O'Connell happy things have turned out well for Thornton, Bruins

February, 10, 2009
02/10/09
9:17
AM ET
Mike O'Connell, it turns out, can come out of hiding. The man who traded away Joe Thornton can hold his head high.

As his former team, the Boston Bruins, gets set to host Jumbo Joe's San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season, history is showing a kinder, gentler perspective on O'Connell's decision to deal away the star center Nov. 30, 2005.

The trade itself, we believe, remains a win for the Sharks -- Thornton in exchange for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau and Marco Sturm.

However, as Hall of Fame writer Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe underlined in his weekend piece about O'Connell, perhaps the case can be made that the Thornton deal also was a catalyst to Boston's rebuilding plans.

The Thornton deal helped the Bruins create salary-cap space that later was used by new GM Peter Chiarelli (who has had the golden touch) on free-agent stud defenseman Zdeno Chara. Chiarelli then found a No. 1 center in Marc Savard and moved Stuart and Primeau to Calgary for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew, a good deal for the Bruins.

Although Chiarelli deserves serious admiration for the way he has added key pieces, the latest gem being Blake Wheeler, it's also important to underline the rebuilding work O'Connell had undertaken before his March 2006 firing.

Most notably, he drafted the likes of David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Mark Stuart, Kris Versteeg (since traded to Chicago) and Matt Hunwick. His remaining front-office staff, led by Jeff Gorton, also drafted Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic two months after O'Connell's firing. (Chiarelli took over on July 10, 2006.)

"It is rewarding to see those players do so well now with the Bruins," O'Connell told ESPN.com.

It also was O'Connell who dredged Tim Thomas -- "a guy who may win the Vezina and the Hart this year," O'Connell said proudly -- out of the Finnish hinterland.

But his biggest move, by far, was the Thornton deal. It remains a trade that stunned many around the hockey world. Looking back, O'Connell doesn't regret it one bit. He saw a Bruins team that lost a number of key players in free agency after the lockout (the Bruins made a strategic decision not to lock up many players before the lockout; it backfired) and realized early in the 2005-06 season that the club needed to rebuild. In his final analysis, one that was backed by ownership, O'Connell believed Thornton was not the man to build around.

The deal caught many of us by surprise; not to mention a number of NHL GMs who later told us they also had no clue Thornton was on the block and wished they could have had a chance to make an offer. Although O'Connell admits it's possible he should have created more of a market for Thornton, he also pointed out that few teams could deliver what he was looking for.

"We didn't want to acquire high-price talent in return," O'Connell explained. "We knew we had to rebuild. When we put the list of teams together, we didn't think there were that many who had the assets that we wanted -- a top-line winger, a top-line defenseman and a third-line center. It was tough to find as a group, especially making the right kind of money."

San Jose, from the onset, was the most serious bidder.

"We got into it with a few teams, but it never really got serious with them," O'Connell said. "They kept telling me they'd get back to me. San Jose really pushed it. We made a decision to make that deal. We weren't going anywhere the way we were."

O'Connell said that he hasn't spoken to Thornton since the trade but that there are no hard feelings on his end.

"I have no problem with him," O'Connell said. "He's done terrific out there. It's worked out well for him, and I'm glad."

O'Connell is now in his third season with the Los Angeles Kings organization; his title is director of pro development and special assignments.

"I love it," he said. "I get on the ice probably twice a week with the Manchester [AHL] team. I spend some time with our draft picks. It's been great."

"He works his tail off," Kings GM Dean Lombardi told ESPN.com. "He's been a great asset."

O'Connell is at peace, but he can't help but wonder what could have been had he hung on in Boston.

"We were headed in the right direction," he said. "The only regret I have is that I didn't have a chance to finish it."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer

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