The San Jose Sharks jumped to a 3-0 series lead against their California rival Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but are now up 3-2. Last night, the Sharks were shut out on their home ice. That’s the San Jose Sharks’ last ten years in a nutshell. They always have a great regular season, but it’s only a matter of time before they choke it away in the playoffs. Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame falls on captain and superstar Joe Thornton.
Jumbo Joe was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 NHL Draft, selected by the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, or even a great player, but he had a leadership role thrust upon him too early in his career, in my opinion. He handled stardom in Boston a lot better than Tyler Seguin did, then again, while he was in Boston, the B’s spent most of their time as the fourth most relevant team in town while the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years and the Patriots won three Super Bowls of their own. The B’s drafted Thornton in a time when they were out of the playoff picture looking in for the first times since the 60s. After a few more years, it was sadly apparent that if longtime captain Ray Bourque wanted to win the Stanley Cup, it wouldn’t be in Boston. The Bruins traded #77 to the Colorado Avalanche and the rest is history, but the Bruins got back into the playoffs again soon.
The Bruins post-Bourque teams of the early 2000s were pretty good, headlined by Thornton, Sergei Samsonov (who was traded in 2006 for the draft pick that became Milan Lucic), Bill Guerin, and Glen Murray, but they never got out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2002, the Bruins lost a tight series to the Montreal Canadiens, that is best remembered in my mind for Kyle McLaren’s high hit on Richard Zednik. After Jason Allison’s short stint as Bruins captain, Jumbo Joe got the ‘C’ before the 2002-03 season, although in hindsight, someone like Guerin, who had more year in the league and was a more natural leader, might have been a better choice.The Bruins weren’t winning in the playoffs, and the other teams in town were. Further proof of how irrelevant they were is how hard it is to find quality pictures that I can use for this blog in Google Images of the Bruins compared to the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics at the time.
In 2003-04, the B’s had a great regular season. They had Jumbo Joe, Samsonov, Brian Rolston, Glen Murray, Mike Knuble, P.J. Axelsson, and got strong contributions from Calder Trophy winning goalie Andrew Raycroft (who was later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for an 18 year old goalie prospect named Tuukka Rask) and an 18 year old rookie named Patrice Bergeron. At the trade deadline, they acquired veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, and they appeared to be in prime position for a deep playoff run. As usual, they were bounced in the first round by Montreal in a series they should have won. The following season was cancelled because Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs led the charge in the NHL owners’ hard line stance in the 2005 lockout. The Bruins did not pursue any of their free agents and the team fell apart. The Bruins did end up re-signing Thornton to a three year $20 million deal in the summer of 2005, after Jacobs got the hard salary cap that he wanted, but Thornton’s days in Boston were numbered.
When the B’s got off to a slow start in the 2005-06 campaign, GM Mike O’Connell traded Thornton to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm. O’Connell questioned Thornton’s leadership and made the decision to rebuild the Bruins around Patrice Bergeron. While the trade ultimately cost O’Connell his job, and the trade did get a little better with age (Sturm led the team in scoring a few times and the B’s were able to trade Stuart and Primeau to the Calgary Flames for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew), they got pennies on the dollar for one of the premier players in the National Hockey League.
With a core of Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau (who was taken by San Jose with the pick after Thornton in 1997), and Logan Couture, and strong goaltending over the years from Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi, the Sharks have been among the top regular season teams in the NHL ever since he arrived there, but they have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Anything can happen in playoff hockey, and any team can beat any other team at any time, but when a team that good falls apart that consistently, it can’t be a fluke. John Tortorella spouted off on Thornton expressing that sentiment a couple of years ago when Torts was still coaching the New York Rangers. Right now, Jumbo Joe is one of the best players in the history of the NHL who has never won anything. That’s a tough distinction to hold and one that does not go away until you win. Joe Torre had participated in more Major League Baseball games that anyone else without getting to the World Series before finally managing the 1996 Yankees to a title. Steve Nash holds the distinction in the NBA as the only MVP (which he has won twice) to never play in the NBA Finals. Dan Marino may be the greatest quarterback of all time, but the fact that he never won a Super Bowl and only got to the big game once makes it a debate.
My inner seven year old Bruins fan is still rooting for Jumbo Joe a little bit. As a 24 year old Bruins fan, I’d love to see Joe come back to Boston at the end of his career in pursuit of a Cup, the way Ray Bourque went to Colorado or the way Jarome Iginla has made his way to Boston. He’s still one of the elite playmakers in the NHL and could still contribute, but I’m not convinced he can win it all as captain of the San Jose Sharks. Thornton is now 34 years old and his beard is starting to go gray. The kid who wore #19 and lined up between Milt Schmidt’s #15 and Terry O’Reilly’s #24 during the National Anthems is likely never to get his name and number in the rafters of the TD Garden, but I’d like to think that his story with the Boston Bruins is not yet over. In the meantime, he still has a lot of questions to answer about finishing in the playoffs.