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Sunday Hockey Notes

NHL enforcers reaching end of the line

The Bruins said goodbye to Shawn Thornton last week.

Steven Senne/Associated Press/File

The Bruins said goodbye to Shawn Thornton last week.

Had like-minded wreckers filled the vacancies left by Jody Shelley, David Koci, Eric Godard, D.J. King, Ben Eager, Jamal Mayers, Darcy Hordichuk, and Derek Boogaard, business would be normal for enforcers in the NHL.

These are not normal times for the toughest guys in the league.

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In the last three years, while fighters have left the NHL via retirement and attrition (and in Boogaard’s case, a death via drug and alcohol overdose on May 13, 2011), younger sluggers have not filled the gloves they’ve left on the ice. Within this window, players who fit this category are Patrick Bordeleau, Luke Gazdic, Tom Wilson, and Anthony Peluso. There’s more going out than coming in.

This trend projects to continue.

The NHL revolves around a cycle of refreshing. Mark Recchi goes out on top. The Bruins give most of his shifts to Tyler Seguin, then coming off his rookie season. Nicklas Lidstrom closes out his glorious career. The Red Wings ask Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith to assume some of the shifts taken by the best defenseman of his generation. Martin Biron retires last October. Cam Talbot, 26, takes over as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup with the Rangers.

And on and on and on. The exception, however, looks to be in the mitt-dropping segment.

Come July 1, John Scott, George Parros, Mike Rupp, Krys Barch, Kevin Westgarth, Steve MacIntyre, Zenon Konopka, Deryk Engelland, and Arron Asham will be looking for work. They may not get it in the NHL. Their current employers may not replace their pugilistic skills with more of the same.

There are many factors involved. The instigator rule has made fighters wary about patrolling the ice when misdeeds appear on their radar. The NHL is worried about concussions and the long-term damage caused by repeated punches to the head. The league’s introduction of mandatory visors discourages a shield-free fighter from tangling with a protected roughneck.

But the underlying reason is common sense. General managers and coaches are finally alert to the reality, both on the ice and on their payrolls, that one-dimensional tough guys are impediments to success. It makes no sense to dedicate a contract and a roster spot to a ruffian who averages five minutes of ice time per game and has fewer dance partners to engage. This is progress through evolution more than legislation.

“I think we’re all becoming more cognizant of the role of fighting in hockey,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “I think there’s a trend, rightly or wrongly, toward it lessening. It’s a vicious part of the game. But physicality is an important part of the game. It’s the physicality that spawns fights sometimes. Fights are also used to deter stickwork. I believe there’s still a reason for fighting existing. But it’s trending down. The game is changing to reflect this trend. You have to adapt.”

Last Monday, the Bruins said goodbye to one of the game’s best fighters. Shawn Thornton gave them seven hard-nosed seasons, most of them good. He was one of the team’s smartest players. Thornton and fourth-line mates Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell energized the Bruins.

But the soon-to-be 37-year-old’s legs are fading. This past season, the fourth line chased the puck far too much. Thornton’s departure allows the Bruins to rewrite the line’s identity.

There is no rule, other than writ via NHL tradition, that says a fourth line must have a hard-hat approach. The alternative could be a quicker, faster, more skilled line. This is an opportunity for Ryan Spooner or Alexander Khokhlachev, neither of whom will beat out David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, or Carl Soderberg, to take varsity shifts.

This would require follow-up moves. Campbell, if he stays, would move to wing. Claude Julien would have to change his lines mid-game, which is not something he’s regularly done. Chris Kelly projects to be the No. 3 left wing. But if there’s a situation that calls for a defensive presence, Julien might have to deploy a Campbell-Kelly-Paille line.

“I wouldn’t rule that out,” Chiarelli said. “I wouldn’t rule out mixing the third and fourth lines around. You could have a quasi-second shutdown line as your fourth line. You could move Kelly down there and Soupy to the side.”

Los Angeles and Chicago have difference-making fourth lines. The Blackhawks usually roll out Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, and Ben Smith. In the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings used a grinding unit of Kyle Clifford, Mike Richards, and Trevor Lewis. It was a line expected to hold its ground defensively and create chances. They were strong on the puck. Clifford is tough, but he didn’t need to be benched for a better player.

Fighting won’t disappear soon. Pure enforcers under contract include Ryan Reaves, Brian McGrattan, Tom Sestito, and Jared Boll. Chris Neil, Brandon Prust, and Antoine Roussel are willing combatants who, like Thornton once did, contribute in other areas.

