Thornton no Ordinary Joe

When people talk about the New England sports scene they rave about Tom Brady and the Patriots or Curt Schilling and the power hitting World Champion Red Sox and even the troublesome Paul Pierce and the Celtics. An afterthought pretty much is the hockey team down in beantown. As fans long for the days of Orr and Espo or the Don Cherry lunch pail gang or the stars of recent times like Bourque and Neely, they miss out on what good fortunes they have now.

The current Boston Bruins are not made up of a bunch of regular Joes. Sure it appears they have gutted their team of several veteran players like Murray, Nylander, Rolston and Knuble as they chose not to resign any of them. And they could potentially lose the likes of Gonchar and Lapointe who are without contracts. But there is still one Joe left and he is Joe Thornton. He is certainly no ordinary Joe. In fact he is a franchise type player. When people think of players they want to build their team around, Joe Thornton tops alot of people’s lists. After showing in the World Cup and the World Championships that he can play any role given to him, it appears that Thornton is on the cusps of greatness. Right now he is already a great player, but who is also going to only get better. That is a scary thought for the other 29 teams in the league.

Thornton is one of the best power players in the game. He uses his size and brute strength to plow his way past opponents. He is almost impossible to knock off the puck and his excellent hands give him complete control of the puck. His board and corner work is excellent. He also has tremendous vision which allows him to find players almost impossible to find.

Though several of the teams top scorers have or will leave, Thornton still have a few weapons to play with in Sergei Samsonov and Patrice Bergeron. These two scorers are excellent compliments to Thornton as they use their speed and quickness to find openings. by using their tremendous puck skills and creativity, they are able to find Thornton and get him the puck so he can set up a good play. Bergeron has been a huge surprise this early in his career. Him and Thornton are a great one-two punch at centre if Boston decides to use the versatile Bergeron in the middle. Sammy and his shiftiness and slick puckhandling has been Thornton’s on and off winger for years and compliments Thornton’s physical game very well. having these two no doubt gives Boston and Thornton some quality offensive support. Like almost every other team, more scorers wouldnt hurt them. And since teams usually gang up on the Thornton line, hopefully the Bruins will bring Joe some more help.

Thornton is not only a fine offensive player, but as shown in his world cup performance, he can play a strong defensive role as well. Using his combination of size and speed he can physically wear down his opponent. his ability to play a punishing game keeps all the opposing offensive players on their toes. in the last few games of the World Cup he did a great job shutting down the opponents top scoring lines. Not many teams can boast having a player of Thornton’s ability being willing and able to play a checking game. His versatility allows him to not only play with the big scorers but he could also see some double shifts with checkers like Axelsson or newcomer Tom Fitzgerald. His size and long reach make him a quality penalty killer as well and since he can jump to offence in no time, he keeps powerplay opponents second guessing.

His defensive awareness also aids the blueline and he does that job better than most centres. again his size and strength allows him to handle players down low and his reach can deflect or intercept passes with ease.

It is important that Boston have a player like this in their lineup who aids the defence because Boston is a bit thin on proven NHL talent on defence. Nick Boynton is a very solid two way blueliner. If you need a shutdown guy then Nick is the man. He usually has to play against the opponents top players and is up for the challenge. Also his speed allows him to start and join the rush adding to the Bruins attack. It will be especially important if Sergei Gonchar decides to leave. His contract is up and he is over 31 meaning likely unrestricted free agency for one of the top scoring blueliners around. but he may choose to stay which would be a boon for the Bruins powerplay. and Gonchar is not as bad as he is made out to be defensively. But any team with a guy like Hal Gill in their lineup can afford to have some blueliners taking chances. Gill is a no nonsense defensive defenceman. at 6’7 if not bigger he is absolutely imposing. He is willing to rough it up a bit and take the body and takes no prisoners in fights in front of the net. He is slow so quicker shiftier players can get around him and beat him with speed but if Gill gets a hold of you, likely you will be eating the boards or the ice. After that, the B’s are limited with only the often injured Jon Girard and journeyman Ian Moran. Girard if healthy gives the B’s another puck moving blueliner and though small is willing and able to fight battles for the puck. Moran is simply and extra man whose ability to play forward or defence gives him value. With the team lacking in some defence depth, it is all the more important for Thornton to set the example and play a strong defensive game. This blueline is not quite strong enough defensively to be able to shoulder the load on their own so any help from the forwards is a plus and for sure Thornton can deliver in that area.

