by Mike Chen on 02/10/09 at 04:41 PM ET
Much of the Boston media’s talk today surrounds the pretty obvious topic of Joe Thornton and whether or not his departure was good. I think we can all agree that for the actual transaction, then-GM Mike O’Connell got pretty fleeced. For a #1 center, a 100-point player and a franchise guy, he got a 2nd-line wing (Marco Sturm), a #4 defenseman with a history of injuries (Brad Stuart), and a checking center (Wayne Primeau).
Ok, but let’s look beyond that. Some people seem to think that if Thornton was still in Boston, the Bruins wouldn’t have the cap space to put together their current squad. In other words, the argument seems to be that it was trading Joe Thornton’s cap space value for free agents Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Michael Ryder, and the ability to resign their own players.
That’s simply not true. Savard’s cap hit is $2.2 million less than Thornton’s. Sturm’s cap hit (currently on long-term injury) was a long-term resigning at $3.5 million. I’m guessing in an alternate world, you could swap Thornton for Savard, remove Sturm from the lineup and mix-and-match players, then argue whether or not the roster was better (they wouldn’t have Andrew Ferrence or Chuck Kobasew, the players involved in the Brad Stuart deal). However, Thornton’s salary wouldn’t necessarily cripple the team’s maneuverability, so that argument goes out the window when looking at the deal.
(Quick aside: Now whether or not Thornton would have evolved into the Hart Trophy winner he is today while remaining in Boston, we’ll never know. And for those that point to Thornton’s supposed ineptitude in the playoffs, look at these numbers. With the Sharks, Thornton has 30 points in 33 games.)
Instead, I think it’s better to put things in the context of former-GM Mike O’Connell and current GM Peter Chiarelli. Because ultimately, the reach of the Thornton deal doesn’t really directly impact the team that much anymore—Sturm’s out with injury, the other guys are gone, and no major draft picks were acquired from the deal.
O’Connell was GM from 2000 to early 2006, and he managed to anger fans early by trading Jason Allison at his peak for Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel due to budget concerns. However, things righted themselves and the team performed reasonably well early on as Thornton matured into the #1 center position. Despite overpaying for some free agents (most notably, the absurd Martin Lapointe contract) and getting mixed returns on some experiments (Bryan Berard, the revolving door of goaltending), the Bruins thrived in the pre-lockout season of 03-04, finishing second in the Eastern Conference.
After the lockout, though, things soured pretty quickly for the Bruins. They quickly lost Michael Nylander, Sergei Gonchar, Brian Rolston, and Mike Knuble to the post-CBA free agent madness. O’Connell nabbed Alexei Zhamnov, who offered up mediocre numbers before ultimately disappearing to injury. He gave Brian Leetch a one-year try, which didn’t do much to the future Hall-of-Famer’s legacy. And then, with the Bruins struggling to figure something out with their depleted roster, O’Connell pulled the trigger on the Thornton deal. A few months later, O’Connell was gone, though one of his final moves as GM was re-signing Tim Thomas to an extension that carries through this season.
Some GMs have their tenures defined by a single transaction. It doesn’t matter that O’Connell crafted a pretty strong 2003-04 team that peaked with a 104-point season. The fact that he acted rashly and swiftly on the Thornton deal, the fact that he pulled the trigger without starting a bidding war for a #1 center in his prime, that alone has defined O’Connell’s reign.
As for Chiarelli, even though he’s at the helm of this current squad, he’s not invincible but so far almost all of Chiarelli’s seemingly questionable moves have proven to be winners. The Brad Boyes-for-Dennis Wideman deal was a high-risk deal that ultimately provided equal value, though it certainly took some time to get there. The signings of Chara and Savard were questioned at the time, though they’ve worked out. Many people scoffed at getting a recycled coach in Claude Julien; however, Julien has shown that he can adapt and thrive with a new, aggressive style emphasizing speed.
So, is Chiarelli a genius and O’Connell an idiot? It’s not that simple. A number of key Boston players were drafted under O’Connell (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tim Thomas, Mark Stuart). In fact, if you look at the overall roster, it’s an amalgamation of both O’Connell and Chiarelli. O’Connell’s seemingly greatest downfall was in the area of signing players—either letting key players go, picking the wrong guys, or foolishly overpaying as a reactionary move. A few months after Peter Chiarelli took control, Bruins CEO Harry Sinden stepped down, and one has to wonder just how much influence Sinden’s legendary tight-wad attitude had over O’Connell’s rollercoaster tenure. Considering Sinden’s erratic record as GM in the decade before O’Connell took over, I’m guessing Boston fans have their true villain right there.
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