March 20, 2012

Pugilistic prowess hardly lone reason B's extend Thornton

By Jesse Connolly

BOSTON – There’s a reason why many consider fourth liners to be a dime-a-dozen in the National Hockey League. 

While a kind way of describing them would be specialists, many players that fit the mold often bounce from one team’s bottom trio of forwards to another due to their limitations. Some are strictly fighters and nothing more. Others are pluggers or – to continue with the niceties – solely defensive-minded.

Shawn Thornton, however, has proven throughout his nearly five full years in Boston that he can’t be pigeonholed. He’s not just a fighter. He’s certainly not a goon. Thornton brings more to the table in his role as a fourth-line forward than a clear majority of his counterparts throughout the National Hockey League.

In doing so, the 34-year-old winger has helped make a component of a hockey club often considered a weakness into a strength for Claude Julien’s Bruins. For that and more, he was officially rewarded with a two-year extension on Monday night.

“Since we got Shawn, I don’t know how many years ago, every year, to me, he’s improved as a player, and I think that’s what’s allowed him -- that and his conditioning -- to be a good fourth-line player in this league, and then a good catalyst in his own way,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said of Thornton, who will earn $1.1 million over the next two seasons.

“You see some of the skill that he has when he scores, when he makes some plays, but most importantly, you see the enthusiasm and the vigor that he brings to the rink every day, and that’s important for this team, and his character’s important for this team. So, I’m happy to get him signed, and I believe he just takes so much pride in his conditioning, and that’s gotten better over the time when I’ve seen him. I think, without question, he’ll be able to play well for two more years.”

While Thornton has improved year after year on the ice, highlighted by a career-high 10 goals last season for the B’s, his off-ice contributions have been equally as impactful.

“You know, he’s stuck with the game for a long time, and in my time, I’ve seen a lot of guys drop out at certain points in their career where Shawn has gone and surpassed,” Chiarelli said when asked if he knew Thornton would develop into a team leader. “So, no, I’m not surprised, just because he’s stuck with it, and he’s gotten better, and each year he’s gotten better, and he keeps in terrific shape, so he brings that, I call it “back-room character,” too, and he’s terrific at that. His longevity is a testament to that, too.”

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Thornton’s pugilistic prowess is a big part of his game. The 6-foot-2 winger established a career-high in penalty minutes recently and currently stands at 145 through 71 games. Many of them, of course, were racked up five (or more) at a time.

“He’s got a job that’s not an easy job, and anyone who’s played this sport, who’s watched the sport close enough, knows how tough it is to go and do the job that he does every night,” coach Claude Julien said. “Whenever we get pushed around or we’re behind and we need a wake-up call, all of a sudden, he goes and he takes charge. He’s never told to do it. He just does it on his own.

“He knows his role extremely well, and for him to be rewarded with a new contract is worthy of his work. I’m glad to see that he’s here for a couple more years at least.”

For Thornton, who’s become a favorite son here in the Hub of Hockey, the sense of security is certainly gratifying.

“I’m not going to lie to you, said Thornton, “it’s a little weight off the shoulders. But I think myself and the guys that haven’t had it (an extension) done yet, have done a pretty good job focusing throughout the season. It wasn’t a distraction, but it’s definitely a little easier when you know you’re going to be somewhere for a few years.”

That “somewhere” being Boston makes it all the more thrilling.

“I think I’ve said it a million times how great the city’s been to me and the people here. Fans – that’s the easy part, they’re amazing to me all the time,” said Thornton.

“I’ve always said I wanted to stay here in Boston. It’s home now. I’m very, very happy to get this done and be around for a couple more years.”

Fans throughout Boston are likely equally as excited that the man who anchors the "Merlot Line" will be sticking around.