Season Recap & Evaluation:
Entering the first season of his two year retirement contract, earning him over a million dollars for the first time in his career, it would seem that Shawn Thornton is providing the lowest ROI he's yet provided the team. His production remained level from the prior year's cheaper deal, and precisely in line with his meager career average PPG. Though it means little in the sample we're considering, in his lower ATOI he was more productive per-60. However he also received the lowest CorsiRelQoC since the 07-08 season along with the most sheltered zone starts, over 60% for the first time in 6 years. He held a -2.8 Corsi On, good for the worst full time player at keeping play going our way to the tune of -16.1 CorsiRel. While he did manage to slightly improve on the previous year's dreadful showing, doing only marginally so while facing infinitely easier situations is not encouraging for next year's pre-broadcast career swan song.
Here's his career in Boston, you'll find this year as the bigger dot in the bottom right.
(Usage Chart here)
Alright, so he wasn't so hot at the whole hockey playing thing. How did he fare at the fisticuffs, the true reason for his employment? Aside from the rather brutal beating at the massive hands of John Scott he did manage to emerge victorious, according to Hockeyfights.com, in 5 out of 8 bouts, along with 2 for 2 in the playoffs. Not too shabby sir, I presume that must have been a boon for the team, a real rallying cry toward team-wide success.
Or we could have gone 3/8 and 1/2 in games where Thornton dropped the gloves, as we did. Yay Facepunching! Several studies have shown fighting to have minimal or even negative correlation to winning. As Steve Burch wrote up over at PPP this week, fights (as taken among the rest of Major penalties at least) have one of the lowest correlations to winning of any statistical event in hockey, trailed only by Neutral Zone FO%, Hits, and Road Giveaways/Takeaways (home aren't much better, fwiw). Did the threat of Thornton's fists of fury keep his opponents honest or was there some other collateral benefit that escapes the score sheet? Who knows, though it's hard to believe that he's any more deterrent than a pissed off Lucic or clinically insane Adam McQuaid, who are both far more likely to be on the ice at the time of any given transgression. Still, as the least valuable forward on the squad, losing Twos for 5 is preferable to missing any other player on the roster if we absolutely must engage. Which since we're not doing so in the post season, begs the question of why he was filling a roster spot during the playoffs only to fight once in each of the first two rounds.
But hold on a moment. We've got a pretty gosh darn decent hockey club here. Staged fighting and its dubious value aside, does comparison within our really good team reflect poorly upon Thornton? To gauge whether he was being inordinately penalized by being measured against others on the team, I decided to compare him against the rest of the league's fourth liners and see who was more productive in small minutes, faced tougher competition and maintained possession better. Basically, can he be replaced by another, higher scoring forward who at least hemorrhages possession less?
I filtered for players with at least 20 games and capped TOI at 38 minutes ATOI OFF at ES to approximate 4th line minutes. A few cusp third liners will make this list as well by these criteria, including guys like Paille, due to difference in special teams time across the league.
Among such players, Thornton comes out 78th of 89 in CorsiRel, (44th On), 36th in P/60 and 54th in CorsiRelQoC. His most direct comps are Jordin Tootoo and charitably Colin Fraser. Players who had better CorsiRel, Higher CorsiRelQoC and higher rates of production are here. He sits 25th on the list, last year at 46th of 86.
Players who had tougher CorsiRelQoC and higher CorsiRel, though not necessarily higher scoring rates here. Thornton is 48th, up from 81 of 86 last year.
(Sidebar: the best bang-for-buck 4th liner this year in terms of production with higher competition and solid possession would be Adam Cracknell in St Louis and Michael Frolik in Chicago, with an honorable mention to Keith Aucoin, who spent a decent amount of his games on the third line and would have been one hell of a waiver wire pickup. Tampa's BJ Crombeen also deserves props for largely equaling Thornton with much harder QoC and Chris Kelly-esque defensive zone deployment).
So among 4th liners, viewing relative metrics to mitigate cross-team, divisional and conference differences, Shawn Thornton sits firmly in the middle of the pack. If you were picking a full team of players in a fantasy draft and all the top 9 guys had been gobbled up with no leftovers or prospects available, he'd be somebody's second choice, possibly even first at the end of the round depending on what said GM values more.
Furthermore, he improved slightly over his 2011/12 season. From the assessment in February, he did manage to make this only his second worst season as a possession vacuum, though again with significant deployment caveats.
Taken within the context of the team, Shawn Thornton is the least effective forward on the 12 man unit. Given available replacements, he probably should have been sitting in favor of Kaspars Daugavins or even Chris Bourque throughout the playoffs to prevent the Merlot line from offering gratis zone time for the opposition. However, viewed within the context of the rest of the league's fourth liners, Thornton's performance is elevated from dismal to middling - to put it in other terms, he's slightly above replacement level. There's very little argument that can be mounted to support Pierre McGuire's fawning over our "league's best fourth line," yet they remain among the top third. The league is not flush with great bottom-line guys, and while Thornton certainly falls short of "great," he's better than many.