Boston owes Thornton a 'thank you'

Boston owes Thornton a 'thank you'
October 22, 2011, 6:09 am
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BOSTON -- Jumbo Joe Thornton has still played more regular-season games in a Bruins uniform (538) than as a member of the San Jose Sharks (462) after skating in his 1,000th NHL game in a shootout win against the NewJerseyDevilson Friday night.

But its a challengeto vividly wrap one's head aroundJumbos time with the Black and Gold as he brings his Sharks into the TD Garden for a Saturday night showdown with the Boston Bruins featuring two of the best hockey teams in the league. More specifically, two of the best teams in the league that aren't playing anywhere close to their capabilities just yet.While Thornton was once considered the No. 1 overall picksavior for the Bruins franchise, hes now remembered more in Boston for leaving the Bruins in shambles when he was dealt away from the Black and Gold during the 2005-06 season on his way to the one and only Hart Trophy of his NHL career.

It was the worst of times when Thornton was shopped to San Jose while leaving behind a glorified expansion team. Afterthe Bruins had allowed Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Brian Rolston and Mike Knuble to walk via free agency coming out of the NHL lockout, the Bruins had a roster full of misfit hockey players and spare partssurrounding Jumbo Joe.So the Bs acquired Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau in a deal that surprised many around the NHL, unaware Thornton was even available on the trading block, and the Bruins bottomed out without their former No. 1 overall pick and franchise center filling up a stat sheet. Through a series of trades those three players helped facilitate trades that brought both Andrew Ference and Dennis Siedenberg to Boston as building blocks for the current Cup team, but that's a story for another day.

Even if the Bruins had received a greater immediateyield in that original Thornton deal with the Sharks, the Bs were a ship destined for the rocks that season. Fossilized hockey greatslike Brian Leetch, Alex Zhamnov and Shawn McEachern weresimply playing out the string with a group of largely unknown young players, and it would spur an organizational house-cleaning at all levels. It was a roster bereft of talent and the final straw for Bruins general manager Mike OConnell and president Harry Sinden before they were both replaced by Peter Chiarelli and the current regime running the Bruins. Owners Jeremy and Charlie Jacobs had witnessed Sinden and O'Connell fumble around with the nuances of the newly implemented NHL salary cap, and it was time for a change.

It took clearing out Thorntons salary cap, and getting smaller, cheaper different parts in return toinitially bottom the Bruins out, but theJumbo Joe stunneralso opened up the 10 million plus insalary cap space to sign both Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard the following summer.

Chara's and Savard's arrival coincided with the Dave Lewis mess the following season -- a move Chiarelli would love to forget -- but things begantrending upward with the hiring of Claude Julien and a steady flow of talented young players, starting with Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and David Krejci.

None of the B's Cup surgewould have been possible had the organizationhung in with JumboJoeThornton and the old way of doing business on Causeway Street, and OConnell admitted as much when he sat down for a radio interview with 98.5 the Sports Hub over the summer.

Basically, the former Bruins management made a decision to hitch their wagons to promising two-way center Patrice Bergeron who was 20 years old at the time rather than continue treading water with a very talented player in Thornton who simplecouldntfigure out the playoffs. That kind of stark player evaluation is the exact line of reasoning that would have kept the Bruins from shelling out 5 million plus a season for Kessel, who didn't strike the current front office or coaching staff as a franchise-type player on a Cup-winning team.So far both B's front office teams have looked good in their honest, no-holds-barred views of both Thornton and Kessel.

Its a good question. We made the decision and watching Thorntonoff ice and on ice, we made a decision that he was a player that was never going to be able to bring us a championship, said OConnell, who actuallytook the fact the Bruins won a Cup prior to the Sharks as validation for the Joe Thornton deal. I remember getting an e-mail from former B's assistant general managerJeff Gorton the other day saying he still remembered the day when I walked into the office and said weve got to trade Joe and weve got to build around Patrice Bergeron.

Knowing Bergeron and knowing the way he practiced and behaved on and off the ice and knowing the way he interacted with his teammates and knowing the kind of work ethic and seriousness he brought with him -- he was the type of player we thought could bring us there. Joe has character, but we felt he didnt have enough character to bring us a championship. We thought Bergeron did. I dont think the Bruins win that Stanley Cup if Joe Thornton was on that team.It's hard to argue that point with the raucous Cup celebrations going on this summer in Boston while Thornton's careerminus-28 in the postseason tells a different tale in SanJose.

While OConnell ended up paying with his job as a result of the Thornton deal thanks largely to a moronic game plan coming out of the lockout that temporarily destroyed the franchise, there is little denying the Bruins wouldnt have ended the 39-year Stanley Cup drought if Thornton still posted empty 80-100 point regular seasons with ineffective performances in the playoffs.If there is a Jumbo Joe legacy in Boston, it's that his migration opened up the Black and Gold for much bigger and better things.

Bergeron turned out to be the inspirational leader and all-around player that served as one of the building blocks for the Bruins along with fellow OConnell signee Tim Thomas between the pipes. Then Chiarelli added Chara and Co. while building up the steps that eventually led a talented, young group of Bruins to capturethe imagination of an entire hockeycity last spring and summer.

Perhaps its time for a little Thank You, Jumbo chant against the Sharks to bookend with the Thank You Kessel chant from Thursday nights win because theres no way the Bruins win without Jumbos exodus from the Hub six years ago.The ghosts of Bruins' past were here to visit this week, and things have never been better without them.