(En)Forcing the Issue: The Decline of Shawn Thornton

Elsa

The struggle for Shawn Thornton is real. Where did his play go wrong? Note: Not a contrarian piece - Thornton totally deserved an F.

When Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins’ front office announced on Monday that veteran UFA Shawn Thornton wouldn’t be re-signed for the 2014-15 season, the sea of opinions parted to a degree that it was as if Moses was monitoring Twitter accounts all over the city. Supporters stood behind him, haters said good riddance, realists said "Yeah, it’s time." Of all the players on the Bruins roster it was obvious at that moment that Shawn Thornton—his role on the team, more than the person—was the most polarizing figure to have laced his skates for the team this season.

During his seven years with the Bruins—480 GP, 34 G, 42 A, -7 rating, 748 PIM—Shawn was a staple on the 4th line, playing with everyone from Steve Begin to Vladimir Sobotka to Stephane Yelle to Gregory Campbell. He was also well-respected in the locker room, having won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim (despite having 0 points and 19 PIM in 15 games) back in 2007. While he never wore an A or a C on his sweater, he was a leader behind the bench. No one can take away his character and intangibles.

But Shawn’s turning 37 this offseason. He’s not getting any younger. And his production isn’t just getting worse, it’s plummeting.

As SCoC pointed out previously, he not only was one of the worst players on what was statistically the best team in the league, but he was under-achieving by fourth-line standards. His -7.7 CF% rel was tied for 10th worst in the NHL among players who dressed for 75% of games this season. And that’s down from his previous season, where he was only tied for 30th worst at -6.5%. But neither of those were as bad as 2011-12, when his -8.4% was 10th worst, among all players, in the entire league—fun fact: Paille and Campbell were even worse that season. BUT THEY BRING SO MUCH ENERGY. MERLOT. YOU GUYS, MERLOT LINE.

He’s been bad on the ice for a few years, and it hasn’t been getting better. All you can really ask of a 4th line player—in Julien’s current system—is to play responsibly, and not give up more goals than you create. So with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask tending the net behind you, how is it that Shawn Thornton is a -3, while the Bruins as a team have a goal differential of +173 over the last three seasons?

The Bruins could’ve plugged in Bobby Robins to be equally as awful and ineffective when he was on the ice. And that’s assuming they would’ve gone that direction—Chiarelli inferred after the season that the makeup of the Merlot line could be changing.

"(Thornton) I thought had a kind of an up-and-down year… He got, obviously, the incident with Pittsburgh, and you know, there’s trends in hockey and the fisticuffs trend, again, this doesn’t characterize (Thornton) as just a fighter because he contributed on that line. That line has had a lot of success in the past. But there is definitely, we’re trending away from that style."

There are a handful of forwards seemingly ready to make the jump from the minors to the Big B’s. Ryan Spooner, Alexander Khokhlachev, Justin Florek, Craig Cunningham, Matt Lindblad and Matt Fraser all appeared with the Bruins this season, and Seth Griffith and Jared Knight are looking to make a push for the big club next season after getting their AHL rookie seasons under their belt. Spooner, Florek and Khokhlachev seem the most NHL-ready. You can argue that the Bruins could’ve sat Thornton, and played a kid on the 4th line. But while you can mix styles across a team, you can’t on a line. An AHL call-up that normally plays like a 1st or 2nd line scorer can’t be asked to skate like a 3rd line checking forward. That’s why Florek and Fraser primarily played with Soderberg over Campbell. They have different roles.

But back to Thornton. Let’s consider those intangibles everyone keeps talking about. How do you measure them exactly? What quantifies leadership? Well when people think "Shawn Thornton", they think "Fights," so let’s look at what his fighting has done for the team these last few years.

Since looking at the sheer amount is misleading (due to injuries, suspensions, and the lockout), I’ve created my own stat for the times Shawn has dropped the gloves as a member of the Boston Bruins: FPGP, or Fights per Games Played.

Stfpgp_medium

The amount of fights steadily climbed the first few seasons Shawn was on the team, peaking in 2009-10, also known as the year he got embarrassed by Daniel Carcillo at the Winter Classic. But then something interesting happened. The year the Bruins won the Cup, the year he was heralded for his leadership and grit and policing of the ice, he fought less than ever as a Bruin. In a year where the Bruins had 71 fighting majors—the most since Thornton came on board with the team—Thornton only fought 14 times, just over 20% of the team total.

