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JACKIE MACMULLAN

A missing edge to his skating

At first glance, the stunning news out of the Bruins' offices last night that Joe Thornton had been dealt to the San Jose Sharks was akin to the Patriots trading Tom Brady or the Celtics dumping Larry Bird.

There's one big difference, however. With everything on the line, Brady and Bird took their teams all the way to the championship. Jumbo Joe only got the Bruins out of the first round once in five tries.

I know, I know. Thornton didn't have Richard Seymour or Tedy Bruschi watching his back. He could wait another 10 years, and neither Bobby Orr nor Phil Esposito was going to skate through that door. Nobody nicknamed any line he played on ''The Big Three." Thornton might not have been inundated with All-Star teammates during his seven-plus years here, but he did play with a guy named Bourque, and another named Guerin, and another named Allison. Not exactly slugs on skates.

Like it or not, Thornton's tainted legacy as he heads out West in exchange for defenseman Brad Stuart, winger Marco Sturm, and center Wayne Primeau is that in his final playoff series in a Boston Bruins uniform, he skated in seven games and came up with zero points.

Along the way, our local hockey team coughed up a 3-1 lead to the Montreal Canadiens and were knocked out the playoffs.

Again.

That was in 2004, the last time they had a postseason in the NHL, and the Bruins revealed after the series that Thornton had been hampered by a painful rib injury. He had played hurt for the good of the team and kept silent about his inability to play at full speed.

The temptation was to give him a mulligan. Thornton was always a polite and accommodating kid. In my limited dealings with him, I found him both likable and respectful. He was neither duplicitous nor difficult. And yet, as I walked away, I couldn't help but feel something was . . . missing.

He was too nice. He simply did not exhibit the killer instinct that elevates a very fine player to a feared and invaluable superstar. He should have been a leader, but he never was. He was too laid-back to fit the bill.

Obviously the Bruins have come to the same conclusion.

The Bruins waited patiently, as we all did, for Jumbo Joe to grow up. He joined Boston as the first overall pick in the 1997 draft and was not yet 18. He was young and rugged and handsome and sweet and we were all sure he was going to take the bears back to their glory days.

His most productive playoff performance was in 1999, his second season, when Boston eliminated Carolina, 4-2, in the first round of the best-of-seven series, then fell to Buffalo in six games in the next round. Thornton tallied 3 goals and 6 assists in 11 games. But it was not yet his team. Ray Bourque and Jason Allison were the top scorers during the ''second season."

Be patient, president Harry Sinden advised us as the years rolled on. Give him time to grow. Give him time to mature.

We waited. We hoped. But even after posting gaudy numbers, and a deft passing touch, he ultimately left our dreams -- and those of his employer -- unfulfilled.

Thornton appeared dispirited for much of this early campaign, as a season of promise quickly nose-dived into a tortuous string of lost opportunities. Thornton had contributed nine goals and 24 assists through the first 23 games, healthy numbers that were tops on the team, but the Bruins had lost nine of their last 10 games and it was clear something had to change.

We have been waiting for something significant to happen, but very few can attest with any authority that it would be Thornton -- not coach Mike Sullivan or general manager Mike O'Connell -- who would be given his walking papers. We will know more today when the press conferences begin and the Bruins offer their spin, but it would be wrong to lay the blame of this horrific start at Thornton's feet.

If I'm Nick Boynton or Andrew Raycroft or Glen Murray this morning, I'm wishing I did a little more to prevent such a drastic measure from occurring.

And if I'm Sullivan and O'Connell, I'm not feeling all that warm and fuzzy, either.

I understand the logic of coming to the conclusion that it was finally time to cut their losses with Thornton, but shouldn't the Bruins have gotten a little something more in return? Or, is the strategy to shed Thornton's $20 million contract, which ate up almost one-fifth of their salary cap space, and begin anew?

It's no secret Boston's biggest failing has been the defense, and the key acquisition in this deal is Stuart, a young rushing defenseman who will immediately stabilize matters in front of Raycroft. Primeau (too bad they couldn't have finagled a deal for his brother Keith) is a defensive center and Sturm is a 27-year-old winger who had 6 goals and 10 assists in 23 games this season, good for second on the Sharks.

They are solid hockey players. But they do not have the upside of a Joe Thornton.

Count me among those who wish Thornton nothing but the best. He will undoubtedly put up big numbers for the Sharks. Maybe he'll figure out how to add a little edge to his game while he's at it. And Joe, how about parking your big frame in front of the net a little more frequently, OK?

The Bruins obviously feel they can move forward without their one-time projected savior, much in the way the Red Sox did when they pulled the trigger on Nomar Garciaparra. Like Thornton, he, too, was a dedicated, talented athlete who produced numbers, but couldn't provide the kind of leadership you'd expect from a player of his caliber.

We all know what happened when the Sox shipped out Garciaparra for a group of lesser names. The ball club regrouped, flourished with some new defensive pieces, and went on to win it all.

The Bruins can only dream of being so lucky. They have just wiped the face of their franchise from their roster, and an already disgruntled fan base is thinking only one thing: this better work.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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