When a season is in danger of going down the drain, a team has only a few choices: Fire the coach, as has been speculated with regard to the status of Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, or it can -- in effect -- fire players.
Last night, the Bruins took the latter route, shipping captain Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks for 27-year-old left wing Marco Sturm, 29-year-old center Wayne Primeau, and the crown jewel of the deal -- 26-year-old defenseman Brad Stuart.
It marks the end of a chapter of Bruins hockey during which Boston believed that landing Thornton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft, and left wing Sergei Samsonov (taken No. 8 overall that year) would mark the beginning of a long, successful run for the Original Six franchise.
Instead, the years have been only so-so because postseason victories -- which are the biggest measuring stick of a marquee player's value -- have been so few. The Bruins have won only one playoff series in the seven springs Thornton has been a member of the Bruins. Two of those, Boston didn't even make the playoffs. The 2005-06 campaign, its sense of urgency because of a year lost to a lockout already deeply abiding, was on the fast train to nowhere. General manager Mike O'Connell felt he had no choice but to pull the trigger on a blockbuster. After a smaller deal -- trading center Dave Scatchard to Phoenix for defenseman David Tanabe -- the front office placed veteran forward Shawn McEachern and enforcer Colton Orr on waivers Monday. While likely necessary, they were hardly the type of moves that were going to shake the Bruins out of their protracted slumber (one win in their last 10 games).
''It's definitely a shock," said Thornton, via a conference call last night set up by the Sharks. ''Obviously when you don't win games, things are going to happen. That's what happened here. It's disappointing. It's definitely tough but it's a new chapter in my life. Obviously, they believe in the coach and GM and I'm next in line so it's disappointing, but you've got to move on."
Thornton was out to dinner in Boston with his parents, who were visiting from St. Thomas, Ontario, and were hoping to catch tonight's game against the Senators when O'Connell called Thornton to tell him of the deal.
''Obviously, when you don't win, things have to change," Thornton said. ''Dave Scatchard got traded a couple of weeks ago and nothing came, really, of that and what was the next step? And there were only a couple of options and I think the option everyone agreed on was to get rid of me. That's what happened. I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. I signed a three-year deal and I wanted to stay here for the three-year deal and I know a couple of teammates are disappointed as well. But life goes on, it's a different chapter and I have to go through it."
When asked if he felt he was being labeled the scapegoat for the organization, Thornton said, ''You could say that.
''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."
Thornton -- now 26 -- believed he was playing the best hockey of his pro career.
''I felt like I was playing well, I was playing consistent," he said, ''but it just wasn't good enough."
Coincidentally, Thornton will be on the same team with center Patrick Marleau, who was taken No. 2 in the 1997 draft, as well as his cousin, left wing Scott Thornton.
The deal came as a major shock to the rest of the team, which was still absorbing the reverberations late last night.
''I know Sully has been doing whatever he can and working as hard as he can to make this work," said defenseman Hal Gill. ''I can't tell you if it's the right move to change the coach or change the players or what. I can't tell you that but I don't know what kind of message that sends, if we're taking a different direction with the team or how that's going on.
''I don't know how that looks long term or short term right now. Everyone else, I think you could say we needed to make a change but dealing Joe like that, I think it's more the organization making a change. I don't know if it's diverting [attention] from Sully or what, but it's definitely big."
Goaltender Andrew Raycroft said it was nothing short of unbelievable.
''You can't predict it but we thought it was going to be a big one if it was going to happen and it's a big one," he said. ''It's definitely a surprise but I don't think I'm shocked by anything anymore. I'm pretty young but there's been a lot that has happened in the last five or six years that I've seen so I don't think anything shocks me any more. I'll definitely cross my fingers that I'm still here tomorrow I guess, too. If Joe can go, anybody can go. I'll be waiting by the phone."
Raycroft said he'll have to be a quick study about his new teammates before they arrive.
''I have no idea if they're good or not, to be honest with you," he said. ''Obviously, I've heard their names and stuff but I've never really seen them play, maybe once a year. Hopefully, it will work out."