival in a trade with Buffalo on Oct. 21, but the Bruins finished third in the league at 86.4 percent (37-272).

"I thought when we acquired Dan, he really helped shore up our penalty killing," said Chiarelli after re-signing Paille to a two-year, $2.15 million deal ($1.075 million cap hit). "He brought speed to the lineup, to the forward group. He also was able to play up and down the lineup, so he was helpful when we ran into injuries."

Thornton’s contributions are more difficult to measure by stats, although his career-high 21 fighting majors (6th in the NHL) and 141 penalty minutes do give an indication of his value. Thornton has the unenviable task of taking on the toughest guys in the league, usually giving away significant size and reach when he does.

And while Thornton, 33, earned a raise with his new two-year, $1.675-million deal ($812,500 cap hit) this summer, he’s still a relative bargain compared to some of the monsters he’ll be facing in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers handed Derek Boogaard a four-year, $6.5 million deal ($1.625 million cap hit) and Philadelphia signed Jody Shelley for three years at $3.3 million ($1.1 million cap hit), while Toronto’s Colton Orr is entering the second year of a four-year deal paying him $1 million a year.

Thornton is a more effective player than any of them, capable of taking a regular shift without being a defensive liability and is also adept at avoiding unnecessary penalties. He was called for just 14 minor penalties last year and 34 total in his three seasons in Boston. For his career, he’s had just 58 minor penalties, compared to 72 majors (all matching penalties for fighting).

"Shawn has been a terrific soldier for us in the time that he’s been here," said Chiarelli when he re-signed Thornton early this summer. "He’s always among the leaders in fisticuffs. I won’t say fighting, because it’s an art for Thorny. He knows his role. He has an offensive side that comes out, probably more two years ago than last year. I know he can provide some offense on the forecheck. Tremendous character, good in the room, wants to be in Boston. It was a good decision that we made and a relatively easy decision that we made. We’re happy to have him back."

Thornton also chipped in 10 points last year and was fifth on the team in hits (110). He doesn’t contribute on special teams, but he does play a key leadership role on the team. That was particularly important last season as the club struggled to fill the void of departed veterans like Aaron Ward, Shane Hnidy, Stephane Yelle and P.J. Axelsson. Chiarelli wanted to make sure he didn’t create the same vacuum this year.

"Well, it’s obviously important," said Chiarelli of the need for veteran leaders. "The key is to find the right mix. You guys have made it well documented about some of the guys from last year that didn’t return. … Thorny is one of the guys we want to have around and he’s a good person and he works hard. He comes to work every day and works hard and sets a very good example."

That combination of experience and versatility doesn’t come cheap, even on the fourth line. But if Chiarelli can make the cap numbers work and Campbell, Paille and Thornton deliver as expected, it should be money well spent.

NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.

Sunday, Aug. 15: How much will Nathan Horton help the Bruins offense?

Tuesday, Aug. 16: How will Claude Julien and his staff cover the void left by the departure of assistant Craig Ramsay?

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