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ON HOCKEY

Now GM is on the firing line

Mike O'Connell rode the high road yesterday, saying he liked everything about Joe Thornton, and how difficult it was for him to send the Bruins' captain packing for San Jose.

Which begs the obvious question: If Thornton was all that great, why did the Bruins' general manager rip the face of the franchise off the front of the building and fling it 3,000 miles west?

''The essence of my job," said O'Connell, ''is to try to make the team better." The deal wasn't about what Thornton did or didn't offer, the GM emphasized, but rather about the GM's need to revive a team that flatlined, with Thornton its centerpiece, over the first two months of the new NHL season.

And round and round it went yesterday on Causeway Street. Everyone was politically correct in the wake of Thornton getting the boot. The GM didn't point fingers. Coach Mike Sullivan was in lockstep, too, praising Thornton's talent and contributions under his watch.

Heck, had Thornton not been headed off to Buffalo to meet his new teammates for their game tonight, the three might have posed for a farewell group hug on that humongous spoked-B painted at center ice. You betcha.

Let's face it, folks, Thornton is gone because the management and coaching staff had enough of his game. Fed up, they ditched him for three respectable NHLers -- Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau -- who will have to provide the lineup one heck of a defibrillating jolt to: 1) break the team's festering funk, and 2) make the wounded Bruins fandom forgive the front office for dealing one of the city's all-time favorite sons.

Last night, with Stuart, Sturm, and Primeau in their new threads, we got our first taste of life after Jumbo, and it played pretty well on the palate. It took the speedy, darting Sturm all of 77 seconds to poke home his first goal as a Bruin, providing a doorstep redirect of a Brad Boyes relay. A little more than seven minutes later, Sturm and Stuart assisted on a Patrice Bergeron power-play strike that made it 2-0. Stuart's setup was a dandy, a slap pass from above the right circle that Bergeron converted with a one-time slap shot from the left circle. All in all, a bold play with some style, some purpose, and a little bit of dazzle.

Keep in mind here, GMs don't ditch franchise players unless they are disgusted with their play and/or are only a step or two from getting knocked off the jobs themselves. In this case, it's the ''and" rather than the ''or." O'Connell is gone if this deal doesn't work out.

''Absolutely. Absolutely," said O'Connell, acknowledging the position he's in now, and where it puts him in reference to the firing squad. ''That's the job." O'Connell at his best. Matter-of-fact as ever.

If O'Connell goes, then Sullivan will be gone, too. The time frame here could be as short as 2-3 weeks. There are still some parts that could be traded away, but the dealing is done. If the franchise center can't be swapped for something/someone to get the product headed in the right direction, then sending Sergei Samsonov or Glen Murray to parts unknown won't be the magic elixir. O'Connell played his ace in the hole, and now all he can do is hold his breath, watch, and hope.

The easiest job in the city right now is to harpoon O'Connell, and link his recent bad decisions with the string of bonehead personnel acquisitions/hires that have been made over these last dozen or so years. Kevin Stevens. Paul Coffey. Marty Lapointe. O'Connell didn't make those moves all by himself. Harry Sinden helped him with a few, and Sinden, without question, had input on the decision to jettison Jumbo Joe.

If the Thornton move ends up backfiring like some of the aforementioned five-star clunkers, then team owner Jeremy Jacobs will have no choice but to order the first front office overhaul of his thirty-something years of ownership. Even if owning an NHL team is essentially a monopoly, there are only so many expensive boo-boos even a monopoly can withstand.

But too easily forgotten here is that Jacobs is at least equally at fault for the mess that has played out here in the Hub of Hockey for two months. Headed into the ugly, protracted lockout that began in September 2004, Jacobs oversaw a business plan that had O'Connell burn the roster down to near Building 19 proportions. The owner was convinced that the new collective bargaining agreement, when finally struck, would leave his Bruins in perfect position to capture prime talent at cut-rate prices. Great idea, but the theory proved to be horribly wrong.

''Maybe our strategy was flawed -- not signing players," O'Connell finally acknowledged yesterday, amid the aftermath of his Thornton deal. ''We had to react quickly to a market. We didn't have many players signed. And the [on-ice] rules changed -- you have to add that into it."

Had Jacobs given the OK, pre-lockout, O'Connell could have signed Mike Knuble and Michael Nylander, both of whom have been key contributors with their new clubs. Knuble, doing business as the Flyers' No. 1 left wing, likely would have kept the 700-Pound Line intact, which would still have Thornton in Boston, Murray on his right wing. Nylander, often feeding Jaromir Jagr these days with the Rangers, was one of O'Connell's best acquisitions, along with Sergei Gonchar, in the spring of 2004. All back in the day when O'Connell finally had found his groove.

''I said our strategy was flawed," said O'Connell, when asked again about the roster blunders, post-lockout, that also contributed to Thornton's departure. ''I bear all the responsibility."

All of which was O'Connell's second trip to the high road for the day. Jacobs shared at least equal responsibility in the failed business plan. When the lockout ended, O'Connell, following the schematic, had to assemble a roster, a Cup-contending roster, in a matter of about one month. Mission maniacal, made virtually impossible because it was a seller's market, driving up prices that led to off-kilter purchases such as Alexei Zhamnov (three years, $12 million-plus).

The Senators, beaten here last night, 3-0, are perhaps the game's best collection of talent. They took years to build, and endured much pain during the construction. It took a lot of bad regular-season finishes, and some shrewd trading, that led to the prime first-round picks that dot the Ottawa roster. One good trade can take a month to construct. Build a contender in a month? Insane.

It remains to be seen if the BruSharks can get back in the game and make a run at the playoffs. As for O'Connell, he is already on the run. If fair, he would be entered in that race with Jacobs at his side, the two tied together in a three-legged sprint.

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