On the hockeyfights.com home page Tuesday was a tribute to Shawn Thornton, the former Boston Bruin who had 110 preseason, regular-season and postseason fights over his seven years in a Bruins uniform. He had kept the site busy over his tenure, and contributed to a continuation of the Bruins’ ethos: a team that was both big and bad.
But Monday’s decision to cut ties with Thornton was not entirely unexpected, partially because of his age (37 in July) and partially because of comments general manager Peter Chiarelli made on the Bruins breakup day a month ago. “There’s trends in hockey and the fisticuffs trend . . . definitely we’re trending away from that style,” Chiarelli said then.
Does the loss of Thornton signal a new direction for the Bruins?
“Not particularly,” Bruins president Cam Neely told the Globe Tuesday. “For me, I still think it’s a part of the game. It is a part of the game until the league says otherwise.
“For me, it’s two guys get upset with each other and drop the gloves. That’s what happens out there. I’ve never really been one that has embraced staged fighting, if you will, and I think that’s going away. I’ve seen that diminish over the last few years, but in a heated battle, where maybe it was a carryover from another game, a carryover from another season or just something that happened earlier in that game or just at that moment, I still feel it’s part of the game.”
Echoed Thornton, “I think it’s been a part of the game for 125 years and I don’t see that part of it changing. People have stuck up for themselves for a long time. There’s no other balance in hockey. We’ve got sticks, we’re going around pretty quickly, running into each other. Emotions get high very easily. So I think fighting will always be part of the game.”
The Bruins still have players who are capable of dropping the gloves, even if they no longer have a traditional enforcer on the NHL roster. (Providence’s Bobby Robins is under contract for another season at a cap hit of $600,000, according to capgeek.com.) They have Milan Lucic and Kevan Miller. They have Adam McQuaid, if he returns from injury, and Jarome Iginla, if he is re-signed.
Of the 46 fights the Bruins had in 2013-14, 10 came from Thornton — who likely would have fought more if not for a 15-game suspension in December — with seven each from Lucic and McQuaid, five each from Gregory Campbell and Iginla, and four from Miller, according to hockeyfights.com.
“We talk about team toughness,” Neely said. “We have guys that can handle themselves individually, but we talk a lot about team toughness and competing hard and battling for loose pucks and that’s part of team toughness, but as I said we have some players that if they get angry enough, they can handle themselves.”
But the Bruins don’t want Lucic and Iginla — if the latter returns — to spend their time in the penalty box. That is the luxury of the enforcer, even one who can still play.
The real question, perhaps, is whether the concept of the fourth line is shifting toward more skill, as the Bruins saw in the second round of the postseason, when the Canadiens got production from their fourth line (Brandon Prust, Daniel Briere, Dale Weise) and the Bruins did not.
That was the role the Bruins’ Merlot line played in the past, notably in the Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver, when they helped turn around Game 7. It was a line emulated throughout hockey, as teams realized they needed to roll four lines, as the Bruins did, to be successful.
With that in mind, it will be telling to see what happens to the large number of free agent enforcers this summer, with quite a few set to be unrestricted, a quirk of enforcers mostly getting short-term contracts. In addition to Thornton, George Parros, Paul Bissonnette, Kevin Westgarth and John Scott, among others, are without deals.
“I think if you look across the league, you look at more and more teams rolling four lines and getting some production out of the fourth line, like we’ve had for a number of years,” Neely said.
“If you look at certain players, their ice time is two or three minutes a game. I think coaches probably look and say, ‘I could really use someone who could give me six, seven, eight, 10 minutes a game.’ I think that’s where you see things going, more than just fighting getting out of the game completely.”
That, of course, was what Thornton was for the Bruins.
“Everybody’s been talking about it for a few years that the guy that does nothing but sit on the bench and play one minute a game isn’t as relevant as they used to be, and I’ll definitely agree with that,” Thornton said. “But because there’s only a couple of them in the game, I’m not sure why the guys that can play and have played get thrown into that grouping.”
As for fighting in the future, a future that will see Thornton with a different organization, the forward said, “I think next year will be exactly the same as this year.”