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BOB RYAN

Looks like a losing proposition

What would someone not totally immersed in sport make of all this Joe Thornton business, I wonder?

Wouldn't that person be operating on the assumption that sport is a results-oriented enterprise? You know: wins and losses and achievement and accomplishment, and all that? And by achievement and accomplishment, we are speaking of team stuff, not individual statistics and nonsense such as ''Player of the Week."

Anyway, that might be a reasonable assumption. And so a dispassionate observer might ask why such a fuss has been made over this transaction between the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks, given that one of these teams resides in last place in its division, and 12th out of 15 in its conference, and the other has likewise taken up residence in the divisional basement while tied for 12th out of 15 in its conference. Is this not a tale in which one bad team works out a deal with another bad team to exchange players who have had a lot to do with them being, well, bad teams? Are we leaving anything out?

There is simply no denying the factual basis of the premise. The Bruins and Sharks, until further notice, stink. Entering last night's action, the two had combined to go 1-15-4 in their last 20 games combined. Even Monty Beisel, that self-proclaimed PR genius, would have a difficult time putting a shiny spin on that record. As those who have seen it all unfold would attest under oath, this is one time when the Bill Parcells dictum that ''You are what your record says you are" is 100 percent correct.

On this side, all we keep hearing from Joe Thornton fans is that he was the ''best player on the team." Best player, best player, best player . . . well, fine. The consensus seems to be he was the most talented technician on the team. He could skate, he could pass, he could shoot, and he could see things before they happened. But many others said while all this was true, something was missing.

He may have been the supposed ''best player," but in his seven full (lockout not included) years, the Boston Bruins had won exactly one (1) playoff series. It's got to be about more than just one player, but if Joe Thornton were as good as his staunchest supporters say he is, you would think the team would have done just a wee bit better on the ice. And now is probably the time to mention the enormous doughnut -- as in 0-0--0 -- he posted in the 2004 seven-game playoff loss to Montreal. He was more than just the supposed ''best player." He was the captain.

Some captain.

But regardless of his obvious (to us) shortcomings, he does have the above-mentioned skills and he is only 26. He will forever retain the inherent cachet that comes with being the first player chosen in a draft. And he has now embarked on a path that will, I am certain, see him go from team to team to team in the next 10 years as general manager after general manager after general manager will want to see if he and his handpicked coach can inspire Joe Thornton into being the franchise player his raw skills will always indicate he should be.

And as all this transpires, Harry Sinden will sit back, amused. For he knows better than anyone how fruitless that quest will be. Harry was 1,000 percent convinced he had drafted an all-time player whose number would be hoisted to the rafters. Now a sadder-but-wiser Harry knows he was wrong. Joe Thornton is what he is. He's not going to change.

Consider the ravings of San Jose general manager Doug Wilson. ''This [i.e. Thornton] is a dominant player in this league," Wilson told the Bay Area media. ''A player like this, I'd get him any time. So it passes that test, that we'd get him whether it's summer, tomorrow, or now. When players like that become available, you do what you have to do."

Wilson regards Thornton as a ''top-10 talent." Depending on your definition of ''talent," he probably is.

But some expand the definition of ''talent" to include qualities that cannot be easily measured. To be fulfilled, talent has to be accompanied by intelligence, heart, determination, toughness, anticipation, resilience, and maybe just a little je ne sais quoi. Very seldom is the most ''talented" player on a championship team the ''best" player.

Sometimes it's just a matter of how much you want it.

I once watched Dave Cowens get 29 rebounds against Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes in the primes of their careers, then asked Bullets coach Gene Shue what would happen if a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bob Lanier played as hard as Cowens did. Could they be stopped?

''Can't happen," Shue observed. ''Hustle is part of ability."

I'm not saying Joe Thornton didn't hustle, per se, but he didn't hustle, if you know what I mean. Not in a million years would he have beaten Dave Cowens to a rebound -- or loose puck. He is a floater, a clinician. As a potential 120-point scorer, Joe Thornton clearly has a place in the game. He's on the bus, but he can't drive it.

That's the devil we know. As for the ones we do not yet know, they are all said to be quality players. Brad Stuart had many of the lads over to the house last Sunday for a post-Thanksgiving feast. Wayne Primeau left a note on the locker room greaseboard telling the guys how much he'd miss them. Marco Sturm, I am sure, has helped an old lady across the street at some point in his life.

''Boston is getting very good players who are great people that have done wonderful things for the organization," said Wilson. ''I have mixed emotions."

With these three in the lineup, the Sharks lost 10 straight. Doug Wilson must be a very forgiving guy.

Yes, it's true players have to fit circumstances. Joe Thornton is an offensive player and he is going to a team that needs offense. Two of the players Boston gets back are defensive players (Sturm is a speedster with offensive capabilities -- he scored the Bruins' first goal last night) and they have come to help a team that is in need of defensive help. So it might work out for all concerned.

Do come see me when that happens. Right now, it's hard to get excited about Bad trading with Bad.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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