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November 18, 2011 :: 6:33pm ET
Should Boston have traded Thornton?
 Joe Thornton has put up great numbers in San Jose since leaving Boston, but did the Bruins give up on him too soon?

"We both know hearts can change. And it's hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain."

CHICAGO, IL -- When Axl Rose put those lyrics to music in 1992, he didn't intend that they could embody a relationship that would be born almost five years to the day after its release.

The 1997 NHL Entry Draft was one of the best in recent memory. Names like Patrick Marleau, Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, Dan Cleary and Eric Brewer highlighted the first round of a class that also included Brian Campbell, Joe Corvo, Jason Chimera, Matt Cooke and Kristian Huselius. That class was loaded.

Sitting with the first overall pick in that stocked draft was Boston. Their choice didn't take long: it would be center Joe Thornton. A big, strong kid that they hoped would lead their top line for decades, the Bruins grabbed Thornton and didn't look back.

Well, not right away.

Seven years later, everything seemed to be going well. Thornton signed a three-year, $20 million extension with the Bruins in August of that year. He had represented Boston in three All-Star games, and was heading into his fourth season as the captain.

But that's where Axl's words come into play. After two months of last place hockey, on the final day of November, Boston GM Mike O'Connell made a tough decision. After 169 goals and 255 assists in 532 games as a member of the Bruins, O'Connell told Thornton he was no longer the man to lead them into the future.

Thornton had been traded to another last place team, on the opposite side of the continent. He was headed to San Jose.

To his credit, Thornton did what any great player does when he's sold out -- he dominated. In only 58 games to finish the 2005-06 season with the Sharks, Thornton posted 92 points. In a season split between Boston and San Jose, Thornton won the Art Ross Trophy and was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy. He has passed 85 points in each season he's been in San Jose, including a stunning 114 points in his first full year in California.

Since the trade, Thornton has now played in 473 games with the Sharks; when the 2011-12 season ends, if he stays healthy, Thornton will have played more games with the Sharks than he did with the Bruins. As of Nov. 3, Thornton has 577 points (140 goals, 437 assists) in those 473 contests. That's a stunning 1.22 points per game with the Sharks over the last five-plus seasons.

At the end of last season, Thornton reached the 1,000 point mark and, earlier this season, passed the 1,000 game plateau in his remarkable career.

Clearly, San Jose did well in the deal. But how did Boston fare at the end of the day?

The trade sending Thornton to San Jose brought three players back to Boston: forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau, and defenseman Brad Stuart.

Sturm played a little over four broken seasons in Boston, and scored over 20 goals in each full season; he was limited to 19 games in 2008-09. But after the 2009-10 season ended, Sturm walked out of Boston a free man after giving the Bruins 106 goals.

Primeau was a bust in Boston, playing in 101 games in parts of two seasons and posting only 29 points. Stuart also struggled during his time with the Bruins, registering 48 points in 103 games. Neither lived up to their end of the bargain and were instantly expendable for the rebuilding Bruins.

Just over 14 months after they were acquired by Boston, both Primeau and Stuart were packaged in a deal with Calgary. In that secondary deal, the Bruins brought back forward Chuck Kobasew, who had been a mid-first round pick in 2001, and defenseman Andrew Ference.

Kobasew had a couple good years in Boston in 2007-08 and 2008-09, in which he scored 43 combined goals, but was dealt to Minnesota early in the 2009-10 seasons for prospects.

So the Thornton trade, if we follow the winding road, ultimately landed Ference in Boston.

Ference was the 208th overall pick in that same 1997 draft, coming 207 selections after Thornton. In his time with Boston, Ference has scored six goals during the regular season... only 134 fewer than Thornton has given San Jose. Ference has also struggled to stay on the ice; in four full seasons with Boston, he hasn't played in more than 70 games, and has played in more than 59 only once.

The Bruins picked up a role playing defenseman for a future Hall of Famer. Clearly, Boston was destroyed in this trade. Right?

Not so fast.

In five post-seasons while he was with the Bruins, Thornton scored six goals and added 12 assists in 35 games.

In four post-seasons with the Bruins, Ference has scored four goals and added 11 assists in 48 games. Indeed, Ference was a revelation during the Bruins' march to the Stanley Cup in 2011 with 10 points -- more than Zdeno Chara -- in 25 games.

So, a role playing defenseman, who has struggled to stay on the ice, has given the Bruins almost as much offense in the playoffs as Thornton did.

At the end of the day, both San Jose and Boston found a player in this deal that would alter the history of their organization. Certainly, the book isn't closed on Thornton's time with the Sharks, but fans of both teams should find comfort in knowing that their respective teams benefitted from the trade(s).

Most importantly in Boston, their Cup drought was broken and Ference is the one with the ring.

At the end of the day, Axl was right: nothin' lasts forever, even cold November rain.

Tam Bamford is a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Chicago Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.


 

 

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