Aside from his 20-fight season in 2011-12, Thornton has fought less and less over the last few seasons—a small but steady decline. Call him a deterrent if you want, but it’s not as if the Bruins have been fighting any less. If the key role of an Enforcer is to step in for your teammates, Thornton has failed in that sense. In 2011-12, he accounted for 33% of the Bruins total scraps. In 2012-13 that dropped to 25%, and last year again down to 22%—the 2nd lowest average with the Bruins, behind only the Cup year.

Stfpgvsbpts_medium

If you were to argue that "he fought to bring the team a spark they needed to pull out a victory!", that also wouldn't be entirely true. Overall, the Bruins' record was 56-32-11 in the 99 games when Thornton went toe-to-toe with the opponent, a .621 point percentage. Sounds good, right? Well if you break it down by season, the last few years, Boston on average has earned more points in games where he hasn’t fought, than games where he has. The one outlier once again is 2010-11, where the team had a .610PT% when he refrained, and a .714PT% when he threw down.

Unfortunately the fighting had no correlation to Thornton’s play, as he was up and down on the stat sheet regardless of how many times he matched up with an opponent. It didn’t detract from him game, but it didn’t add to it either. With Lucic, playing physically gets his legs going, which leads to more scoring chances. With Thornton, that boost wasn’t there.

Then again fighting has never necessarily led to winning, and this year was no different.

Fightsbystandings1314_medium

The standings in the league are ordered from left to right, Boston to Buffalo, during the 2013-14 season. The Fighting Major leaders (Toronto) stick out like a sore thumb, landing in the bottom third of the NHL. Only one of the teams with the top 10 fighting majors in the league made a Conference Final—the Montreal Canadiens. The Stanley Cup Final? Two teams from the bottom 3rd of the league in fighting majors. In fact, here’s how it’s ended for the last five teams who've led the league in fighting majors.

2013-14
5 out of top 10 FM teams missed the Playoffs
Team with most FM: TOR
Missed the Playoffs. Finished 12th in the East, 6th in the Division.
Cup Champs: 21st in FM

2012-13
6 out of top 10 FM teams missed the Playoffs
Team with most FM: TOR
Finished 5th in the East, 3rd in the Division. Lost to the Bruins in Game 7 of the ECQF.
Cup Champs: 25th in FM

2011-12
4 out of top 10 FM teams missed the Playoffs
Team with most FM: NYR
Finished 1st in the East, 2Pts behind Pres. Trophy. Lost to NJ in Game 6 of the ECF.
Cup Champs: 18th in FM

2010-11
6 out of top 10 FM teams missed the Playoffs
Team with most FM: STL
Missed the Playoffs. Finished 11th in the West, 4th in the Division.
Cup Champs: 2nd in FM

2009-10
6 out of top 10 FM teams missed the Playoffs
Team with most FM: ANA
Missed the Playoffs. Finished 11th in the West, 4th in the Division.
Cup Champs: 21st in FM

The Bruins were the exception to the rule in 2010-11. The other four champions have been in the bottom half of the league in fighting majors. It was also true for Pittsburgh in 2009, and Detroit—last in the NHL in fighting majors—in 2008. The last team to both lead the league in fighting majors and win the Stanley Cup? Shawn Thornton’s 2007 Anaheim Ducks.

So what’s next for bruisers like number 22? The NHL brought back the two-line pass following the 2004-05 lockout, and with it, a faster, quicker, more open game. Is it possible that hockey has shifted since to fit that style? Is that why smaller, quicker teams like the Blackhawks and Canadiens beat heavier, slower teams like the Blues and Bruins? There’s no place for Shawn Thornton on the Bruins going forward, but can he make his home elsewhere in the NHL?

All of the columns and reports and statements since the Bruins' announcement have done nothing but praise Thornton as a person, and a teammate. The Cuts for a Cause event he inherited from Aaron Ward has grown exponentially, and is a fantastic annual event for a great charity. He lives in town during the offseason, and appears in movies and commercials. He signed a paper Starbucks cup for me without hesitation while I was working there during college, even though it was the week after they blew the 3-0 lead to the Flyers in 2010. Thornton's a relatable, hard-working, blue collar hockey player. The guys with a little less talent who work that much harder to make up for it? This town eats those guys up, and puts them on a pedestal. He’s the Dustin Pedroia or Tedy Bruschi of the Bruins, just with a lot less talent.

No one is arguing he’s a bad person. Or that he was always a bad hockey player.

But the truth is… now?

He’s a really bad hockey player.

And while many are sad to see him go, no one has said, or even attempted to say, it was the wrong hockey move for the team.

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