If his fists were his primary tools for NHL employment, Shawn Thornton would be out of work. Former peers and current casualties of the NHL’s retreat from fighting include John Scott and Brandon Prust, two players, given the intimacy of the enforcers’ club, whose résumés include dust-ups with Thornton.
That Thornton is under contract for his 20th season — and likeliest his last — of professional hockey underscores how the rest of the ex-Bruin’s assets remain too valuable for the Panthers to be without. As his once-busy knuckles now stay mostly hidden within his gloves, Thornton has guaranteed himself a $600,000 payday not just because he’s good in the room or has two fingers decorated with rings.
The 39-year-old can still play.
Last season, Thornton scored one goal and four assists in 50 games while averaging 8:41 of ice time per outing. Thornton landed 58 pucks on net, giving him a rate of 7.99 shots on goal per 60 minutes of play. Only Nick Bjugstad (8.38) and Aleksander Barkov (8.06) had higher rates on the team. Thornton fought six times in each of the last two seasons. In comparison, Thornton peaked in 2009-10 with 21 scraps, according to hockeyfights.com.
“Guys like me in the room, from what I’m told, unless they’re lying to me,” Thornton said at his annual Putts & Punches for Parkinson’s Golf Tournament at Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton. “Ownership has taken stock in needing leadership around the room for the young guys they’re grooming, who are going to be unbelievable hockey players for the next however many years. I think they like having some character guys around [that] help that. They put stock in that. They’re keeping some guys around just for that. I’m one of those guys.”
Thornton is too modest to cite much aside from his character for his longevity. But teams no longer keep six-figure personalities on staff because they keep young players in line or crack jokes during practice.
The small-market Panthers will be a cap team in 2016-17 after rolling out huge dough for Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, and James Reimer, all while committing future megabucks to Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Reilly Smith, and Vincent Trocheck. To earn his spot in the salary line, Thornton had to prove his value as a fourth liner who can create energy, play responsible defense, and initiate scoring chances. If he hadn’t, the Panthers would have tripped over themselves to boot Thornton from their ranks.
Tough guys such as Thornton have become taxicabs in Uber-served cities. The players who are taking their spots on fourth lines are speedsters, skilled forwards, shot blockers, penalty killers, and faceoff specialists — nimbler, more versatile, and more useful than sluggers.
Thornton is OK with change.
“The game’s a lot faster,” Thornton said. “There’s no more one-dimensional players, for the most part. They’re all but gone. No more staged fights. I’m OK with that, too. I was never really a fan. I hated that I had to do it.”
One of the most interesting things about Thornton’s career is how he earned the opportunity to express his playing abilities only by doing dirty work. Thornton was always smart. He could put pucks on net from different areas of the rink. He could keep the cycle alive in the offensive zone.
But general managers and coaches would not have granted Thornton the opportunity to do those things had he not been willing to throw down. The staged fights whose anticipation caused Thornton worry and whose engagement pained his hands were part of the package that convinced GMs to offer him contracts and coaches to tap his shoulder.
For younger players fitting Thornton’s profile, those opportunities are fading fast.
“I know I never would have made it unless I was able to cut my teeth in the minors doing it 30 times a year,” Thornton said. “It [stunk]. But it’s the reason I’m here now. It’s unfortunate that there might be some kids who are pretty tough kids, and that might have been their foot in the door, then prove themselves otherwise. They won’t get that opportunity anymore, probably. On a personal level, that probably [stinks]. But they’re trying to make the game safer in a way they feel it’s going to be safer. So we’ll wait and see.”
The Panthers were a peculiar team last year. They chased the puck more than they controlled it. They went on long runs of high shooting percentages. But with Roberto Luongo locking down the net, a first line of Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Jaromir Jagr drawing top defenders, and Gerard Gallant coaching well enough to earn a nomination for the Jack Adams Award, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division.
They lost to the Islanders in the first round. To Thornton, they deserved better. A first-round exit will not be acceptable following the offseason upgrades. Thornton’s wish is for a final deep run, followed by a transition to the business side of Florida’s operation, which he has discussed with owner Vincent Viola.
“If the opportunity is still there to learn something new on the business side of sports, I just see a ton of upside to that for longer in life,” Thornton said.
Thornton has a high IQ in uniform. His next goal is to apply his smarts while wearing a suit.
