For most of their existence, the Boston Bruins have been known as a rough and tough team. Appropriately tagged “The Big Bad Bruins”, they brought a combination of skill and intimidation to the ice. As the sport changed, so did the team wearing black and gold: skill could no longer be easily countered with physicality as the game slanted towards younger, faster players.
While the Big Bad Bruins are widely considered a product of the past, we have seen flashes of them during the 21st century. The Merlot Line, named after the color of the line’s practice jerseys, was made up of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton. While they played a physical, two-way game, don’t be mistaken, they were not a typical fourth line.
In fact, that’s why they preferred to be called the Merlot Line. They did so much more than your average trio of grinders. They killed penalties, scored goals, blocked shots, fought, hit, and dominated shifts at both ends of the ice. They did anything that was asked of them. If the team was losing puck battles, getting outhit, or fell a step behind, that’s when the Merlot Line thrived.
These three combatants inspired their teammates to find that extra grain of effort. They changed the momentum when their team needed it most and are a huge reason why the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
Campbell joined the Bruins for the 2010-11 season, marking the start of the Merlot Line. Nicknamed “Soupy”, the 27-year-old brought with him from the Florida Panthers five seasons of experience along with 85 points and 312 penalty minutes. He had a plus-minus rating of minus-39 during his time in the Sunshine State, but that changed in Boston.
The 6-foot, 188-pound centerman anchored the Merlot Line. His two wingers were virtual opposites in terms of their strengths, but Campbell was capable of tying those two ends together. No. 11 balanced Paille’s speedy, two-way game with the physical, tough style of play from Thornton. Campbell seemed to have all of those attributes, fitting in perfectly between both wingers.
The London, Ontario native wasn’t brought on to score goals. He was a reliable penalty-killer and powerhouse in Boston’s bottom-six forward group. While playing physical, he rarely seemed to fall out of position. He clogged both passing and shooting lanes, won puck battles, and consistently got the puck up ice for his teammates.
In the offensive zone, he was always where his linemates expected him to be. He mustered 39 goals and 52 assists in 358 regular-season games with the Bruins and he was often set up by Paille – his winger and penalty-killing partner:
However, it was in the postseason that No. 11 really shined. In Boston’s championship run in 2011, the centerman notched a goal and three assists in 25 games. It was a modest haul for a player who only averaged 11 minutes per game, logging that time on both the penalty kill and the team’s least offensively-gifted line.
In the Bruins’ 2013 playoff run, Campbell elevated his game. In 15 appearances he had three goals and four assists and blocked seven shots. It was one of those blocked shots and one of the most iconic shifts in Bruins history that ended the then-29-year-old’s season.
During Game 3 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Campbell was on the ice killing a penalty. The game was tied 1-1 with under eight minutes to go in the second period, making it a crucial penalty kill. With 47 seconds left in the penalty, No. 11 blocked an Evgeni Malkin slap shot.
Campbell stayed still on the ice for a moment and everyone could tell it was a stinger. As he staggered back to his feet with his face showing signs of pain, it was clear how much he was hurting. It took him a full 10 seconds to recover, but there he was hobbling around the top of the right circle, with all of his weight on his left leg while the injured right one pushed him around.
With one hand on his injured leg, he only had one hand on his stick. He managed to get it into the passing lane and, with 13 seconds left in the kill, got into a position to block a Kris Letang shot from the point. Though the shot never came, Campbell’s willingness to put his body on the line again spoke volumes. As he left the ice, the fans in TD Garden gave him a standing ovation and a “Camp-bell, Camp-bell” chant that rang through the building.
Campbell suffered a broken right fibula on the play. “A whole lot of guys would have just laid on the ice,” said Brad Marchand. “He only had one leg, but he still tried to get into the lane, still tried to cut off passes and block shots again. It was incredible see,” (from ‘Campbell Moment will go Down in Bruins History’, The Providence Journal – 6/6/13).
This one shift captures so much of what Campbell brought to the Bruins and the Merlot Line. He brought grit, toughness, and a sheer passion for the game to the rink night after night. He was willing to do anything to win and inspired his teammates to do the same.
