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Thursday, December 1, 2005
Who else but Thornton should be on the hook?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Not long after Joe Thornton had been unceremoniously dealt to the San Jose Sharks in a deal that, if it were a television show, would fall somewhere between "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," the erstwhile Bruins captain agreed that perhaps he was being made a scapegoat for Boston's vast woes this season.

"You could say that," Thornton said during a hastily arranged conference call that followed the late-night deal. ''Who knows? Hindsight is 20-20. I don't know what to say about that. I came here to win and we haven't been winning. Whose fault is that? I'm not sure. Obviously, I'm out of here, so it must be mine."

Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton and the B's were ousted by the Canadiens in the first round of the 2003-04 playoffs.

Well, duh. Who else should be on the hook here?

Yes, GM Mike O'Connell assembled an underachieving, listless bunch that doesn't seem to have the faintest idea of how to be a winner. And then there's coach Mike Sullivan. He's still the same coach who coaxed 104 points out of the Northeast Division-champion Bruins in 2003-04 before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

Joe, you remember those playoffs, when the Bruins couldn't hold onto series leads of 2-0 and 3-1 against a woefully undermanned Montreal team? You remember that's the series when you managed to record zero points? That's the same series when it was suggested in the local press that maybe you didn't deserve to wear the captain's "C" anymore.

Sure you remember.

But if anyone thought time, and a new collective-bargaining agreement, had changed the team and the team's captain, the Bruins' 12th-place standing in the Eastern Conference and their 1-8-1 record over the past 10 games answer that with an emphatic "no."

One man's scapegoat is another man's reality.

Perhaps the best illustrator of Thornton's season and ergo the Bruins' season came against New Jersey on Tuesday evening. The Bruins led 2-0, netminder Andrew Raycroft was playing perhaps his best game of the season and Boston appeared to have turned a corner. But the Devils came back to tie it up, and with less than a minute left in the game, Bruins center Travis Green was thrown out of a defensive zone faceoff . Thornton, the second center on the ice, the insurance policy, was beaten by John Madden on the draw and Alexander Mogilny scored the winner. Thornton was left standing in disbelief as the Devils celebrated.

Thornton put up impressive enough numbers, 33 points in 23 games, nine points more than the Bruins' second-leading scorer. He said he thought he was playing well, maybe even very well. But when it comes to Thornton, it's always been more about the stuff you can't see, can't point to on a stat sheet.

"I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed," Thornton said before he prepared to head off to Buffalo to face an old division rival with his new wine-country team.

Maybe that's the problem. Had Thornton been a little angrier, played with the kind of ferocity that one usually associates with a captain and one of the highest-paid players in the league, there might have been legitimate Cup talk in Boston, not parting shots for a favored son.

But that wasn't in Thornton's nature. Never was. In the end, it turned out to be a huge mistake on the part of the Bruins to believe he could be that player, like a Messier or a Stevens or an Yzerman. In fact, in an interview with ESPN.com shortly after signing Thornton to a three-year, $20-million deal this summer, O'Connell invoked those names, suggesting it was time for Thornton to assume that kind of leadership mantle in the Bruins' dressing room.

The fact that O'Connell resisted the easy temptation to fire Sullivan and instead swallowed hard and traded the franchise player illustrates just how far Thornton's star had fallen and how little hope there was for it to ascend.

If the Sharks expect Thornton will suddenly be that player in San Jose, they, too, will be disappointed. But San Jose is about as geographically and philosophically far from Boston as you can get.

In the land of teal, Thornton will skate free of the ghosts of Orr and Bourque and Esposito and O'Reilly and Neely for the first time in his NHL career.

He joins a team with strong leadership already in place in the form of Alyn McCauley, Patrick Marleau (the man taken second behind Thornton in '97) and Scott Hannan. Given his innate playmaking abilities, Thornton should help a Sharks power play that ranks 26th in the NHL. And he can't hurt a penalty-killing unit that ranks 25th.

That doesn't mean there aren't high expectations for Thornton. Those will remain wherever he goes. And make no mistake -- this deal was as difficult for Sharks GM Doug Wilson to make as it was for O'Connell.

Wilson believes unwaveringly in his vision of a team that finds success from within. When new ownership came to San Jose prior to the 2003-04 season, former coach Darryl Sutter was given the boot and high-profile veterans Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse and Teemu Selanne were either sent packing or allowed to walk. Many predicted a precipitous decline for the Sharks. Instead, they set a franchise record with 104 points and advanced to the Western Conference finals on the backs of homegrown talent such as Marleau, Hannan, Nils Ekman, Jonathan Cheechoo, Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart.

In giving up Sturm, Stuart and Wayne Primeau, Wilson is parting with cornerstones he thought would be crucial to the Sharks' return to prominence in the West.

In the aftermath of the new collective-bargaining agreement, the Sharks vigorously pursued defenseman Scott Niedermayer but lost out to Anaheim. After that, the team made no significant additions and was criticized in some quarters for being too pedestrian. Still, given the success in '04, the Sharks had earned the benefit of the doubt.

But things haven't gone well in the Shark Tank.

The Sharks are 13th in the Western Conference, nine points out of the final playoff spot. They have been uncharacteristically sloppy defensively. Netminder Evgeni Nabokov, a former rookie of the year, has been spotty at best, and the team has struggled to score (27th in goals scored). San Jose is a league-worst 0-7-3 over the past 10 games.

For both O'Connell and Wilson, the significant risks in making this deal were worth the prospect of continued failure.

So, in the end, maybe this will all work for everyone.

In the last 10 games, the Sharks and Bruins have been the two worst teams in the NHL, with a combined 1-15-4 record. So this isn't about playoff positioning or a Stanley Cup. This is about survival. This is about desperation.

Which team's new players reflect that most quickly will determine the winner in this blockbuster. A characteristic Thornton never showed in black and gold. Maybe he'll show it in teal.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.