The popular fourth-line pugilist is everywhere, from hanging out with the Dropkick Murphys to shilling for local banks in TV spots to making a cameo appearance in the movie “Ted.” His gentlemanly approach to the physically-taxing “enforcer” role has made him a Bruins fan favorite and won him respect across the NHL.
Boston loves Thornton, and the Charlestown resident loves them right back. Which could make this summer an emotional one, as Thornton is set to hit the market July 1 as an unrestricted free agent.
Given his age (he turns 37 in July) and his perennial role as a fourth-line fighter, Thornton probably shouldn’t expect to get much more than his current $1.1 million annual salary. At this stage of his career, term might be more important than salary. From his standpoint, a two-year deal would be best-case scenario, though given the way the game is trending, he may have to settle for a one-year deal, here or elsewhere.
In his breakup press conference Friday afternoon at TD Garden, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said that Thornton “had kind of an up and down year.”
“He got, obviously, the incident with Pittsburgh,” Chiarelli said, alluding to the December melee against the Penguins that earned Thornton a 15-game suspension for sucker-punching Brooks Orpik. “There’s trends in hockey, and the fisticuff trend -- and again, this doesn’t characterize Thorty as a fighter, he’s contributed on that line when the line has had a lot of success in the past -- but we’re definitely trending away from that style.
“I had a discussion with Thorty this morning. I said look, give me a couple of weeks to digest what’s happened, we’ll go from there.”
There was also his recent fine by the NHL for squirting defenseman P.K. Subban in the face with a water bottle in the waning minutes of the Bruins’ 4-2 win over Montreal in Game 5 of their playoff series. Thornton laughed when asked if his reputation took a hit as a result, saying, “Probably. Whatever, it’s water, not like I slashed the guy in the face. It’s [expletive] water.”
Either way, though, Thornton has made it clear this is his permanent residence going forward, employment notwithstanding.
“I’m hoping I’m back, I don’t know, I haven’t had my meetings yet,” he told reporters Friday morning. “If not, I’m still going to be in the community. I’m still going to be here. This is where we live now, this is home. That stuff won’t change. I’ll try to get back here when I can. We’ve already talked as a family, this is where we’re going to end up.”
Earlier Friday in an interview on WEEI, Thornton said he has no plans to retire if a deal isn’t struck with the Bruins, saying, “I’m going to play until they rip the skates off me.”
In the Bruins’ locker room, he expounded further on those remarks, saying he is in great shape and thinks he can give it another year or two.
The Bruins’ fourth line, typically reliable during Stanley Cup runs, had a turbulent year. Between Thornton’s 15-game suspension and Dan Paille’s concussions, there were difficulties establishing rhythms.
Bruins coach Claude Julien reminded the media Friday afternoon that in their best years, the play of guys like Thornton and Paille has allowed him to consistently roll four lines with success, to the point where “I think a lot of teams have taken that model and done the same thing now.” This year, Julien assessed their performance as missed opportunities.
“I just found that... they spent a lot of time in the offensive zone,” Julien said. “And for some reason, it’s not one player only, it’s as a line. I didn’t think they had enough puck poise and managed it well enough. That was my constructive criticism to those guys. Where they had success, they were able to do that.”
For the younger Bruins, Thornton is viewed as a leader on the ice and mentor in the locker room. Winger Brad Marchand, who skated on the fourth line with Thornton when he first broke into the league, pointed to the Penguins’ melee as harboring a sense of security.
“Obviously it’s disappointing what happened with Orpik, but Thorty’s sticking up for me like that,” Marchand said. “When you have guys like that on your team, you feel safe out there. He’ll protect you. He made it very easy for me coming into the league, being on our line. I have a lot of respect for Thorty.”
Second-year defenseman Torey Krug also appreciates Thornton, saying, “When I first came into the room, he was one of the first guys I met. He’s an important part of this locker room. I don’t know what else you can say about a guy like him. He does the right job for our team.”
Asked how much he would be willing to concede to stay in Boston, Thornton was unsure. “I haven’t even thought about it, to be completely honest,” he said.
“There will probably be some talks with my agent and Peter, and I’m sure some numbers will be thrown out there. I have no idea. I really haven’t got a clue,” he said.
So while his future is unknown, it's clear Thornton wants to stay in Boston.
“There’s a reason I stick around in the offseason. It’s one of the best cities in the world. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather have been,” he said.