Haggerty: Decisions loom with Thornton's return

Haggerty: Decisions loom with Thornton's return
January 5, 2014, 12:15 am
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BOSTON – Claude Julien couldn’t help himself when asked postgame about the impending return of Shawn Thornton to the lineup when the Bruins travel to San Jose for a game against the Sharks next week.

The Bruins bench boss replied with a quick “Gotta earn his spot.”

Clearly Julien was joking on one level. The Bruins will be happy to have the team toughness and swaggering attitude that comes along with the quality fourth line play when Thornton is among the night’s 12 forwards.

But Julien has also been inclined to scratch the healthy Bruins enforcer at times this season, long before he was walloped with a 15-game suspension by the league that ends on Jan. 11. He’s done it on several occasions to insert Jordan Caron into the lineup over Thornton, but that should be a thing of the past.

The 23-year-old Caron might have run out of chances with the Bruins organization just as fellow former first rounder Zach Hamill did a couple of years ago after a brief run with the Black and Gold. Thornton’s 15-game suspension gave the Bruins a good chance to take a long, extended, fair look at Caron in a fourth line role as it appears his NHL future will be as a bottom six forward.

So what did Caron do with the opportunity?

Exactly the same as he’s done in the last two years with the Bruins organization aside from a solid run of play at the end of training camp to secure himself a roster position, which is to say “nothing.” Caron didn’t register a single point in the first 12 games that he played in Thornton’s vacant spot, was a minus-2 and had one shot or zero shots in seven of the 12 games played.

In other words he’s done virtually nothing with the best chance he had to establish himself in the Bruins organization, and now has a stiff back that’s precluding him from playing. The cranky back gave the Bruins a perfect opportunity to call up Justin Florek in an emergency capacity to see what he could do. All the 6-foot-4, 194-pound Florek did was fit right in with Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, and made the kind of direct impact on a Bruins win that Caron has struggled with over the years.

Florek used his big body to screen Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec on Torey Krug’s game-winning goal, and threw his weight around on a heavy fore-check with Paille and Campbell that really wore down the defensemen.

Those kinds of plays get noticed by coaches and teammates rather quickly.

“I thought for his first game he played extremely well, he adjusted to us very well. Especially for your first game you go out there not thinking too much you just kind of play,” said Daniel Paille. “It definitely makes it a lot easier that way.

“Even at times when he got himself out of position he read it…like, if I was on his side, he would go to the right side. I thought it was a good combination.

Watching Paille enjoy his first multi-point game of the season and Gregory Campbell snapping an 11-game pointless streak in the win over Winnipeg, it underscored how much of an upgrade Florek was from Caron for the one game. Florek was both bigger and more active than Caron, and also moved at a noticeably quicker pace with his skating speed.

Julien said following the game that Florek was going to be send down to Providence for Sunday’s game, but that the team hadn’t ruled out taking the 2010 fifth round pick along for the upcoming West Coast trip. The Bruins should take Florek with them given what he showed screening the goaltender, and throwing himself fully into a fore-check that disrupted the Winnipeg defense in a big, big way.

But they should also pull the plug on the Caron experiment, and send him back to Providence through the waivers that are necessary for a player like Caron that’s beyond his entry level contract. Sources around the league indicated there was little interest in Caron on waivers earlier this season, but that could be changing given all the forward injuries teams are sustaining around the league.

Caron might yet be a useful winger on the New York Islanders or the Winnipeg Jets team the Bruins beat handily on Saturday afternoon, but this latest failed audition with the Black and Gold should be the final straw.

Caron did an admirable thing standing up to 6-foot-4 monster Matt Kassian in Ottawa after he drilled both Johnny Boychuk and Matt Bartkowski, and even got in an angry hugging session before the refs broke things up. But that was the only noteworthy thing Caron accomplished in the last dozen games while so many other B’s regulars were missing from the lineup.

That means it won’t take much at all for Thornton to earn his fourth line spot back should Caron be the one man standing in his way after the first two games in California. But it could be a different story if Florek gets a few more games to show off his big-bodied power game, and is just as effective against Anaheim and Los Angeles as he was against Winnipeg.

At least it gives Julien a viable option he can go with rather than the roster nonentity that Caron has become in Boston over the last two years. The 23-year-old is a great kid and a diligent worker, but he seems to be a classic AHL/NHL tweener that’s never really put up big numbers at the American League level as well. He’s not gifted enough offensively to play a top-six role, and he doesn’t have enough grit, energy or toughness to really make an impact in a bottom six role either.

“You know we have a certain identity and we’ve played together for so long, and when one’s gone we try to find another identity,” said Paille, of life without Thornton. “I think we were thinking too much, and not moving or skating at all. I think the last few games we were competing a lot better with the opportunities that we have.”

Now the pressure gets handed off to the Bruins front office, whom need to take a strong look at all of the fourth line candidates with some interesting events coming up over the next few days.