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Hockey Notes

Toeing the fourth line

Thornton made minutes count

By Fluto Shinzawa
September 6, 2009

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There’s the Jack Adams Award won by Claude Julien. The Norris Trophy awarded to Zdeno Chara. The Vezina Trophy given to Tim Thomas. The 116 points the Bruins piled up. The league-fewest 196 goals allowed.

But one of the sharpest indicators of the Bruins’ success last year was the playing time of Shawn Thornton.

Over 79 regular-season games, the fourth-line wing averaged 10:02 of ice time. That Thornton skated more than 10 minutes per game illustrates that the 2008-09 Bruins rolled four lines consistently, taking pressure off top players. That they weren’t taking penalties (12.5 minutes per game, fifth-fewest in the NHL). That they were committed to sending out Thornton and his lunchpail linemates to wear down opponents with their thump-first play.

“When the top guys go from playing 24 minutes to 22 minutes, it’s a big difference,’’ Thornton said. “If we can eat up those extra couple minutes and give them some extra rest, they can be that much more fresh. It’s not rocket science.’’

Coaches around the league vary in their fourth-line approaches.

The Rangers’ John Tortorella prefers to lean on his top three lines and sprinkle in his fourth-line lads sparingly. Detroit’s Mike Babcock likes to roll four lines to keep his forwards fresh and on the attack. Last season, Julien was in the Babcock camp, with a threesome of Thornton, Stephane Yelle, and Byron Bitz being the most effective formation on the No. 4 line.

As the wingers, Thornton and Bitz were responsible along the walls in their own zone, chipping pucks out and sparking the transition game. In the offensive zone, the big-bodied wings played straight-line hockey to hammer defensemen and create scoring chances. Anchoring the wingers was Yelle, the savvy center with off-the-charts hockey sense.

“He was just so smart defensively,’’ Bitz said. “He took care of his own end first. When me and Thorny are in there cycling the puck, he’d be out high, somewhere in a position where he could get back and help out. That was the biggest thing. He’s such a smart player.’’

Two years ago, with less offensive depth on his bench, Julien chose a more top-heavy approach. In 2007-08, Thornton averaged 7:23 per game as the Bruins scratched out an eighth-place finish. In the same season, Marc Savard got 20:31 of ice time per game.

Last year, as Thornton’s ice time increased, Savard saw nearly a full minute shaved off his workload (19:32 per game). More time for the hard hats? More rest for the skilled guys.

The Bruins, however, will have to adjust to the loss of Yelle, who signed with Carolina during the offseason. While there could be surprises during training camp, former Canadien Steve Begin should start the year in Yelle’s spot as fourth-line center. And if that takes place, the fourth line could become even surlier and harder to play against.

Yelle is no floater, but Begin is considered one of the league’s feistier forwards.

“I’d rather play with him than against him, that’s for sure,’’ said Thornton.

In 2007-08, Thornton learned that the hard way. In the first-round Boston-Montreal showdown, it wasn’t the star players like Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, or Andrei Kostitsyn inflicting the most damage. It was Montreal’s energy line of Begin, Bryan Smolinski, and Tom Kostopoulos that pounded, crunched, and snarled its way through the Boston lineup.

“Definitely the best line,’’ said Thornton, who was centered by Vladimir Sobotka during the series. “We played against them most of the time. We played well, but they outplayed us. They were good. They were fast, gritty, and always all over the puck no matter where it was. They were relentless. [Begin] is a thorn in your side, that’s for sure. No doubt about that. I think everyone in the league knows that.’’

Begin, who arrived in Boston last week with his wife and two children, understands his job description. Like Michael Ryder, Begin played for Julien in Montreal. He promises to finish his checks, block shots, and be responsible defensively, knowing that his former coach trusts his fourth line to do the dirty work that might not translate to dollars, but ultimately produces wins.

“Sometimes we were down and we’d have a good shift, create some energy, and maybe shift the momentum,’’ Bitz said. “So it wasn’t always when we were up that we played a lot. Sometimes when we were down, we’d have a little more ice to try and get momentum. We’re an energy line. We have to get momentum.’’

Surgeon provided hip service to Regan

The pain in Kevin Regan’s right hip, caused by a career of butterfly goaltending, was there even before the University of New Hampshire product turned pro. But it became too much for Regan to play with after March 7, when, during an AHL game against Manitoba, the South Boston native felt the pain escalate.

So on April 20, Regan visited Dr. Bryan T. Kelly to repair a torn labrum and an impingement in his hip. Nearly two months later, Kelly would operate on David Krejci’s hip to repair an impingement.

“Guinea pig,’’ Regan cracked. “Send me down first, make sure everything’s OK, then send the guy with all the money down.’’

Last summer, with help from strength and conditioning coach John Whitesides, Regan focused on core work to build up his hips, groin, and back. But Regan would learn that his injury was a wear-and-tear case, with surgery the endgame.

And the way Regan sees it, an equipment change didn’t help things either. Prior to last season, goaltenders were required to take out a chunk of padding from inside each knee, the rationale being that shooters would have greater five-hole scoring opportunities. The piece of padding, however, cushioned goalies from hitting the ice flush with their knees, a motion that places additional strain on the forced-to-rotate hips.

