The Ice Sheet: The Bruins are Back, Thanks to the Thornton Trade
Every Monday morning The Ice Sheet will take a close look at everything that's happened in the NHL since Friday night at 5:00 p.m. -- or if need be, anything else the author wants to bleat about. To read them all, click here.
No, that is not a misprint in today's edition of the NHL standings. Indeed, the Boston Bruins are alone on top of the Eastern Conference with 40 points, with preseason favorites like New York, Montreal and Washington all filling space in their rear view mirror.
All of this begs a question: Can this really be the same franchise that a little more than three years ago traded Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks, a man who would go on to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP only a few months later?
Now, there are all sorts of reasons why the Bruins are back: There's the emergence of young players like Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler and David Krejci; there are trades that turned out OK, and that includes the deal that sent Brad Boyes to St. Louis in exchange for Dennis Wideman, which looked awfully one-sided not long ago; and it's impossible to ignore the feel-good story of goalie Tim Thomas, an AHL lifer who made the most of his chance to play in the big leagues, and has given no indication that he's going to let the Bruins send him back, ever.
Heck, the Bruins even had the temerity to defeat the Montreal Canadiens on their home ice on the night the Habs were retiring Patrick Roy's jersey. It's clear the snarl is back in Boston, and the game is all the better for it.
It's no exaggeration to say that the Thornton trade demoralized a fan base that was used to idolizing the Bruins, and had helped the team dominate the back page of the sports section from the days of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers through Terry O'Reilly and Cam Neely.
But without that trade, the team that has emerged to dominate the Eastern Conference during the first quarter of the 2008-09 NHL season might never have come together.
In the offseason immediately following the Thornton trade, even owner Jeremy Jacobs had to understand that he needed to spend some money in order to convince Boston hockey fans that there was still a future for the franchise. So in the summer of 2006, Jacobs dipped into the piggy bank to import a pair of free agents: center Marc Savard from Atlanta and defenseman Zdeno Chara from Ottawa.
Derided by some as a soft player as he bounced from New York to Calgary to Atlanta early in his career, Savard simply continued a trend that he started himself in Atlanta during the 2005-06 season -- that is, establishing himself as a point-per-game player. But perhaps most important of all was the arrival of Chara, who immediately became the team's captain, provided a physical presence on the blue line the team sorely lacked, and stepped in as a critical contributor on the team's power play.
Consider for a moment that Thornton hadn't been traded. Without the deal, there's no free agent cash for Savard and Chara, and in the case of the latter, perhaps we should ask Boston goalie Thomas what sort of contribution the 6'9" Slovak defenseman makes to keeping the team's goals against per game the best in all of hockey (2.00).
Normally, I'm not a fan of trading a quarter for two dimes and a nickel, but you have to be impressed with how the franchise parlayed the return from the Thornton trade into a number of serviceable players. For starters, ex-Shark Marco Sturm is the same player he's always been, a steady two-way forward good for nearly 30 goals per season.
In turn, Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli was able to parlay the other two assets obtained in the Thornton trade -- defenseman Brad Stuart and plugger Wayne Primeau -- flipping them to Calgary in 2007 for hard-working forward Chuck Kobasew and defenseman Andrew Ference. Last year, in his first full season in Boston, Kobasew set a career high in goals with 22, while Ference settled into a comfortable role as a depth defenseman. Before suffering a broken leg in the middle of November, it could be argued that Ference was enjoying the best season of his career. In retrospect, that deal with Calgary is looking like a horrible steal.
Now, am I advocating that your favorite team unload a top player for a passel of spare parts? Not on your life. But as history has shown with the Bruins, even a deal that looked as lopsided as the one that sent Thornton to San Jose doesn't have to be a disaster in the long run. Who knows, maybe he'll get to enjoy an extended stay in his original NHL home come next June.