Haggerty: Thornton one of the last great enforcers

Haggerty: Thornton one of the last great enforcers
June 17, 2014, 2:00 am
Share This Post

Shawn Thornton isn’t going to see the end of enforcer era as an NHL player, but everybody knows it’s coming eventually.

The 36-year-old fourth line fighter will sign elsewhere for next season after GM Peter Chiarelli broke the news to him on Monday that the Bruins won’t be pursuing his services for the 2014-15 season. Thornton will be a great fit on a young, playoff team that’s in need of toughness, veteran leadership and a little bit of swaggering attitude to put them over the top.

Thornton brought attitude, swagger, work ethic, character, leadership and good humor into the Bruins dressing room over the last seven years, and that is still in demand because the right wing can still play. He was an individual that always opened his home to young players on their own for the first time, and befriended shy or introverted players to make life easier for them in the day-to-day world of the NHL.

Fancy stats mavens and hockey analytics heroes may not understand this while busying themselves with the trendiest new puck possession stat, but that stuff is a big deal in a sport played by human beings rather than emotionless robots. Things like Corsi and Fenwick aren’t ever going to tell anybody that Thornton is a valuable piece of a hockey team’s success story, but the proof is in the pudding.

Thornton has won two Stanley Cups, has been to the Stanley Finals three different times and he was a key part of the NHL’s best fourth line over the last four years.

This season and four years of banging bodies finally caught up with Boston’s fourth line, and Thornton snapped at the wrong time on Brooks Orpik. He was doing what he always does: protecting teammates from predators on the other team, and trying to instill fear into the opposition.

This time it went wrong for No. 22 and he was suspended for 15 games, but he was the same old Thornton when he returned to action. He scored five goals and had eight points along with a plus-3 rating, and flashed the skill that’s been there so many times before him.

Some of his greatest hits in a Bruins uniform will always be remembered:

* His two-goal game against the Atlanta Thrashers two days before Christmas during Boston’s Stanley Cup season was probably his best individual game in a Bruins uniform, and came at the most crucial time. The Bruins were treading water early in the season, and the pressure was starting to mount for Claude Julien. Thornton fought Eric Boulton two seconds into the game, and then scored the final two goals in a 4-1 victory that included a backhand-to-forehand breakaway score that showed off all of his playing skills. The crowd was chanting his name in the third period, and his transformation to blue collar Bruins hero was complete. Thornton went on to score 10 goals and 20 points in a career season with the Bruins that showed the rest of the NHL that he can play in addition to mastering the sweet science.

* The Bruins lost the game, but Thornton took out the trash when he dumped Matt Cooke after a couple of punches in the 2010 “revenge game” against the Pittsburgh Penguins less than two weeks following Cooke’s cheap shot on Marc Savard. Thornton has made a career out of protecting the backs of the skill players on his team, and that explains why the enforcer takes it personally when hatchet man like Cooke take runs at his teammates. So Thornton circled around Cooke as soon as he was on the ice, and both players dropped the gloves in an actual regular season game that took a back seat to the pugilism.

* The Bruins were down 0-2 and looking a little outclassed in the Stanley Cup Final against the Canucks when Claude Julien decided to insert Shawn Thornton back into the lineup. The move dropped a Thornton bomb onto the unsuspecting Vancouver players as he lined up players for hit after bone-rattling hit in an energetic first period of Game 3, and upped the courage level and attitude across the board for the rest of the series. Later in the series Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille set a tone early in Game 7 that paved the way for Boston’s pivotal victory in the winner-take-all game, and validated No. 22’s importance in the playoff lineup.

Those are just a few examples of Thornton’s maximum effort style over the last seven seasons that saw him as a tone-setter both on and off the ice for the Black and Gold. They are also the reasons he’ll find work in the NHL next season. But the sad fact for Thornton and his ilk is that the role of enforcer is becoming the NHL’s version of the dinosaur as they slowly thin out over the next 5-10 years.

The NHL is trending away from the “[fisticuffs] style” as Peter Chiarelli articulated in his season-ending press conference, and the Bruins seemed to understand that throughout last season. Thornton would serve as a healthy scratch against non-fighting teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings last season when he would have played regardless of the opponent in season’s past.

A young player like Jordan Caron never got a chance to truly develop for the Bruins last season playing behind Thornton, and Justin Florek showed this past spring that he’s capable of playing a bottom six NHL role. Craig Cunningham and Matthew Lindblad also logged some cameo bottom six ice time for Boston last season, and would be in the running as younger, faster bottom six models.

The trend across the NHL for fourth lines is younger, faster and even more offensive punch with players like Daniel Briere and Mike Richards centering fourth lines for teams like the Habs and Kings.

Perhaps a younger player like Bobby Robins will get a chance to fill a role as the B’s new fourth line enforcer, but the smart money here says the Bruins won’t regularly employ a “fighter” among their top 12 forwards. Instead a player like Robins will serve as an extra forward in a bench role it would have been difficult to ask Thornton to transition into with the Black and Gold.

Thornton, George Parros, Matt Kassian, Kevin Westgarth, Krys Barch, John Scott and Paul Bissonnette will all be unrestricted free agents this summer, and it’s going to be interesting to watch what happens with all of the enforcers. Longtime enforcers and former Anaheim teammates Thornton and Parros already know they won’t be back with their respective teams next season, and more of those names may be joining them in the “looking for employment” line.

But those looking to castigate a player like Thornton as a liability or a "goon" haven't watched him play very much. 

Thornton can shoot and pass, and can still skate well for a 36-year-old veteran of many NHL skirmishes. He is no stone-handed hockey abomination like the 6-foot-7 ogre that played in Buffalo over the last two seasons.

Some like Thornton will find jobs, of course, and there will continue to be premeditated fighting in the NHL. But the numbers of fighters and staged fights will continue to drop as the NHL makes it more difficult with rules like mandatory visors. There will be fewer fighters trained in the art as more junior hockey league begin to legislate fighting out of their leagues altogether.

It’s sad because fighting has been such an honorable, longtime staple of the NHL brand, and because enforcers are among the best characters you’ll encounter in a hockey dressing room.

No. 22 has been among the smartest and hardest-working of them as a member of the Bruins over the last seven years, and some other team will benefit his skill and expertise next season.

Ideally, for Thornton, it will be an NHL team that wants him for the next two seasons after a butt-kicking seven years with the Bruins. Then he’ll cash his playing chips and move on to a lucrative TV media career that’s waiting for him, either in Boston or nationally.

Thornton continued to maintain on Monday afternoon that Boston will always be his permanent home no matter where hockey takes him next season, and that’s the way it should be. Thornton may log shifts wearing another NHL sweater over the next year or two, and he might even drop the gloves next season against a Kevan Miller, or a Milan Lucic.

But Thornton is a true Bostonian in every sense of the word, and his best days as an NHL player came wearing Black and Gold. Nothing and nobody can ever take that away as he goes about showing everybody there’s still room in the league for enforcers next season and beyond.