“Just that extra few inches, that’s more rotation in your hips,’’ Regan said. “Over the course of a season, it adds up.’’

Goaltenders who have suffered torn labrums include Rick DiPietro and John Curry, also former Hockey East stars like Regan. The repetitive motions required of butterfly goalies ensure that more puck-stoppers will fall victim to hip woes.

The hope, however, is that the surgical fix - Kelly and Dr. Marc Phillipon are two who specialize in the procedure - becomes akin to Tommy John surgery, with post-op goalies becoming stronger than they were before.

Etc.

A bonus for Ottawa
After appearing in 1,008 NHL games (stops included New Jersey, Toronto, Edmonton, Philadelphia, and Ottawa), veteran defenseman Jason Smith hung up the skates, giving the Senators a much-needed gift: cap relief. Smith was due to earn $2.6 million in 2009-10, but because he signed his most recent contract (a two-year deal worth $5.2 million) before he turned 35, his remaining salary is wiped off the Ottawa books. Smith, who turns 36 Nov. 2, was considered a good teammate and stabilizing veteran presence, but his legs weren’t as fresh as they once were. In fact, a not-so-fluid defense that included Smith was one of the reasons the Senators finished far out of the running last season. Consider the men who once patrolled the Ottawa blue line: Joe Corvo, Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Zdeno Chara. The lesson remains that you can never have enough mobile defensemen.

Labor pains ahead
Unless the NHL Players Association can somehow hire President Obama to conduct a beer summit with the NHL on the next collective bargaining agreement, the stench surrounding the sacking of Needham’s Paul Kelly as executive director isn’t going away. By terminating the level-headed Kelly and handing over power to interim executive director Ian Penny (old guard), Ron Pink (labor guy), and Buzz Hargrove (labor guy), the NHLPA - with Bruins player representative Andrew Ference heavily involved in the decision-making - is sending the message that it will take a hard-line stance when the CBA expires after the 2010-11 season. In response, the NHL, which views the split-asunder NHLPA as a laughingstock, will most likely push for at least these concessions: NFL-like nonguaranteed contracts; a reduction in player percentage of hockey-related revenue from 57 to 50 percent; and no NHL participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics. And that, ultimately, spells another work stoppage unless the NHLPA hires a conciliatory leader. On top of that, the rank and file, who are already seeing 20 percent of their salaries being tucked away in escrow, will have to pay for Kelly’s settlement on top of buyout money for former executive directors Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin.

Feeder system
By year’s end, when he was the Bruins’ 13th forward, displaced by Byron Bitz, there was little oomph remaining in Blake Wheeler’s legs. The rookie, who would have been a senior at the University of Minnesota, was physically and mentally gassed by the NHL grind. He wasn’t eating right. He wasn’t working out the way he should have been. The 6-foot-5-inch wing checked out of 2008-09 weighing only 210 pounds. So he returned to his offseason home in Minnesota and committed himself to a program that resulted in a 15-pound gain. Wheeler kept up the same regimen (weightlifting, lots of outdoor sprint work), but he also chowed down like never before. “The difference was eating. I ate a lot,’’ Wheeler said. “I did a little bit more running and conditioning to help out later in games. But for the most part, it was just eating good and eating a lot. That was the difference.’’ That’s breakfast, two lunches, and dinner. The 23-year-old also proposed to his longtime girlfriend, with a July 2010 wedding in the works.

Loose pucks
Benn Ferriero, a four-year star at Boston College, signed an entry-level contract with San Jose last Tuesday. Ferriero, an Essex native who played high school hockey at Governor Dummer, was originally a seventh-round pick of the Coyotes in 2006. But he opted not to sign with Phoenix and became an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15. Can’t blame Ferriero for waiting things out, much like Wheeler, also formerly Coyotes property . . . According to the Penguins, the Stanley Cup spent six days in Massachusetts this summer. The Bay State stewards were Hal Gill, Brooks Orpik, and general manager Ray Shero . . . The Bruins are expected to be vaccinated against the swine flu this season. They will also be vaccinated against the regular influenza virus . . . Another sign of the decline in Bay State youth hockey: Not a single Massachusetts-born player was named to the National Team Development Program’s Under-17 team for 2009-10. Meanwhile, there are three Ohio natives on the roster . . . Players stuck in contract stalemates sometimes consider signing deals overseas. But that is not an option for Phil Kessel, who wants to play in the NHL and participate in the Olympics this season . . . All indications point to Randy Sexton assuming full responsibility of GM duties in Florida. Sexton served as assistant GM under Jacques Martin, who was hired to run the Montreal bench . . . The Bruins will not bring in a veteran on a tryout basis for camp. Two years ago, they scored big by inviting Glen Metropolit and signing the center to a one-year contract . . . The respect in this corner for Bitz continues to grow with the news that the big winger drove from Saskatoon to Boston (more than 2,300 miles) last week. Bitz wheeled south through Saskatchewan, crossed the border into North Dakota, and blew through Chicago and Buffalo en route to Massachusetts. Nothing like a long ride with good coffee and tunes, however scarce both commodities may be these days.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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