Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced Monday that veteran forward Shawn Thornton will not be re-signed, which is sad news to fans of the Black and Gold everywhere.
As part of one of the NHL’s best fourth lines, Thornton provided important leadership, toughness and scoring depth. His skill set, along with those of linemates Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, allowed head coach Claude Julien to often roll four lines during the regular season and playoffs over the last four years — a luxury many other teams didn’t have in that same span.
Thornton spent seven seasons in Boston and played his role very well, but that role is changing across the league, and the Bruins need to get more offensively skilled and faster on their fourth line. This is why the decision to part ways with Thornton is the correct one, even though it’s tough to see a fan favorite leave. Boston would be better off with a younger player — perhaps someone like Matt Fraser, Justin Florek or Ryan Spooner — on the fourth line.
“(Thornton) I thought had a kind of an up-and-down year,” Chiarelli said at the team’s break-up day in May. “He got, obviously, the incident with Pittsburgh, and you know, there?s trends in hockey and the fisticuffs trend, again, this doesn?t characterize (Thornton) as just a fighter because he contributed on that line. That line has had a lot of success in the past. But there is definitely, we?re trending away from that style.”
The two teams that made the 2014 Stanley Cup Final — the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers — both had fourth lines that not only provided truculence and defense but also much-needed scoring.
Boston’s fourth line couldn’t give that same level of scoring (after combining for 20 points in the 2013 postseason), and it was outplayed at critical times during the Round 2 series against Montreal. Here’s how the fourth line performed in the postseason from a scoring perspective:
— Shawn Thornton: 12 games, 0 goals 0 assists
— Daniel Paille: 7 games, 1 goal, 0 assists
— Gregory Campbell: 12 games, 0 goals, 0 assists
This lack of scoring forced Julien to use his top three lines more often than he probably would have liked to during the playoffs.
From a possession standpoint, the Bruins didn’t fare well when Thornton hopped over the boards. They averaged 7.7 percent less shots than their opponents when Thornton was on the ice during the regular season, and that number grew to 8.8 percent during the playoffs. The Bruins generate a lot of their success around puck possession, which starts with strong play in the defensive zone that creates transition up ice. Thornton started just over 20 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, which was among the lowest on the team. Even though his role involved more than just fighting, he averaged fewer bouts in 2013-14 compared to previous seasons in Boston.
Overall, Thornton wasn’t making the same impact at both ends of the ice that he did earlier in his Bruins career. As a result, he received just 8:41 of ice time per game during the regular season and 7:21 in the playoffs.
But don’t expect Thornton to be a free agent for long. He has good value to a young team trying to establish a winning culture and add playoff experience.
As for his time in Boston, Thornton always will be remembered as a player who gave maximum effort on each shift, played a physically demanding role well and contributed to the 2011 Stanley Cup title.
Advanced stats via Extra Skater