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One of the pride points for the Boston Bruins over the last several years has been the depth of their offense and their ability to roll four lines every night. The effectiveness of their fourth line, fondly nicknamed the “Merlot” line, has been a thorn in the side of just about every time they play.
For about three years now, the line consisting of Gregory Campbell, Dan Paille, and Shawn Thornton has earned their ice time by playing simple hockey: getting the puck deep, playing physical, and creating offensive zone face-offs. Simply put, these guys are “heart and soul” types, blue collar everymen who put their bodies on the line for the teammates and have a blast doing it.
However, as effective as they have been at times, what we saw from them in the 2014 playoffs was something completely different. They were practically invisible in both series, but this was truly remarkable in the Canadiens series. The Merlot line likes to play a crash and bang style of hockey but they were outmatched by their faster, more talented opponents.
Part of what makes them so effective during the regular season is their ability to beat on their opponents and back it up by dropping the gloves. They play to annoy, frustrate, and create doubt in the minds of their opponents by tip-toeing one the edge.
But in the playoffs, the refs call a tighter game and obviously there isn’t any fighting. On top of that, the line combined for a grand total of 1 goal and 1 assist. So if they aren’t fighting and aren’t scoring, what are they really contributing?
This is not to bash “Soupy,” “Thorty” and “Paillsy.” They’re effective players and were a huge part of the 2011 Stanley Cup team as well as the deep run in 2013. Boston will never forget Campbell’s famous shift in which he blocked Evgeni Malkin’s slapshot that snapped his femur but didn’t stop skating. Thornton’s rough and tumble antics made him a fan favorite since day one of his tenure in the Hub of Hockey. And Paille is a smart, fast player with occasional flashes of offensive prowess.
However, as the old saying goes, “Adapt or Die.” The league is changing and the role of the enforcer is becoming less and less prominent in today’s NHL roster. It might not be long before guys like Thornton, George Parros, Matt Cooke, and even John Scott (shudder) are a thing of the past.
With head injuries coming more to the forefront over the past few years, we’ve seen the NHL begin to take exception to these kinds of players. It’s a slow process, but that is the direction the league is heading. On top of that, we just saw how a speedy, skilled fourth line is much better suited for the playoffs than it would have been even five years ago. It worked so well for the Canadiens, but the Black Hawks, Kings, and Blues are built this way too.
Earlier this offseason, GM Peter Chiarelli already indicated that he wasn’t sure whether or not he was bringing Thornton back this summer. He acknowledged the changing role of the enforcer and indicated in a not-so-subtle way that the team would be heading in a different direction.
So what options to the Bruins have? There are a lot of guys in the league suited for this type of role. However, I’d like to see them look in house first because the Bruins have a wealth of talent down in Providence and it’s time we see some of them contribute at the NHL level.
Justin Florek got a few looks on the Bruins third and fourth line and he looked good at times. He’s a big boy, strong on the puck and plays well positionally. He reminds me a bit of our old friend Benoit Pouliot. We even saw the best we’ve seen from Jordan Caron in his short career, just when I was ready to finally call it quits on him. He was scoring, finishing checks, and skating hard when he got his chances. And then there’s Matt Fraser, and who doesn’t love what he brings to the table?
How about the fresh faces we haven’t seen yet? Maybe we replace Thornton’s brutish style of play with the speed and skill of Alex Khokhlachev, the young Russian forward who just seems to spark offense at every level. Or perhaps we look at Jared Knight, the strong righty with a wicked shot and tenacity to his game.
Personally, if I was Peter Chiarelli the guy I would have at the top of my whiteboard is Anthony Camara. The third round pick from 2011, he brings a physical presence, scoring ability, and some of those “honeybadger” qualities that we love in Marchand. He’s a favorite of guys like Chiarelli and Cam Neely and was one of the final cuts last year.
I’ve gone to the Development Camp in Wilmington the last few years and I really like what I’ve seen from Camara. At 6’0″, 192 pounds he’s not physically intimidating but this is a strong boy who loves to play the body. He’s one of those guys who just plays 110% every shift and you can see in his eyes how badly he wants to win. This is the guy I want on my team.
Either way, this is one of the tough decisions that Chiarelli must make this summer. As much as I love Thornton and what he’s brought to the team, I think it’s time the Bruins part ways with him. The B’s need to get faster and bring some fluidity to the game and I think this would be the first step in the right direction.