Cushing roots show in Sheary
Cushing Academy served Conor Sheary’s family well. Sheary’s prep school performance earned him a scholarship at UMass Amherst. Older sister Courtney was a Cushing standout before moving on to the University of New Hampshire.
So when Conor had the privilege of choosing where to host the Stanley Cup, the Melrose native did not hesitate to bring the trophy to Ashburnham. On Wednesday, the Cup made its inaugural visit to Cushing, which has produced NHLers such as Tom Poti, Bobby Allen, and Brad Norton.
“Cushing is kind of where I fell in love with hockey,” said Sheary. “I kind of grew into myself. I loved hockey and I started to get pretty good at it. Once you get started getting recruited to colleges and have options to play hockey after high school, it’s kind of the steppingstone. Obviously my hometown is where I grew up. But I didn’t really fall in love with hockey as much as I did here.”
Sheary set up the Cup on the red line at Iorio Arena. A line of visitors circled the rink, up the stairs, around a hallway, and into the arena lobby. The Pittsburgh wing posed for pictures and accepted congratulations for more than an hour. He then brought the Cup for more pictures into his former dressing room. Back then, Sheary didn’t spend much time dreaming about the Cup.
“At that point, I was just trying to get to a Division 1 school,” Sheary said. “To think of this and think of the NHL, it’s hard to imagine. There’s alumni who came through here and paved the way for me and a lot of other guys. But you never actually think you’ll get here.”
A first-line spot alongside Sidney Crosby wasn’t always in Sheary’s future. He didn’t make Cushing’s varsity team as a freshman. Sheary scored only 4 points as a sophomore, but coach Rob Gagnon identified the speed, skill, and hockey sense that would be good enough to bring ex-UMass coach Toot Cahoon calling.
“At the end of the year, we were like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to move this kid up. Boy, this kid’s going to have a big year next year,’ ” Gagnon recalled. “To Conor’s credit, he had to work his butt off over the summers to keep getting better. Over the summer is really where you measure yourself and get better year to year. He did just that.”
Only Sheary’s size concerned Cahoon’s rivals. As a schoolboy, Sheary stood 5 feet 8 inches and 150 pounds. Even after his freshman year of college (6-8—14 in 34 games), NHL teams did not consider him draftworthy.
The Penguins, who signed Sheary after his senior year, were the beneficiaries. After a year and a half of AHL apprenticeship, Sheary scored seven goals and three assists in 44 games for Pittsburgh in 2015-16. In the playoffs, Sheary added four goals and six assists in 23 games.
“We take a lot of pride in seeing Conor being with the young kids today,” Gagnon said. “At the headmaster’s office today, there were several young kids who were up there getting autographs. It’s not necessarily about it for us. It’s about it for the community and seeing what a special kid Conor is as a person and what a special person he is versus what a special hockey player he is. Usually it takes both. So what we’re proud of is the way he is as a human being and how he gives back to the community. Obviously the hockey part, we’re proud of that as well.”
US team set Cup standard
The upcoming World Cup of Hockey’s star power cannot be questioned. All of the NHL’s big names will gather in Toronto next month to participate. The inclusion of the sport’s brightest lights, however, does not guarantee top-shelf quality. The All-Star Game is an annual reminder of how the best players do not necessarily produce hockey worth watching.
But if 1996 can be this tournament’s benchmark, fans will tune in, even if summer is in its home stretch.
“Everyone in the locker room was a competitor,” Brian Leetch, a member of the 1996 US championship team, recalled of the tournament during a conference call on Tuesday. “We wanted to win. We wanted to win for our country more than anything. It wasn’t difficult on my end. Some of the guys I watched go out and compete really impressed me.”
On Monday, Leetch and his 1996 teammates were elected to the US Hockey Hall of Fame. That year was the World Cup’s inaugural showing. This year’s reboot has a high standard to match.
Twenty years ago, the Americans were still chasing the Canadians, Russians, and Swedes on the international sheet. The assembly of what is considered the Americans’ greatest generation turned it around.
Up front, coach Ron Wilson had Bill Guerin, Brett Hull, Pat LaFontaine, John LeClair, Mike Modano, and Keith Tkachuk as pieces to form a skilled and muscle-bound gang. On defense, the touch of Leetch and Phil Housley complemented the brawn of Chris Chelios and Derian Hatcher.
