Shawn Thornton’s departure represents a change for the Bruins, but it’s far from an admission that they need to change.
When the Bruins used the bed as a restroom against a faster Canadiens team that took away space and scored opportunistic goals, one of the topics debated was whether the Big Bad Bruins model could still win in today’s NHL.
Where other teams have snipers, the Bruins have power forwards. Where other teams have strong skaters, the Bruins have enforcers. The B’s saw the Merlot Line (pour one out, by the way), beaten by more skilled players sitting at the bottom of Montreal’s depth chart, while Milan Lucic lost his cool more often than he scored against the Habs.
The hockey world gravitated to Peter Chiarelli’s words at breakup day about how the NHL was trending away from fisticuffs. Such is apparent, as the league values skill and safety, and it makes players like Thornton less of a necessity from team to team.
“Obviously the league is trending away from it,” Thornton admitted Monday. “You can tell. There’s no secret. It started when they put visors in and it’s just continuing on, but I think we’re all in agreement that the puck’s not going to drop next year on Oct. 7 and everyone’s going to be skating around with their gloves on all the time.
“I think it’ll probably start to be phased out eventually, but it’s around for the next couple of years at least. I see the point that’s being made, but I think it will still be here. On the other side, I think that one of the reasons I’ve had success and have been able to stick around as long as I have is that I bring more to the table than just the fighting. I think I can actually play hockey, too.”
Thornton will catch on elsewhere, but the fact that the Bruins are electing to let him walk shows their belief in having more skill in the bottom six. Thornton scored 10 goals in the 2010-11 season, but he’s totaled 13 goals over the last three seasons. He’s an enforcer who can play, but an enforcer nonetheless.
For a time, the Bruins had the best fourth line in the league. It was their puck possession and pressure midway through the first period that helped turn the tide in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals after the Canucks had dominated the opening minutes.
Yet it was that same trio of Gregory Campbell between Thornton and Paille that was taken advantage of by the various fourth lines Michel Therrien used in the second round last month. The kiss of death was a poor first-period shift against a line of Daniel Briere, Dale Weise and Brandon Prust that led to Weise’s early goal in Game 7.
That was the ugly exclamation point on an ugly season for the Merlot Line, and it would prove to be its last. Though Thornton is gone, Campbell and Paille remain under contract.
So the Bruins, with a plethora of young wingers, likely will opt to plug in one of their youngsters on the fourth line. Justin Florek should have as good a chance as anyone after he impressed in his brief NHL stints this past season.
That doesn’t mean the Bruins can’t still be big and bad. On their first line, Lucic is 26 and the team wants Jarome Iginla back. As Thornton sees it, the Bruins’ bruising model can still win with Lucic serving as a focal point.
“I think that he’s one of a kind, to be completely honest,” Thornton said of Lucic. “I don’t know if there’s anybody that can play the game the way he plays, as heavy as he plays, as fast as he plays and as tough as he is.
“Yes, we lost to Montreal, and we were absolutely pissed about it and it will haunt [us] forever, but people shouldn’t forget that we were the best team there in the regular season. I don’t think it’s a team to blow up; I think guys are just heading into their prime, and they’re going to have a great team here for a long, long time. Many years.”
There’s no replacing a guy like Shawn Thornton. With where fourth lines are headed these days, the Bruins probably won’t try to replace the fighter. Yet this could be as big a change as there is to the roster this offseason, and the Bruins shouldn’t feel the need to totally rethink their philosophy.