Tears flooded the streets of Boston yesterday when the Bruins announced to the world that they would not be bringing back their beloved enforcer Shawn Thornton for another season, allowing the 36-year-old fighter-and-not-much-elser to explore free agency come July. He might be the first in a sizable movement.
This was a big, big deal. You can tell it was a big deal because the Bruins even bothered to announce this. In a separate entry on their website. In a video. About a guy who had eight points in 64 games this season and only got 8:48 a night. Usually, when a guy like that leaves town, no one so much as raises an eyebrow. Who cares? But Thornton is special in Boston. He goes to Dropkick Murphys shows and he does local credit union commercials. He's beloved because he fights, first and foremost, and he's occasionally a funny if overly moralizing quote, and — as anyone who covers the team regularly will swear up and down at the slightest provocation — is “good in the room.”
Just as in many other sports cities, fighters are revered in Boston. Hell, they retired Terry O'Reilly's number. They're like backup goalies, backup quarterbacks, backup catchers and backup small forwards: Guys you don't see play often enough to realize how bad they are.
Consequently, Monday was a period of great mourning for Bruins fans. Drippy eulogies for his seven years in Black and Gold were surely being pecked out between uncontrollable sobs. The reason Thornton isn't being asked back, apart from the eight points and less than nine minutes a night for $1.1 million per season, is that the Bruins are “going in a different direction.”
And that in itself is something.
The Bruins, the Big Bad Bruins, no longer have need of Shawn Thornton. Nor, in fact, do they seem to have need of players like Thornton.
The general consensus in the wake of the baffling series loss to Montreal was that the lack of depth killed their chances (that and the baker's dozen posts they hit, but that's neither here nor there). The Bruins' fourth line, affectionately dubbed the Merlot Line because of the color of their practice jerseys and not the fact that their decision-making and belligerence when on the ice often resembled that of three drunkards, was typically drowning despite very favorable conditions being given to them by coach Claude Julien.
That was not uncommon, either. When they were on the ice the last few years, the Bruins' possession numbers resembled that of the Edmonton Oilers, and cannot have been viewed as acceptable.
That, ultimately, looks to be what swayed the Bruins' decision here. Thornton — and Merlot-horts Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille — were underwater nearly every time they were on the ice. They are flat-out not good at doing the thing Boston does better than almost any other team in the league: get the puck into the attacking zone. In fact, in terms of corsi relative to their teams' overall performance, Paille, Thornton and Campbell rank 16th, 14th, and fourth from the bottom of the league among forwards who got into at least 41 games out of 375 such players.
To put that into perspective, there are 360 available forward positions in the league at any one time, so literally almost anyone who got into at least half their teams' games this season were better at driving the puck forward than this terrible trio. Paille and Campbell still have a year each left on their contracts, and given the Bruins' cap crunch, they might be in line for compliance buyouts.
It wouldn't be the worst idea in the world to ship the triumvirate wholesale; the Bruins' new direction dictates that they want to use actual hockey players in those fourth-line roles, and they have a number of guys in the minors who might fit the bill. Statistically, they almost couldn't do worse.
Not that any of this matters to Thornton's supporters. All they ever wanted of him was the threat of a fight, the occasional actual fight (it doesn't matter if he spent most of his time getting fed this season), leadership, accountability, water bottle squirts, questioning the manhood of opposing players, and reminding his teammates how often they have to score. You know, intangibles.
These fans would go to bat for him forever. They very much see their king as still having all his beautiful clothes on, and would consequently ignore every time a Bruin was the subject of a suspendable hit with Thornton in the lineup (an average one per season over the last six years, not including the Savard/Cooke incident) because his presence necessarily had to be seen as a “deterrent” if his continual use in the lineup were to be justified. They'd also ignore the time he almost ended someone's career in the dirtiest possible manner just days after saying he's “too honorable.”
But this is the way the league is going. As much as some people would still enjoy barbarians like Thornton banging rocks together in a futile attempt to make fire between shifts, the reality of the situation is that the league is very quickly changing its attitude toward enforcers and what they do for teams. People have long thought fighting prevents injuries. It doesn't. People have long thought fighting swings momentum in games. It doesn't. What it does is entertain people, and that's why staged fighting in particular is still allowed in a league that's been hit with concussion lawsuits and gone well out of its way to otherwise prevent serious head injury. Even in the face of death.
There is no political will to legislate fighting out of the game, but that doesn't mean GMs aren't going to kill it on their own. Go down that previously-linked list of guys who have terrible relative corsi numbers, then compare it with the list of the guys who led the league in fights this year. There's a lot of overlap (there'd be more if you factored in a lower minimum games played), and that's not a coincidence.
As the league becomes more analytically minded, GMs have no choice but to take notice that the guys who are taking up even a small fraction of their cap space are actively hurting their chances to win without their minutes going into the double digits. They take away a roster spot from more useful players, and every dollar spent on that is a dollar spent not-securing a better chance to wring points out of any given game.
Players who can skate, and shoot, and score are now rightly seen as being more valuable than those who can hit and fight and say, “Let's go boys,” a lot because it's shown that any impact these guys have, other than “in the room,” is negative. And you can probably find actually good hockey players to call their teammates out pretty affordably in the open market if you know where to look and really value that kind of thing.
The life of the enforcer has rarely been a certain one, even when the practice was in full swing, when most teams had guys sitting at the end of the bench cracking their knuckles menacingly at each other. Two years here, one there. They bounced around, and even when they found a landing spot for a while, as Thornton did, anything beyond even three years of assurance was rare. Brandon Prust got four years out of Montreal somehow. The late Derek Boogaard got the same from the Rangers. These were abnormalities.
Among the enforcers up for free agency this year, it seems unlikely that many of them — George Parros or Cam Janssen or Paul Bissonnette or John Scott or Krys Barch — aren't going to find a particularly large number of bidders. It's because they can barely skate and add nothing to their team but mindless violence.
That doesn't include Thornton, though. He says he has a few more years left in him, and teams will come from miles around to offer him contracts, probably for multiple years. Such is the mythos that has been built up around his winning ways. Of course, his having been on the 2006-07 Ducks and 2010-11 Bruins is pure coincidence, but no one is going to believe that. Correlation equals causation: People will go to their graves saying those teams won in part because of him and what he provides that isn't hockey-related, and so on.
He's beloved by his teammates, and he works tirelessly with charities. Neither makes him a good or even average hockey player. He is outright bad, and serves absolutely no purpose on any real team, least of all one with aspirations of winning a title.
But at 36, Thornton maybe has two good years left — and that's a term used as loosely as possible — and he might be the last of the well-known and well-defended enforcers to come through this league. Most others are in their late 20s or early 30s, the age at which many of them wash out. They used to come cheap and short-term because they were replaceable, by dozens of anonymous fighters slugging it out in the minors (they even made a movie about it). Now they come cheap and short-term because teams don't really want them around. It doesn't make them bad people, or wrong in their approach to the game; they have to do what they can to make a few million dollars in their careers.
But it also doesn't make them useful to an NHL team.
It appears teams have tired of paying for the intangible good fighters provide because of the very tangible, and more appreciable, bad that comes with it. The days of these guys no longer being a part of the game are nigh, and it's simply because they represent a market inefficiency.