The B’s also have some quality blueliners coming up that could help with their depth problem. Mark Stuart is why the Bruins were able to trade young prospect Shaone Morrisonn. Stuart has quietly moved up the ranks among the top young American born blueliners. He may not rack up points but plays a tough, mean, rugged style that is reminiscent to old Bruin squads. Pairing Stuart with the hulking Andrew Alberts could make venturing into the Bruins zone regretful. Alberts is also limited offensively but could make an impact playing his punishing style. He is more than willing and able with his 6’4 frame to take out any opponents. Alberts will need to improve his mobility and puck skills but his physical presence could get him NHL work. And if the Bruins wish to get even bigger they will call on Milan Jurcina. He is a hulking presence at 6’4 but doesnt play as physical as his body would dictate. but you have to like his size and mobility. You throw in the small but skilled Lars Jonsson and you have a nice variety of young talent on D to choose from. In all likelihood these youngsters will be given a chance and I think they would make much better options than stop gap guys like Dan McGillis or Jiri Slegr. However if they could add an impact veteran player, it could help buy some time for their youngsters to develop.

And for a team that does not have much depth, they will need everyone contributing in order to put less pressure on their goaltending. Andrew Raycroft has shown he can shoulder the load and proven he can be a capable number 1. But it will be hard for him to win games 1-0 and 2-1 every night.

And hopefully the same kind of pressure wont be put on the Bruins most prized prospect Hannu Toivonen. You can add him to the long list of quality goalies to come out of Finland recently. This big butterfly goalie has the quickness and reflexes to be a top guy for years. At 6’2 he certainly fills the net out but moves around well like a smaller goalie would. It is a great advantage for Boston to have this kind of depth in goal as it allows them to stay in tight games. But when you have an impact player like a Joe Thornton playing in front of him, you as a goalie know that you have a teammate who could break a game open with a big play.

Thornton’s reputation took a big hit in his last playoff appearance as his team faltered against the hated Habs despite a 3-1 series lead. Thornton’s leadership took a bit hit from this as he was branded a failure for not only blowing the series but also for going pointless and not contributing when the team needed him most. But I am one who does not question at all the leadership abilities of Joe Thornton. He was badly hurt in that series and to gut it out like he did should have been motivation for his teammates to also give it their all. I question his teammates more than him because it certainly looked like some of the other Bruins were taking the day off. To say Thornton is not fit to be the captain of this team is wrong. He is the absolute right person for the job as any player who plays with his ability, his passion and his will deserves to lead this team. Steve Yzerman led teams blew series, so has a Wayne Gretzky led team and Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin but it would be foolish to ever question their leadership abilities, so why after 1 series is Thornton not fit to be a leader? I think losing helps players become better players. It is something hopefully he can learn from to benefit him in the future.

And speaking of future, with as many veterans jumping ship, in all likelihood, the young prospects the Bruins have will be given a chance. And I think playing with a guy like Thornton who knows all about being a young player with tons of pressure will help these kids learn.

With the likes of Brad Boyes, Andy Hilbert, David Krejci, Martin Sanuelsson and Martins Karsums, skill is not lacking in the Bruins system. Development of these players could greatly aid in the teams lack of scoring depth. Hilbert and Boyes lit up the AHL this past season. Boyes is a terrific playmaker. His hockey sense and puck skills are NHL calibre. If he can work on his skating some more then he should be a regular for years. because he lacks a good first step, it leaves him one step behind in a league that is usually 2 steps ahead. Hilbert, with the benefit of Boyes passing, showed some good scoring ability down on the farm. Speed and skill are not the problem with Hilbert. He knows how to produce. It is consistency or the lack of it that drags him down.

He needs to be able show he can produce over a full season and not just in spurts. that has been his knock for years and that will continue until proven otherwise. Karsums, Krejci and Samuelsson bring their unique skills to the table. Krejci brings a nice combination of speed and skill however there are questions about his size. Karsums is a very smart offensive player but a tad slow and on the small side. while Samuelsson has blazing NHL speed. But his skills and smarts are a few large steps behind. With other prospects like Vlad Evseev and Ben Walter and Yan Statsny who are sons of former NHLers, there is plenty of depth in the Bruins system. Overall there is some solid skill up front and if the B’s cant find a way to bring in some scoring outside, they may look from within.

With their skilled up and coming forwards, their young defence and goaltending that is still young but talented, there is a bright future in Boston. But the B’s will go as far as Joe Thornton can take them. Boston is a fortunate team to have such a franchise player who is just hitting his prime to lead them. And with the departure of many veterans and more importantly their contracts and with maybe more to follow, the Bruins have a very flexible payroll. So if needed they can add a veteran or two to compliment their youth. But whatever they do, it will be up to Thornton to make it work, and there isnt much doubt that he can do it as he is starting to prove he can be Mr Everything and not some Joe Schmoe.