But in a short tournament, goalie is the most important component. Mike Richter, who helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994, was unconscious.
“Richter was at his best,” Leetch said. “In the Stanley Cup playoffs, you have more margin for error. When it takes four wins to advance, you can afford to have a bad period or have a goal go in that you would have wanted back. In the tournament we played at, it was a round-robin tournament where it was important to get the placing where we wanted to be to go into the semifinals. To win two out of three, if you had a bad game, you might not recover. If there’s a soft goal, the team doesn’t recover. [Richter] had to be at the top all the way through for that time. He was.”
The Americans lost the first game of the final to Canada in Philadelphia. The series moved to Montreal, where the US rallied for two straight wins. In Game 3, trailing, 2-1, in the third, the US scored three straight goals.
“It was the moment that really put America on even footing with every other hockey country in the world,” said USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. “It was not by accident, not by miracle, but by balance, competition, effort, and grit that we won the World Cup in that manner — down, 1-0, in the final series, going into Montreal to win two in dramatic fashion. Many called that roster the greatest generation. It was one of the great, great moments in the history of our sport.”
Roy felt buried in decision-making
Claude Julien remains in rare company. Since 2005-06, Julien is one of only three Jack Adams Award winners to still be with the team with which he earned the recognition. Patrick Roy, the 2013-14 winner, became the latest coach to part ways with his organization on Thursday, when he announced his resignation from Colorado. “I have thought long and hard over the course of the summer about how I might improve this team to give it the depth it needs and bring it to a higher level,” Roy said in a statement. “To achieve this, the vision of the coach and VP of Hockey Operations needs to be perfectly aligned with that of the organization. He must also have a say in the decisions that impact the team’s performance. These conditions are not currently met.” The Avalanche made the playoffs in Roy’s first season, but failed to qualify the last two years. Roy could resurface in Quebec City if and when the franchise revives via expansion or relocation. Montreal, Roy’s other potential next move, is the realm of the bulletproof Michel Therrien, who is under contract through 2019.
Big move would be to hire Quinn
As for Roy’s replacement, the Avalanche would be best served chasing David Quinn. The Boston University coach was an assistant to fellow ex-Terrier Joe Sacco in Colorado in 2012-13. Before that, Quinn coached Lake Erie, Colorado’s former AHL affiliate, for three seasons. It would take a lot for Colorado to yank Quinn off Commonwealth Ave. The Terriers have made the NCAA playoffs twice during Quinn’s three-year stewardship. They are guaranteed another postseason qualification because of the strength of BU’s recruiting class, which includes 2016 first-rounders Clayton Keller, Kieffer Bellows, and Dante Fabbro, as well as second-rounder Chad Krys and 2017 draft-eligible goalie Jake Oettinger. They will join Bruins prospects Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Charlie McAvoy. Former North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol helped to accelerate Philadelphia’s turnaround in 2015-16. Quinn has the pedigree to do the same.
Craig Janney, named to the US Hockey Hall of Fame, played at 200 pounds. The slick pivot said he’d have to drop some pounds to play in today’s game. “There was so much holding and hooking, you had to be at a bigger weight just to get through that stuff and survive it,” Janney said on a conference call. “If I played in this generation, instead of 200, I’d have to play at 185. I’d have to lose a lot of weight. You’ve got to be fast, quick, and jumping every second.”
Registration for Babson’s “Analytics on Ice: The Long Change” is open. Entry for the one-day conference is $25 and capped at 150 attendees. Paper submission closes on Aug. 25 or when the 150-registrant maximum is reached. To register, click here . . . David Pastrnak split his summer training between Boston and the Czech Republic, pausing for a goodwill tour of China with Matt Beleskey. The 20-year-old Pastrnak, wispy as a rookie, has filled out and is approaching what should be his physical plateau as an NHLer . . . Penny Oleksiak, younger sister of former Northeastern defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, won Olympic gold in the 100-meter freestyle swimming event on Thursday. It would have been fun to see big brother try his hand at the pool. At 6-7, the Dallas defenseman could have launched off the board and touched the wall in one leap.
The blockbuster trade of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber gave Montreal a more goal-minded defenseman and provided Nashville with a younger building block for the blue line. The swap of All-Stars looks pretty even based on their impressive numbers over the last three seasons.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.