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For Better or For Worse?

Posted By Matt Preston On Oct 23 2011 @ 8:24 pm In Boston Bruins | 1 Comment

History can be fickle.

For a subject that should be completely factual, history is littered with opinion that can tell the same story in a variety of different ways. Whenever the San Jose Sharks are in town, as they were on Saturday night, handing the Boston Bruins yet another loss this young season, the game itself has always taken a backseat to the historical revisionism of the Joe Thornton Trade.

The end of November will make the six-year anniversary of the trade that sent Thornton, then the Bruins captain and franchise cornerstone, to the Sharks early in the 2005-2006 season. Though it has been some time since the now Sharks captain and former first overall draft pick has drawn a paycheck signed by Jeremy Jacobs, Thornton will always be an important member of Bruins folklore.

Boston went into the 2004 lockout in disappointing fashion, as the heavily favored Bruins squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, and came out of it in even worse position as pre-lockout jitters left them with an empty roster thanks to management’s fear of the then unknown labor landscape. Joe Thornton, at the time, was the Boston Bruins and was emerging as one of the premier players in the NHL. On November 30, 2005, the Bruins sent their leading scorer from the previous two seasons to the West Coast for defenseman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. Thornton went on to win both the Art Ross (leading scorer in the NHL) and Hart (league MVP) Trophies – becoming the only player in NHL history to win both trophies while switching clubs during his winning campaign – leading San Jose to the playoffs that season, while the Bruins finished the year 26th in the NHL. At the time, and the subsequent dark years in Bruins history thereafter, it was heavily regarded as the worst trade in Bruins history, possibly one of the worst trades in Boston sports history.

As has been seen with more than a few things these past few months, funny how winning can change things.

In a radio interview on Boston’s 98.5 the Sports Hub over the summer, former Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell, the man who pulled the trigger on the Thornton deal, was noted as saying it may not have been possible for the Bruins to have won a Stanley Cup if not for the trade.

“That was a controversial trade,” said O’Connell. “We knew that it was going to cause a lot of waves and eventually it probably cost me my job, but I don’t think the Bruins would have won the Stanley Cup if they had Joe Thornton.”

Upon first listen, the quote comes off as O’Connell’s way of trying to put something of a positive light on giving away his franchise player, who has gone on to recoded the second most points in the NHL (551) since his debut with the Sharks, for a third line center, a defenseman who failed to live up to expectations and would not play an entire season in a Bruins uniform, and Sturm, the only player of the three who had a decent career in a Bruins’ sweater, recording 106 goals and 193 points in 302 games across five seasons. There was never a doubt San Jose got the better end of the trade.

Is it possible, however, the Thornton trade was not the disaster most felt it was at the time and actually was one of the first stones cast, causing the ripple effect that led to the end of Boston’s Stanley Cup drought as O’Connell implied?

A closer look at the fallout from the deal, gives the inkling that O’Connell may have been on to something.

The trade itself yielded little merit in terms of on-ice production. Sturm was oft injured, needing two major knee surgeries during his short stint in Boston, while Stuart failed to become the next great Bruins defenseman as hoped in the short chance he was given. O’Connell, however, was right that the Thornton trade did cost him his job, beginning a chain reaction that paved the way for the team’s current regime of Peter Chiarelli, Claude Julien and Cam Neely to come on board.

The former GM went on in that radio interview to discuss how the team decided they would rather build around center Patrice Bergeron, looking for players that may not have an abundance of offensive prowess, but “the character that’s needed to win championships, that can enable [a] team to win without scoring,” as well as the subsequent events that brought many of the key championship pieces to Boston. In the end, the Bruins were not a team that won on statistics and offensive supremacy, but a team that had success thanks to that tough, gritty character exemplified by the like of players Bergeron, Mark Recchi, Brad Marchand, Rich Peverley and Gregory Campbell, to which O’Connell alluded, while the salary that would have been devoted to Thornton was used to bring in the likes of Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard.

It is said that history can never be changed. What’s done is done. The Boston Bruins traded Joe Thornton and, as was well known on that day, the franchise was changed forever. It seems, however, that change might not have been for the worse as was originally feared. Did trading Thornton for Stuart, Sturm and Primeau win Boston the Stanley Cup? No. Stuart, Sturm and Primeau were all traded away before the Bruins Cup run, with defenseman Andrew Ference (acquired in a 2007 trade that sent Stuart and Primeau to Calgary for Ference and forward Chuck Kobasew) being the only player of significance brought to the team in any of their dealings. Stellar goaltending, some well timed goals and good fortune can be credited for that victory. The trade, however, certainly had its part to play in the Bruins date with destiny and ended up proving to be one of the first few pivotal steps the organization took down the championship path.

Despite his extreme talent and regular season production, Joe Thornton will continue to be questioned for his bad luck and lack of success in the playoffs, but it seems as though the Bruins certainly could not have reached a championship level without Thornton’s influence.

Time heals all wounds, right?

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