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ON HOCKEY

He'll have to his find way in San Jose

Joe Thornton and California.

That just seems to fit, doesn't it, dude?

Joe Thornton and Boston.

Somehow, it just never worked. Not the way anyone hoped, or expected.

Teen angels, fanboys, and stat geeks will mourn Thornton's trade last night to the Sharks, because he was considered the franchise savior even before he was drafted in 1997, as well as the fact he put up some strong offensive numbers. Even this year, when he often appeared to be playing in a fog, for the most part disengaged and lackluster, Jumbo Joe flirted with the top 10 scorers in the game.

But, at close inspection, to the trained hockey eye, there was just no there there this season with Thornton.

Early on, second week of the season, he had a bad back. For two months, he rarely was spotted in front of the net, where the league virtually hung out a ''vacancy" sign this season, encouraging one and all to work the low slot. Thornton just never registered with the front desk. He was content, comfortable to set up shop behind the goal line or stand along the right half-board, looking to pass, clearly steering away from heavy contact -- or the places one might expect heavy contact.

Is that what we call Bruins? Hardly.

It was, quite frankly, puzzling to the point of disbelief.

It was that level of disinterested, even disconsolate play, that led general manager Mike O'Connell to wheel Thornton out of town. It was a combination of lack of play, real gritty and committed play, and a heavy paycheck, one that accounted for a sizable chunk of the club's $39 million salary cap.

Consider: Thornton over the summer signed a three-year guaranteed deal worth $20 million. Everyone immediately labeled it a no-trade contract. Truth is, as evidenced by this deal, the no-trade did not apply to this season. It begins with the 2006-07 season. All of which means the Bruins had only this season -- the two-thirds that remain of it -- to get out from under the deal if they felt he wasn't worth the money. They watched him play. They looked at the books, as well as the decline in the standings, and for the last two weeks O'Connell worked the phones feverishly to get him gone. They felt he wasn't worth the money.

Clearly, the names Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau don't have the marquee value of Thornton. Fans love big names in this town, which is why there was such gnashing of teeth not long ago when the Patriots finally dumped Drew Bledsoe and got on to the business of winning, winning, and winning some more. Even with Tom Brady so blatantly in command of the position, the Bledsoe boosters couldn't understand why the Patriots were saying adieu to Drew. Some of the fanboys still haven't recovered.

It will be that way around here, especially on all sports radio, for many weeks, especially if Thornton racks up big numbers out West. Imagine how the radio airways would burn today if this deal had the weight of Phil Esposito being dished to the Rangers for Jean Ratelle and Brad Park 30 years ago. Yeow. Not that anyone in this deal, on either side, is the equal of Mssrs. Esposito, Ratelle, or Park. Not even close.

Stuart can be considered a top-four defenseman, and on the Bruins, desperate for help back there, he projects as a top pairing defenseman. He should be at the point, perhaps with Brian Leetch, on the No. 1 power-play unit.

Sturm, one of the game's legit speedsters, has top-end speed and hands that can keep pace with his legs. That sounds simple, but it is rare. Think of guys such as Derek Plante and Russ Courtnall, brother of ex-Bruin Geoff Courtnall. They both could burn. But in both cases, their impact was rather short, simply because their feet and hands were constantly out of synch. A note of concern with Sturm: He jumped out to a strong start this season, but his production quickly stalled and remained flat. The Sharks figured he would really benefit under the new rules, but it hasn't happened.

Primeau, more or less a throw-in, is a veteran big man (6 feet 4 inches, 230 pounds) who fills the void left in the wake of Dave Scatchard being dealt recently to Phoenix for David Tanabe. He'll get his 10 minutes or so as a fourth-liner, even more if the Bruins are forced to kill a lot of penalties on a given night.

As for cap relief, another essential part of the deal from Boston's perspective, the incoming ex-Sharks make a combined $5 million this year -- one-third of which already has been played. The Bruins will save about $1 million in cap money this season, and about the same next year, when the incoming trio will see their pay boosted to a total of $5.65 million.

We'll begin to find out today how coach Mike Sullivan sorts out who will wear the captain's ''C" left behind by Thornton. The most obvious pick would be Leetch, already more of a presence in the dressing room in two months than Thornton was in seven-plus years. Nick Boynton would be another excellent choice, but his game has struggled this season, and his pair of contract holdouts would make awarding him the ''C" a bit dicey, in management's eyes. Boynton remains the rare breed in today's game, a guy who legitimately burns when his team loses. Also not a Thornton trait.

Perhaps the best way to go here would be to rotate the ''C" on a monthly basis, the practice made popular by the Minnesota Wild. Shifting it around can create a bond and send a message of shared responsibility. On a team that has had such dramatic roster turnover -- in part because of ownership's demand to burn the roster to the ground at the onset of the Sept. 2004 lockout -- the velcro ''C" could be the answer.

In San Jose, Patrick Marleau is the franchise front man, a bit of coincidence there because Marleau was the No. 2 pick to Thornton's No. 1 in '97. Thornton will arrive with the higher offensive profile, but he won't have to handle the burden of wearing the ''C." He can take a spot comfortably in Marleau's shadow, do his thing, and not be looked upon to lead or be a physical presence. Could work great. Kind of like Bledsoe with the Buffalo Bills, Bledsoe with the Dallas Cowboys, Bledsoe with . . .

The lasting image of Thornton in Boston will be his final moments in the spoked-B Tuesday night in New Jersey. On a faceoff to goalie Andrew Raycroft's right, he was undressed by Devils center John Madden, who pulled the puck directly to Alexander Mogilny behind him. Mogilny ripped it home for the 3-2 win with just over 30 seconds left on the clock. Two points down the drain.

A dismayed Thornton, looking like the guy in Times Square who just found out his pocket was picked, stared up to the rafters in total dismay. Not even 24 hours later, O'Connell sent him packing to the Silicon Valley. He will be remembered on Causeway Street not for what he was, or what he did, but for what he wasn't and what he failed to do. The work forever in progress now can try to get it done somewhere else.

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