But with dance partners decreasing annually, fighters have fewer opportunities to let ’er rip. It is not in their nature to target non-fighters. If so, irritants such as Brad Marchand and P.K. Subban would spend more time picking their teeth off the ice than doing their agitating.

We are watching the end of caveman hockey. Some observers, such as this Cro-Magnon, don’t like it. But it is useless to fight evolution. This is how the fittest survive.

IN DEMAND

Speedy Gibbons
will have opportunities

Brian Gibbons is 26. His most recent one-year, $550,000 contract is expiring. The Braintree native has 49 games of NHL experience (41 in the regular season, eight in the playoffs). Those variables will make Gibbons free to hit the market as a Group 6 unrestricted free agent if Pittsburgh declines to re-sign the speedy forward. The Penguins have yet to determine whether they will bring back the former Boston College standout, according to Jay Fee, Gibbons’s agent.

The 5-foot-8-inch, 170-pound Gibbons fits BC’s profile of a small, quick, and skilled forward. The Penguins signed the undrafted Gibbons to a two-year, entry-level contract on April 4, 2011, beating out a handful of other suitors. After two years of apprenticeship in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Gibbons was recalled to Pittsburgh on Nov. 17, 2013.

A day later, Gibbons made his NHL debut alongside Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter on Pittsburgh’s No. 3 line. He scored his first NHL goal on his first shot, dishing in an Evgeni Malkin feed after the star center wheeled around the offensive zone and hit the youngster with a tape-to-tape backhand saucer.

In 41 games with the varsity, Gibbons scored five goals and 12 assists while averaging 11:56 of ice time. Gibbons also saw some time as Sidney Crosby’s right wing because of the season-ending knee injury to Pascal Dupuis.

“I think he was able to stretch the ice and create a lot of space for Sidney,” Fee said. “He’s got gifted hands, great vision, and is a tremendous passer. To play with Crosby you need real high-level hockey intelligence. They seemed to do pretty well together.”

Gibbons, who played high school hockey at Salisbury Prep and Thayer, scored two goals in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs against Columbus. He missed the next six games because of a shoulder injury.

The Penguins returned Gibbons to the AHL after they lost to the Rangers in the second round. In Game 7 of the second round of the AHL playoffs against Providence, Gibbons dropped jaws with a second-period goal. He won a faceoff against Alexander Khokhlachev, then made the other three P-Bruins on the ice — Seth Griffith, David Warsofsky, and Blake Parlett — look silly with some curls and straight-line bursts before slipping the puck under goalie Niklas Svedberg.

A permanent top-six position may be unlikely because of Gibbons’s size. But he could be a full-time third- or fourth-line wing with the threat to score on the penalty kill. If the Blackhawks had spare cash, Gibbons would be a good fit on their fourth line. Some teams like bulk and grit on their energy lines. Others prefer speed and skill. Gibbons wants to sign with the latter.

ETC.

Without Doughty,
no crown for Kings

Justin Williams won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player. Williams scored nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points, second most behind teammate Anze Kopitar (5-21—26). Williams scored two goals and three assists in the three Game 7 wins the Kings recorded en route to the Final. He then punched in the winning overtime goal in Game 1.

But the Kings might have won the Cup without their third-line right wing. They would have done nothing of the sort without Drew Doughty.

The No. 1 defenseman — perhaps in the league, not just on the team — was a difference-maker in all three zones.

Doughty scored five goals and 13 assists while logging 28:45 of ice time per game, fourth most in the postseason after Alex Pietrangelo, Jack Johnson, and Ryan Suter. Doughty pushes the pace with a sharp outlet pass or by rushing the puck himself. His stickwork and positioning are excellent. When necessary, he’ll flex his muscle to gain possession from an opponent.

Doughty has two rings and two gold medals. He’s only 24 years old. He could become the Nicklas Lidstrom of his generation.

Larsen moves up

The Blue Jackets made the logical choice last Monday by promoting Brad Larsen. The Springfield coach will replace Dan Hinote as an assistant to Todd Richards in Columbus. Hinote left the organization after the season because of a personal matter. The 36-year-old Larsen coached Springfield for the past two seasons. Larsen’s AHL charges included Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, and Dalton Prout, who are now core players for the big club. As a player, Larsen was a bottom-six grunt in Colorado and Atlanta. He’s found his niche as a coach already. He’ll be running his own bench soon.

