Sharks’ Joe Thornton Could Never Go Back to Boston

Team Captains San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton #19 and Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown #23 during the NHL Western Conference Quarterfinals Game 6 between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.

In his Sunday notes column, Kevin Paul Dupont let himself wonder what life would be like for the Bruins had the Joe Thornton who’s currently playing in San Jose been the same Joe Thornton who played in Boston.

Dupont acknowledges that Thornton has taken a while to blossom and that the coaching situations in Boston didn’t do much to develop Thornton’s playing.

It’s tempting to look at a player on his current stop and wonder what he would have been like had he stayed at a previous one.

It’s a game Islanders fans and haters play all the time, wondering what the franchise’s fortunes would have been like had they not made any number of their Mike Milbury-driven, notoriously bad trades.

But if those trades hadn’t been made and the Islanders had held onto the litany of talented players they let slip away (Zdeno Chara, the pick that became Jason Spezza, Roberto Luongo, Todd Bertuzzi, Mathieu Schneider, etc.), there’s no guarantee those players would have developed into the NHL stars they became (except for Spezza — I suspect his “development” as an Islander probably would be right around where it is as a Senator).

It’s the same thing with Thornton. It’s not that Boston traded him too soon. It’s that Boston wasn’t the right environment for Thornton to mature. The expectations were too high. The fan base was too rabid. And Thornton had no other players to lean on.

In San Jose, Thornton arrived perceived as damaged goods. The Sharks were gambling he was fixable. And he was. But the process was helped by his having some talent around him (Patrick Marleau and eventually, Dany Heatley), which took some of the pressure off of him. But the process was also helped by Thornton playing to prove Boston was wrong to unceremoniously trade him away.

Neither of those factors were possible if Thorton had stayed in Boston.

Phil Mushnick, the grumpy sports media critic for the New York Post gets upset when announcers boil down a game to one play, as if every other variable in a game would have been the same if that one play had gone differently.

It’s the same thing with players. It’s very unlikely that the Joe Thornton who plays for the Sharks could ever be the same Joe Thornton as a Bruin. Thornton needed to get out of Boston to grow into the dominant player we’ve seen in this postseason.

The Bruins couldn’t figure out how to take Thornton’s game to the next level and once the organization soured on him, the damage was irreparable. It’s nice (and fun) to imagine what the Bruins would be like if they could have figured Thornton out, but ultimately it’s no more realistic than wondering what the Sharks might look like if they had Gordie Howe in his prime.

Joe Thornton needed to escape Boston in order to figure out what kind of player (and leader) he is. Sadly for Boston, there’s just no way the new Joe Thornton could ever exist as a Bruin.