Thornton is one of Bruins’ most beloved enforcers, and likely to be the last in Boston. Like those of the Big Bad Bruins’ past, No. 22 never shied away from a fight and always stood up for his teammates. The opposition’s fanbase surely hated him, but he was a fan favorite on every team he played.
The 190th-overall pick of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft fought, hit, and ultimately intimidated players who weren’t wearing the same jersey as him. However, while still protecting his teammates, he did what he could to protect his opponents as well: Thornton wore old-school shoulder pads throughout his career.
According to an ESPN.com interview, he believes that the majority of concussions come from, “…open-ice hits with guys moving at 35 miles-per-hour with huge shoulder pads on.” It has been argued that today’s shoulder pads are so big and durable that they can, at times, be used as a weapon instead of a shield. While remaining a very physical player, Thornton did his part in trying to make the game safer during an era in which concussions were just beginning to turn heads.
Thornton dropped the gloves a whopping 102 times during his seven seasons as a Bruin, accumulating 748 penalty minutes. He racked up 14 fighting majors during the 2010-11 season leading up to Boston’s Cup run. During that postseason, he averaged under seven minutes of ice time and only appeared in 18 of the team’s 25 playoff matches.
He was subbed out for more offensively-gifted players when the B’s were struggling to put the puck in the net. However, Thornton knew his role: “It’s not about me at this time of year. It’s about wins and losses,” he said. “Whatever helps the team,” (from ‘Shawn Thornton Takes Scratch in Stride’, The Boston Globe – 4/25/2012).
In his 480 games in a Bruins sweater, the Oshawa, Ontario native tallied 76 points but he wasn’t on the ice to score goals, he was called upon to intimidate the opponent, kill penalties, and dictate the pace of play. He didn’t have a fantastic shot, couldn’t deke out multiple defensemen in one sequence, and wasn’t considered a playmaker. Instead, Thornton did the dirty work.
Aside from the physical aspects of his playing style, the 217-pound winger was great along the boards and was well-versed on defense. While he wasn’t sending cross-crease saucer passes, Thornton was skilled enough to move the puck in a manner that helped his line maintain possession and pour on the pressure.
Paille joined the Bruins during the 2009-10 season in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. “The Sabres have traded underachieving left wing Daniel Paille to the Boston Bruins in exchange for two draft picks,” stated the NHL.com article that announced the trade. During his time in Boston, Paille did everything but underachieve.
The Welland, Ontario native is arguably the best forechecker the B’s have had in the modern era. His speed and agility were by far his greatest assets, though that didn’t dissuade him from crashing into the boards with bone-crushing hits. With his stick work, Paille was capable of winning puck battles more often than not and firing a pass to one of his open teammates.
His speed and active stick made him a great penalty killer, and these attributes helped him score eight shorthanded goals as a Bruin. Paille also put his body on the line, blocking 143 shots during his time wearing black and gold. While he wasn’t a guy you would tap on the shoulder during a power play, the former first-round pick was reliable in every other situation.
During the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup run, Paille averaged just 8:13 a game. Despite the limited time, he potted three goals (one shorthanded) and three assists in 25 games to help the Bruins hoist the Cup.
In 2013 the team fell just short of a second championship in a three-year span. However, Paille contributed in that run as well. He averaged 12:32 in ice time and tallied five goals and nine assists in 22 games. Three of his goals were game-winners, the most important of which came in overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
While Paille wasn’t idolized in the same way as his two linemates, the Merlot Line would not have succeeded without him. His skills and ability to adapt to any scenario made Paille one of the most underrated players to have their name etched on the Cup in 2011.
The Merlot Line’s Legacy
The Merlot Line will go down as one of the Bruins’ most famous trios. While they were nothing like the historic Kraut Line nor the modern day power line of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, they have a unique place in Boston’s heart.
Many fans of the team could relate to the Merlot Line. They were hard-working, blue-collared players who represented a city with the same qualities. Even in interviews and off-ice encounters, Paille, Campbell, and Thornton seemed like down-to-earth people. It’s what made them feel so accessible to the city and their fans.
The Merlot Line marked the end of an era. The trio’s last shifts were like the final goodbye of the Big Bad Bruins, and fans were sad to see it go. However, the line will not soon be forgotten. While grind-lines across the NHL may remind us of them, no three players will ever do what the Merlot Line did for the Bruins in just four short seasons.