Malhotra to Pittsburgh?

As a rule, players regularly follow GMs. To that end, Manny Malhotra could be reunited with former Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are desperate for bottom-six reinforcements to play important shifts when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need breathers. Malhotra would be a good fit in Pittsburgh as a fourth-line center, faceoff specialist, and penalty killer. The UFA-to-be won 59.4 percent of his faceoffs this past season in Carolina. Of Malhotra’s 11:35 of ice time per game, 1:38 took place on the PK. The Hurricanes took a chance on Malhotra after Vancouver, citing concerns regarding his vision, opted to let the veteran pivot go. Malhotra would be loyal to Rutherford if his ex-boss comes calling.

Change possible for Donato

Ryan Donato, son of ex-Bruin and current Harvard coach Ted Donato, could go in the first round of the draft on Friday or in the second round the following day in Philadelphia. The NHL’s Central Scouting Service ranked Donato No. 58 among North American skaters. Donato, who will play for his father at Harvard in 2015-16, might have been ranked higher had he played somewhere other than Dexter, where uncle Dan Donato was his coach. Ryan Donato will be a senior in 2014-15. His choices include playing at Dexter, staying at the school while playing for an EJHL team, or going to the USHL. Omaha owns Donato’s USHL rights. The team that drafts Donato may have a say in determining where he plays next season. So will his dad and uncle.

Hemsky in good spot

It’s possible that Ales Hemsky will hit the market instead of re-signing in Ottawa. If so, Hemsky will strike it big on July 1. After arriving from Edmonton at the trade deadline, Hemsky tore up the competition for four goals and 13 assists in 20 games. The 30-year-old is a skilled two-way right wing. He controls the puck and does good things with it. He never gained traction with the Oilers, partly because of injuries, but also because his bosses didn’t use him in offense-first situations. In Ottawa, coach Paul Maurice played Hemsky with Jason Spezza. Hemsky’s UFA competition will be Marian Gaborik, Jarome Iginla, Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, and Jussi Jokinen. Translation: Hemsky is going to get paid.

Crossroads for Caron

The Bruins may still make Jordan Caron, a restricted free agent, a qualifying offer by the June 30 deadline. If so, it doesn’t guarantee Caron will return to Boston in 2014-15. It did not bode well for Caron in the playoffs when management and the coaching staff shunted him aside for Justin Florek and Matt Fraser. By qualifying Caron, the No. 25 overall pick of the 2009 draft, the Bruins could pursue an asset via trade. Saying goodbye could be in both parties’ best interests. Caron is only 23 years old. A younger team with less depth might like Caron as a bottom-six wing who can play both sides and be defensively reliable. Assuming Caron is out, he will have concluded his Boston career with 12 goals and 16 assists in 123 games.

Loose pucks

You can always count on the Islanders to do something out of the ordinary. Last Monday, after bringing back former Northeastern coach Greg Cronin as an assistant to Jack Capuano, the Islanders named Doug Weight assistant GM. Weight will remain on the bench as an assistant coach. Coaching is hard enough. But add in the duties of an assistant GM — player personnel (pro and amateur), contract negotiations, prospect development — and you’ve got someone who will have zero downtime. Weight projects to be more of a front-office man than head coach . . . Geoff Ward ended his seven-year term as Claude Julien’s assistant on Thursday to become head coach of the Mannheim Eagles in Germany. Neither Ward nor fellow assistant Doug Houda interviewed for any of the NHL’s head coaching openings in Pittsburgh, Carolina, Florida, Washington, Vancouver, and Nashville. The 52-year-old Ward may have reached his NHL ceiling . . . Had Louis Leblanc remained in school, the former Montreal forward could have a Harvard diploma on his wall and be entering his second pro year. Instead, Leblanc, who bolted Harvard for the QMJHL after his freshman season, is now property of the Ducks for a mere 2015 fifth-rounder. It’s not easy to make the right decision when you’re 19 years old . . . San Jose is unlikely to bring back Andover native John McCarthy. The former Boston University captain dressed for 36 varsity games. He might have to take a two-way deal on the market . . . Before pregame warm-ups, most hockey players kick around a soccer ball. For some reason, ESPN opted not to show Brazil’s pregame tradition of Fred feeding pucks for Hulk to one-time before their opener against Croatia. Weird.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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