Nothing but formalities separate the Boston Bruins from the expiration of Shawn Thornton‘s third contract with the franchise. Last week’s elimination from the second round of the playoffs opened one of many front-row discussion seats to Thornton’s pending free agency.
The parties in question have six weeks to compose a new pact ahead of the July 1 spree-starter. That ought to be enough time to digest the notion that a continued alliance, though not an exact status quo, is in order.
To date, the scope of Thornton’s Spoked-B tenure has amounted to his full ride as an NHL regular. That ride had a brief false start when a foot injury kept him out of 21 games in November and December of 2007, per TSN.ca.
Since the 2008-09 season, Thornton has dressed for 422 of Boston’s 458 regular-season games. Of those 36 absences, 18 occurred in 2013-14, although 15 were due to a suspension for violently ambushing Pittsburgh‘s Brooks Orpik.
Thornton will turn 37 years of age on July 23. The year he cracked double digits in the goal, assist and average nightly minutes played columns in 2010-11 is looking exponentially fluky. He is all but guaranteed to never return to that output.
Not that a fourth-liner should be generally expected to brush those ceilings. Nonetheless, all of the most competitive hockey teams have depth, and the Bruins depend on balance even more than the average Stanley Cup contender.
If they are going to continue that approach, they need to make time and room for younger depth strikers. Thornton is fast-tracking to the point where he should cease to be active for all 82-plus games in a season.
But that does not need to entail an egress from Boston. The need to cut back on his games played will apply regardless of his employer.
Not all of the merit to the “veteran presence” argument has evaporated. That presence merely needs to start working in more than a full-time, on-ice, bench-based capacity.
While that change unfolds, the Bruins need to phase in new blood on their supplementary units. Even when he is not suiting up, Thornton can help to convey organizational expectations to those newcomers.
Per CapGeek, Thornton is one of five pending unrestricted free agents on the team’s NHL payroll. Of those five players, he is the only one who was with the team prior to the 2013-14 season.
In addition, Thornton is one of five active holdovers from Claude Julien‘s debut behind the Boston bench back on Oct. 5, 2007. The others are Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
It is easy to look at those facts and consider Thornton an intangible-laden glue guy who has seen and lived the organization’s entire transformation. That has not lost all significance yet.
Of the scope of the past seven seasons, Michael Hurley of CBS Boston opined, “The Bruins rose from the basement of the NHL to the very top. Thornton’s presence, while not close to being the main reason, was no coincidence.”
To add to Hurley’s point, Thornton is not as important up front as Bergeron, Krejci or Lucic. Leadership-wise, he is not as important as Bergeron or Chara. But he is not going to become unimportant on either front in the near future.
Thornton’s physicality will continue to serve a purpose as long as he has enough in his engine to distribute it productively throughout next season. If the Bruins manage his appearances properly, they can achieve just that.
In turn, observing and knowing who is dishing up those drizzles of tone-setting garnish should help to incite returnees and newcomers alike.
In a similar vein, it is also easy to induce carpal tunnel syndrome by underlining the sentimental aspect. Thornton has seamlessly assimilated into the Boston community, which multiple media outlets reaffirmed after speaking with him this past Friday.
But sentiment is not worth much if it does not help to bring success. An even less favorable scenario has sentiment getting in the way of success.
All athletes and arrangements in sports have a shelf life. Thornton and his role as one-third of the “Merlot Line” with Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille are no exception.
That troika dates back to the thick of the 2010-11 season. That was Campbell’s first campaign as a Bruin and Paille‘s first full-length season in Boston.
Translation: With several short-lived exceptions, the Bruins have fielded the same fourth line every night for four years. None of the higher three lines—those that have more skill and more ice time—can say that.
Still, if need be, there are better ways to refresh that unit than by casting one constituent away from the team altogether.
That Merlot Line as everyone knows it should return this autumn with something left in its collective stock. But that something will not be of an all-purpose variety or 82-game quantity.
Once again, the solution for at least 2014-15 is to limit Thornton’s appearances and pursue a stand-in on the right side. Boston’s front office has more time to decide whether that is an import or a homegrown specimen than it has to negotiate a new contract with Thornton.
Craig Cunningham, whom The Hockey News declares a “Depth winger with a little upside,” might be a candidate if he can add to his 5’10” and 184-pound frame over the offseason. Then there is Bobby Robins, easily the closest the Providence Bruins come to a carbon copy of Thornton.
The happy medium between those two could be Nick Johnson, who has 113 games of NHL experience, including nine in Boston. At 28, he is four years younger than Robins, nine younger than Thornton and will be four older than Cunningham come training camp.
As the organization stands this week, Johnson looks like the front-runner to spell Thornton as needed and gradually alter Boston’s bottom-six ilk.
To return to the point as to Thornton’s constant activity since 2008-09, that was not the case before he was a Bruin. At the age of 29, he suited up for 48 games with Anaheim and interspersed 15 conditioning twirls with AHL Portland in 2006-07.
The Bruins can still reap tangible and intangible rewards from Thornton while whittling his active role back to its pre-Boston form. That means placing him in the press box in favor of comparative youth and vigor when matchups and other variables call for it.
There will be nights when the Bruins will need to match or exceed an opponent’s top-to-bottom speed and energy. Those nights will be more suitable to insert the likes of Johnson on the right wing of the fourth line.
There will be other nights when it will make sense to match or exceed an opponent’s, and especially a rival’s, seasoning and sandpaper. There will be enough of those in 2014-15 to warrant a position on the payroll for Thornton.
The density of Thornton’s past conjunction with the city, the team and the occurrences therein make him too unique a fourth-liner for the Bruins to let go. Their best bet is to ease him into his eventual retirement and let elements of the past and future merge into the present while all are still valid.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com