It’s crazy how time flies. It’s been almost a decade now since the Boston Bruins shipped Joe Thornton, their franchise cornerstone, to the San Jose Sharks for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm. That’s obviously a really underwhelming package to get back for the guy who went on to win the Hart Trophy that same season, but you could argue that Boston ended up being the long-term winner because they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, while the Sharks have failed to live up to expectations in the playoffs.
Let’s look back at one of the biggest trades in recent memory and see how it effected both of the teams involved.
EFFECT ON THE BRUINS
When Thornton was traded from the Bruins on Nov. 30, 2005, he was on his way to putting up one of the best seasons of his career. Through 23 games, he managed nine goals and 24 assists, which ultimately ended up being sixth best on the team. Before that, Thornton’s best season with the Bruins had come in 2002-03, when he appeared to finally hit his stride as the dominant playmaking centre that Boston had drafted first overall in 1997. That year, he scored 36 goals and 101 points, but only managed three points in the playoffs as the Bruins were ousted in the first round in five games by the Devils. The following year, Thornton scored 23 goals and 73 points in 77 games, and the Bruins again were knocked out in the first round, this time by the Canadiens, who managed to come back in the series despite being down three games to one. Thornton didn’t score a single point in the series, resulting in his leadership ability to come under question. Regardless, Thornton ended up signing a three year deal worth $20 million with the Bruins after the 2004-05 lockout ended.
Like I said, Thornton was on his way to putting up one of the best seasons of his career with the Bruins in 2005-06 before he was traded. Although he was leading the team in scoring by a fair margin at the time, but due to a poor 8-13-5 record and apparent attitude issues, General Manager Mike O’Connell decided to move on from the franchise centre. In an interview back in 2011, O’Connell said that he would still make the deal, referencing how Thornton’s attitude clashed with Patrice Bergeron, who the team ultimately decided to build their forward core around.
So the Bruins went ahead and traded Thornton to the Sharks for Primeau, Stuart, and Sturm. Sturm was probably the best player of the three for the Bruins, as he scored 193 points in 302 career games in Boston. He was eventually traded to the Kings for future considerations and ultimately had nothing to do with the Cup winning team in 2011. Primeau and Stuart, on the other hand, were traded on Feb. 10, 2007 to the Flames for Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. Ference played a decent role as a depth defenceman with the Bruins when they won in 2011, and while Kobasew wasn’t on the Stanley Cup team, he actually did too. Kobasew was dealt to the Wild on Oct. 18, 2009 for Craig Weller, a draft pick that ended up being used on Alexander Khoklachev, and a prospect. Weller was later traded with Byron Bitz and a draft pick that ended up being used on Alex Petrovic for Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski. So the Bruins ended up getting Seidenberg and Ference directly from the Thornton trade, both of whom played a role on the 2011 cup team.
So what do the Bruins have to show for Thornton now? Well, at the end of the trade line is only Seidenberg, then everything else is left up to speculation. Obviously the argument is that while the Bruins didn’t get a hell of a lot of value for Thornton, they ended up winning the Stanley Cup and the Sharks haven’t, so they won the deal. It’s impossible to say whether or not the Bruins would have been successful with Thornton.
As O’Connell suggested, trading Thornton could have been the best thing to happen to Patrice Bergeron, who ended up thriving when he took over as the team’s top centre in 2005. You could also argue that the Bruins wouldn’t have signed Zdeno Chara to a five year, $37.5 million deal in free agency on July 1, 2006 if they still had Thornton around, especially considering Thornton was carrying a $6.67 million cap hit of his own at the time. The decision to deal Thornton and rebuild also likely resulted in the Bruins dealing Andrew Raycroft to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask, and Sergei Samsonov to the Oilers for Marty Reasoner, Yan Stastny, and a draft pick that was used on Milan Lucic. Trading Thornton also probably helped the Bruins in their tanking efforts, as they ended up with the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft, which was used on Phil Kessel. Obviously Kessel wasn’t part of the cup winning team, but as we all know, he was used to acquire Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
All in all, trading Thornton had a tremendous effect on the future of the Bruins. It’s pretty reasonable to argue that the players they acquired through the butterfly effect of trading Thornton resulted in them winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, and that had they kept Thornton, they never would have been able to push themselves over the top.
EFFECT ON THE SHARKS
There isn’t quite as much to talk about on the Sharks side than there is on the Bruins side because it’s more fun to talk about what might have been than it is to talk about what actually is.
So what did the Sharks get when the acquired Thornton? As we know from what I said above, they didn’t really give up a hell of a lot to get him, but what they received in return was probably the best player in franchise history. In 760 regular season games, Thornton has amassed 191 goals and 810 points, making him one of the highest scoring players in the league since the 2004-05 lockout. Even though they haven’t won anything with them, there’s no arguing that Thornton has changed the Sharks franchise for the better.
On the day of the trade in 2005, the Sharks owned an 8-12-4 record and were on the heels of a 10 game losing streak. This was really disappointing because the Sharks looked like they were finally becoming a good team . In 2003-04, they finished first in the Pacific Division and lost in the Conference Finals to the Flames. They had also earned a playoff berth in six of the past seven seasons, with the only interruption being the 2002-03 season. When Thornton joined the Sharks, everything immediately turned around. They snapped their 10 game losing streak with a 5-0 victory over the Sabres in which Thornton record two assists, both on goals by Jonathan Cheechoo. The Sharks carried that momentum into a six game winning streak, scoring a total of 29 goals in that span. After acquiring Thornton, the team went 32-15-7, eventually finishing the year with a 44-27-11 record despite their poor start.
This was the best season of Thornton’s career in terms of production by quite a large margin. His 96 assists resulted in him coming just shy of becoming one of only three players ever to record a 100 assist season in NHL history. The three, as you could probably guess, are Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Mario Lemieux, and the only one who managed to come closer was Adam Oates who had 97 assists in 1992-93. Of course, this is also largely because of the sheer amount of power player opportunities that were handed out in the 2005-06 season. Thornton scored 11 of his 29 goals and 40 of his 96 assists on the man advantage, so it’s fair to say that these numbers were pretty heavily inflated by the league at the time. Regardless, Thornton went on to win the Ross Trophy for leading scorer, and he edged out Jaromir Jagr for the Hart Trophy by under 20 first place votes. (Side note, Jagr probably should have won the Hart Trophy that year, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
You can look at the 2006 playoffs in one of two ways. From one angle, Thornton and the Sharks fell victim to the eighth seeded Oilers and their Cinderella. And then from the other angle, you can view the Sharks as chokers for allowing the Oilers to come back after the Sharks led the series 2-0 and had the third game of the series in overtime. Regardless, the Sharks didn’t win with Thornton in 2006, and they still haven’t to this day. That being said, I’m sure the Sharks would happily make the Sturm, Primeau, Stuart for Thornton trade every single day of the week over and over again if they had to, because even if it is 100 per cent Thornton’s fault that they haven’t made it over the hump (which it isn’t), he’s still helped the Sharks be an elite and successful team in the league for over a decade now, which is certainly worth something. Unfortunately for him, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll go down with the likes of Mats Sundin, Adam Oates, Marcel Dionne, and Peter Stastny as incredible players who could never win. Regardless, he’ll more than likely be voted into the Hall of Fame and have his number retired in San Jose, so I’m sure the Sharks would happily make the trade again.