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What if the Bruins hadn’t traded Joe Thornton?

The trade altered the franchise. What could have been?

Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

This week is “What if...?” week across SB Nation. It’s a time to take a look at days gone by and wonder how things could have gone differently.

The 2005-2006 season was a weird time for all NHL teams. After a cancelled season, teams were scrambling to make big splashes to set themselves up for a new campaign.

The Bruins were no exception, looking to erase memories of another clattering playoff exit in the 2003-2004 season.

Rumor had it at the time that the B’s were aiming big during free agency, but those big aspirations didn’t really pan out. Instead, the summer before the season was filled with rumors about whether or not the Bruins’ best player, Joe Thornton, would be in black and gold when the season began. After a 101-point effort during the 2002-2003 season, Thornton saw a slight dip in his production in 2003-2004. He recorded 73 points in 77 games, but had a big-time target on his back due to an o-fer in seven playoff games against Montreal.

To say that relations between Thornton, team brass, and local media were strained would be a slight understatement. However, Thornton received a new deal before the season began, signing a three-year extension and it looked like chaos was averted.

Yeah...about that.

Trouble brewing, and a target on his back

Joe Thornton was far and away the best player on the Bruins’ roster heading into the 2005-2006 season. It wasn’t really close. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Bruins didn’t have any good players, just that Thornton was head-and-shoulders above the rest.

However, things hadn’t been going great for Thornton in Boston, and the media was one of the main reasons why.

Thornton had a bad showing during the 2003-2004 playoffs, leading to columns and think-pieces being written about whether or not he had “it,” whatever it may be. The implication, of course, was that Thornton couldn’t hack it as a leader or as “the guy” on a team. It does us no good to name names here, but it seemed like many media members thought it best for Thornton to be shipped out of town.

(It’s worth noting that Thornton allegedly had some significant injuries during that playoff run, and while that doesn’t completely excuse an o-fer, it certainly adds some context.)

However, media fury doesn’t necessarily mean a trade must happen. And sure enough, after the trade DID happen, Thornton made a comment to the effect of the team being happy with their GM and happy with their coach, so he was next in line.

A shaky truce

Still, heading into the 2005-2006 season, things were OK. Thornton had a new deal, and while the Bruins whiffed on the big names they were after in free agency, there was no reason to believe they were going to be truly horrible.

However, things went pretty bad. At the start of November, the Bruins were just 5-5-4, last in their division. Two weeks later, they were 7-7-5, not much better.

Barely treading water, Bruins GM Mike O’Connell was looking for ways to shake things up heading into December. The last straw apparently came in a Bruins loss to New Jersey, when the Devils scored a goal in the last minute of the third period to win the game, 3-2.

O’Connell decided that the blame fell on Thornton, who lost a d-zone faceoff cleanly to John Madden right before the goal, and decided to pull the trigger on a trade.

At the time of the trade, Thornton was doing his best to carry the Bruins. In 23 games (and remember, for a team that wasn’t exactly an offensive dynamo), Thornton had 33 points. That’s a pace of 117 points over a full 82 games. Fun fact: Thornton actually exceeded that pace, finishing the season in San Jose with 125 points in 81 games.

Regardless, O’Connell decided that the thing that ailed his last-place team was its captain and best player, and he shipped Thornton out to San Jose in exchange for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm.

The trade was universally panned, and I mean universally. Even with the Tyler Seguin trade, there were people who argued that it wasn’t the worst, that there were silver linings, etc. Not so here. Stuart was allegedly the crown jewel of the trade, and he didn’t even remotely pan out. Sturm ended up being that crown jewel, and a great Bruin, but...yeah. Not even close to Thornton level.

The immediate aftermath

This was about as one-sided as a trade can be.

Thornton went on to win the Art Ross and the Hart Trophies for the Sharks. In fact, Thornton’s 125-point effort would be the most by a Ross winner until last year, when Nikita Kucherov got 128. The Bruins were terrible. They finished last in the division, 16 points behind the closest team. The season was an abomination. O’Connell got fired in March. Mike Sullivan got fired after the season ended.


The longer-term effects

With Thornton off the books, the Bruins went shopping and finally landed the pair of big fish they were looking for during the offseason: Zdeno Chara, and Marc Savard. Due to their horrible finish, the B’s drafted high in the first round, and selected Phil Kessel.

(They also drafted Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand in later rounds, so...good draft!)

You can look at these happenings two ways:

  • If the Bruins don’t trade Thornton, they don’t sign Chara and Savard. Instead, they likely go for Chara and let Thornton remain their #1 center; I can’t find cap figures for that time, but it probably would have been doable.
  • If the Bruins keep Thornton, they likely pick in the middle of the first round, instead of in the top 5.

To put it simply, if the Bruins keep Thornton, they don’t end up with Chara, Savard, and Kessel. You could argue that they don’t even get Chara, as rumors say that the captaincy was one of the things that enticed Chara to sign here.

So...would they have been better off?

If Thornton had stayed with the Bruins, they likely still would have gone shopping during the 2006 offseason. Other “big fish” out there that summer included a guy like Brendan Shanahan, but that was about it. Chara and Savard, it could be argued, were the marquee guys.

Thornton, of course, remained productive for the Sharks for the next several years, recording 114, 96, 86, and 89 points, respectively. The Bruins absolutely should not have traded Joe Thornton. You don’t trade your best player for pennies on the dollar because of a bad playoff series or a lost faceoff.

However, getting Savard and Chara in the immediate aftermath softened the blow quite a bit. Instead of having, say, Thornton, Shanahan, Jaroslav Spacek, and a mid-round pick (Chris Stewart? Bryan Little?), the B’s ended up with Chara, Savard, and Kessel.

The trade was bad. The immediate aftermath was bad. But the turnaround was quick. Trading Thornton cleared the way for that turnaround, and a couple of years later, both teams were in pretty good shape.

It might be the rare case of a win-win.


Would the Bruins have been better if they kept Joe Thornton?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Yes, but only short-term
    (158 votes)
  • 27%
    Yes, long-term
    (106 votes)
  • 30%
    No, they would have been worse
    (117 votes)
381 votes total Vote Now