By: JD Young | Follow me on Twitter: @JD9899
15 years ago today, the Bruins made a move that shook up the hockey landscape for years to come. In a day that will go down in infamy for Bruins fans, star captain Joe Thornton was traded to the San Jose Sharks.
Following the 2004 lockout season, GM Mike O’Connell lost key veteran contributors from their 2003 playoff team. Some names include Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston, and Sergei Gonchar. If you remember that ’03 team, those players were pivotal to the Bruins playoff run that year, and losing them to free agency was extremely tough. The 2005 roster was subsequently filled with a lot of young talent that needed to be developed. With Thornton entering his prime, O’Connell saw an opportunity to re-tool the team.
2005 was a forgettable year for the Bruins. Leading up to the Thornton trade, the Bruins were a lackluster 8-13-5. Their playoff aspirations were basically squashed less than two months into the season. The team performed severely below expectations, and O’Connell knew that something had to be done if he wanted to keep his job. With a head-scratching move, O’Connell sent Thornton to San Jose for center Wayne Primeau, defenseman Brad Stuart, and winger Marco Sturm. Looking back, on paper, this is one of the worst trades in NHL history. Primeau and Stuart were below-average contributors for the Bruins, and while Sturm had a good five-year stint with the B’s, he never even came close to eclipsing Thornton’s production.
To this day, there really is no definitive answer on why Thornton was traded. He had just received a 3yr/$20 million contract and looked to be a Bruin for years to come. He was also emerging as the NHL’s best forward, netting 33 points in the 23 games before he got traded (Stat Courtesy of Hockey Reference). This culminated in an MVP season after the trade. Some believe that Thornton’s lackluster playoff performance in 2003 led O’Connell to think that Thornton couldn’t show up in big moments (something that has haunted Joe for his entire career). Others believe that because the team failed to bring back the core from 2003, Thornton wanted out of Boston. I personally believe that at the time, O’Connell truly believed the players being brought in from San Jose would make the Bruins a better team than they were with Thornton. Clearly, they didn’t, and this was one of the many reasons O’Connell was fired. But looking back on it, the move may have helped the Bruins in the long run.
In hindsight, the Thornton trade sparked a short, two-year rebuild that ultimately helped the Bruins won the cup in 2011. With Thornton gone, it opened to door for Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to take over as the team’s top centers. Also, their terrible record gave the Bruins the fifth pick in the 2006 draft, in which they drafted Phil Kessel. Kessel was later flipped for draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin (a solid contributor in 2011) and Dougie Hamilton. But maybe most importantly, it freed up cap space for the Bruins to sign Zdeno Chara in 2006. Though nobody knew that the trade would lead to the overall success the Bruins have had in the 2010s, O’Connell’s incompetence as a GM may have inadvertently created the Bruins core that we have cherished for the last decade.
It would have been great if we got 20+ years of Jumbo Joe dawning the black and gold. Anyone who saw him play knew that he embodied a team leader, and he would have been an all-time franchise player had he stayed for his whole career. Thornton will go down in history as one of the only hall-of-famers to be traded in his prime. While the trade was a tough pill to swallow at the time, it sparked a run of success that the Bruins hadn’t seen since the 70s. Sometimes things just work out that way, but nevertheless, Joe Thornton will never be forgotten for his contribution to the Bruins.