Sharks, Bruins set an unlikely pace

MONTREAL – It’s funny how things work out.

When San Jose fleeced Boston by trading three players to the Bruins in exchange for Joe Thornton on Nov. 30, 2005, it put the high-profile forward on the fast track to superstardom and sent the Bruins spiraling into oblivion.

While Thornton and the Sharks have done nothing but win in the regular season since, the Bruins endured tumultuous times that included a nearly complete housecleaning to re-establish credibility, respect and finally a return to prominence.

Now, barely more than three years since one of the biggest blockbuster trades of the decade, it is San Jose and Boston sitting atop the overall standings as the NHL embarks on the post All-Star break portion of the season.

“It’s a long, long way to go, but it would be neat to meet in the finals,” Thornton said with a smile during the recent All-Star festivities.

Thornton doesn’t pretend to make any assumptions how the postseason will play out, let alone the second half, but it is coincidental that these two teams have arrived at this point with such lofty status considering the different paths taken. San Jose and Boston have 73 points apiece, however the Western Conference leaders have played two fewer games than the pacesetters in the East.

The Sharks changed their dynamic when they packaged forwards Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and defenseman Brad Stuart to the Bruins, but they’ve added a lot of pieces since Thornton came aboard, too. In fact, only four players – Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo and Christian Ehrhoff – predate Thornton’s arrival.

“I think it’s also important that you build a team around him,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “Steve Yzerman didn’t win until his 12th year. You can’t have one player.”

And because San Jose has depth up front and balance between offense and defense on the blue line, Thornton continues to reap the benefits. Since entering the league in 1997-98, Thornton is the active leader in assists (559) and soon will pass Joe Sakic to become tops in scoring since his debut – for now the injured Colorado star holds an 821-811 edge.

Thornton will appear in his 800th career game Tuesday night when the Sharks visit the Avalanche.

“He’s the best passer in the league,” Boyle said of his teammate, who collected an All-Star game-high three assists in Montreal on Sunday for the West.

“He’s a big dude,” Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf added. “When he controls the puck down low it’s tough to take it from him. That’s about the biggest challenge. He has the ability to draw guys around and then make great passes.”

As productive as Thornton was in Boston (averaging 1.02 points per his 532 games as a Bruin), he never could seem to do enough there. He constantly heard criticism for not playing in front of the net as much as behind it along with knocks on his leadership.

In San Jose, Thornton’s production has increased to league-leading dimensions. His 357 points in 267 games as a Shark is more in terms of raw scoring than Alexander Ovechkin’s 344 in 266 games and Sidney Crosby’s 325 in 234 over the same time frame, ranking 1-2-3 in the NHL. The Sharks trail only Detroit in regular-season winning percentage since the trade (72.3-68.6) and San Jose has averaged more goals (3.16) than everyone except the Red Wings, Sabres and Senators since the deal.

“I’ve had the luxury of playing in every game,” Thornton said. “A lot of different things go into that. I owe a lot to the trainers and I’ve played with a lot of great players.”

“I can’t judge what he had gone through in Boston,” Wilson added. “I just know since the day he’s been with us we can’t keep him off the ice.”

The trade also reunited Thornton and Patrick Marleau, junior standouts of the same age who wound up getting selected Nos. 1-2 in the ’97 draft. Thornton, from London, Ontario, and Marleau, from Aneroid, Saskatchewan, rank first and fourth in career points among players who began the season age 29 or younger (811 for Thornton and 590 for Marleau).

“When you first meet him you notice he’s happy go-lucky, always having a great time,” Marleau said of his teammate. “I was interested to see if that would change at all, but that’s just the way he is. He loves the game, he loves to play hockey. It just re-affirmed that’s really how he is.”

That easygoing nature hasn’t changed, but Thornton’s desire and focus on going where the Sharks have not been before appears to be well defined. Under rookie coach Todd McLellan, Thornton is parking himself in front of the net more, using his physical size on a more consistent basis away from the puck and bringing a more consistent effort in terms of intensity to the rink each and every game.

“From what I’ve been told his offseason was big for him this year, and he seems to be playing this season with a purpose,” Getzlaf said.

“Winning the Cup is the next thing we want to do for him,” Boyle added. “He’s kind of taken a little bit of heat for that, yet he’s one of the best players in the game.”

For the Bruins, the problems started before the trade of Thornton. The team misread how the game would be played coming out of the lockout as former GM Mike O’Connell signed veterans Alexei Zhamnov, Brian Leetch, Brad Isbister and Shawn McEachern. All four moves failed, especially disappointing to the Bruin faithful since O’Connell pronounced his team fit for a Cup run with the new additions.

A terrible start and a contentious offseason contract extension for Thornton festered to the point where the Bruins just felt like they had to do something bold. That big move would eventually cost O’Connell his job. By May 2006, Peter Chiarelli was in charge of the team as GM and the rebuilding began.

Where O’Connell’s free-agent signings faltered, Chiarelli has had the golden touch. He brought aboard hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara, the most dominant blue liner in the East, and the creative Marc Savard, who has matured as a one-time one-way player to a big points producer who now cares much more about winning. Both were All-Stars this season.

“The management and coaching change, and we’ve drafted really well since then, have made the difference,” Savard said. “The kids have stepped in. Our core is strong. We had to build with the young guys, add a couple of experienced players and it’s worked out well.”

The quick development of Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler has blended well with a couple of O’Conner’s picks – Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Chiarelli did well, too, by adding additional pieces such as Michael Ryder, Dennis Wideman, Chuck Kobasew, Petteri Nokelainen and Andrew Ference. And no one could have predicted the success goalie Tim Thomas has enjoyed the last couple of seasons. Only Sturm is left from the Thornton trade, and he’s out for the season with an injury.

“They’ve gone through a lot of changes in Boston,” Sharks GM Wilson said. “All I can say it’s great to see Original Six teams like that – Boston and Chicago – we need them to be successful as a league.”

The Sharks and Bruins meet in Boston on Feb. 10 for only the second time since Thornton was dealt. The first encounter came within two months of the deal, and Thornton’s much-anticipated return lasted all of five minutes when he earned a game-misconduct penalty along with a major for elbowing then-Bruins’ defenseman Hal Gill.

Could the matchup serve as a preview of the Stanley Cup Finals? Wilson won’t go that far, but he likes where both teams are at present.

“My job is to make sure our team does well,” he added. “We’re excited about that. I think it’s good to see teams with great hockey tradition back in position to have fans support them. They deserve it.”

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 27, 2009