Connor Brickley likely to sit for Shawn Thornton on opening night

The most pleasant surprise of the offseason will not be making his NHL debut on Saturday.

With Saturday's opening night game against the Philadelphia Flyers looming on the horizon, head coach Gerard Gallant appears to have his roster set.

Of course, anything can happen between now and puck drop, but all the signs point towards veteran enforcer Shawn Thornton starting on the team's fourth line instead of Connor Brickley.

Brickley came out of nowhere in rookie camp, impressed everyone who watched him play, and then continued to impress during preseason, which led to the 23-year-old beating out other players such as David Booth, Martin Havlat, and Garrett Wilson for a roster spot.

This type of lineup decision really makes no sense, and can only hurt the team, especially if it becomes a trend throughout the season.

Thornton is a useful player to the Panthers franchise, due to his OFF ICE character and leadership skills. The way he participates in the community, makes players feel welcome in the locker room, and leads by example is a benefit to the off-ice chemistry of the club.

On the ice, however, he's a slower skater, who can't make plays in the offensive zone. He gets beat frequently on defense, and gets caved in possession wise. His scoring chances for percentage of 43.2% was the lowest on the team last season.

Even the argument that he is a tough on-ice presence and keeps opponents honest by threatening to beat their faces in, makes no sense. Enforcers aren't a deterrent to violent play (here's Mike Brown "saving" Logan Couture from getting chased down and elbowed by Milan Lucic last night), and even if they were, Philly doesn't play a violent style of hockey anymore.

In the past, they were a tough, violent team that wasn't afraid to brawl. In recent years, however, the team has made an emphasis on playing smarter, and more controlled hockey.

  • The team has taken way less penalties over the past couple of seasons. Philly took 387 minor penalties in 2013-2014, second highest in the league, and only 282 minors in 2014-2015, 16th highest in the league. They also had 45 fighting majors in 2013-2014, and only 30 in 2014-2015.
  • They traded away Zac Rinaldo during the offseason, and he was responsible for five of Philly's 30 fights last season.
  • Their roster features skilled players such as Sam Gagner and rookie Scott Laughton, instead of big bruisers that they've iced in the past.
  • Arguably their most thuggish player, Radko Gudas, is a healthy scratch in their opening game tonight, and might not play against the Cats on Saturday.

There is no reason to expect that the Panthers will need an enforcer to scrap with their opponents on Saturday, and even if they did, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic would be more than willing to step up. (As would Willie Mitchell, Derek MacKenzie, and maybe even Brickley himself; the difference is that these five guys can actually contribute).

So, there's no need for a "protector" in Saturday's game, and Thornton is close to useless when it comes to creating offense. The 38-year-old only had five points (one goal, four assists) in 46 games last season. That's barely nine points over the course of a full season.

Using NHL league equivalences, Brickley could be expected to put up 25 points this season. He had 47 points in 73 AHL games last season, and players usually average half of their point per game total when they make the jump to the NHL.

Even if Brickley only put up 20 points, while providing the physical two-way play that he's become known for, the youngster would be a clear upgrade over Thornton.

From The Hockey News' Panthers Season Preview (the #fancystats part, of course, not the other stuff):

Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton hurt the Panthers every time they hit the ice and they’re dragging the team down as a result. Say what you want about grit and toughness or whatever, but those intangibles are better served when the on-ice results aren’t actively hurting the team.

The Panthers are going to be involved in a very close race for the postseason this year. They need every possible point they can earn, and though it may not seem like much, replacing Brickley with Thornton on the fourth line could end up costing the team a handful of points at the end of the season.

There is no margin for error here. Gallant has done a good job, but he needs to get the most out of this team that he possibly can. As much as he's a great guy, and a good teammate, Shawn Thornton just isn't a good on-ice player, and his presence in the lineup makes no sense.

How do you feel about Shawn Thornton being in the lineup?