Face value

Five years and a collective sports mentality ago, there were four indisputable “faces” of the franchise in this town, where we love to rush to the defense of our stars, and perhaps even more so, tear them down just as quickly.

Nomar Garciaparra, Antoine Walker, Drew Bledsoe, and Joe Thornton. Ah, yes, the future was bright, and the need to wear shades was high because of the blinding glare of all the trophies and championship bling the Fantastic Four would earn for Boston.

Collectively, the four of them brought zero rings to New England. Zero. Replacements for Garciaparra (Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz) and Bledsoe (Tom Brady) were immediately responsible for four parades between them. Of course, I wouldn’t dare ask you to expect similar results from Raef LaFrentz at any point.

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Mike O’Connell found a way to add three new names to the pot last night when he dealt Bruins captain Thornton to San Jose for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau. It’s a trio that will unfortunately be the most reviled (outside of O’Connell, of course) at the Garden tonight when the Bruins face off against the Ottawa Senators, in a game that was likely going to be a one-sided affair in the first place. Now, with this emotional hit, it’s anyone’s guess how the last-place Bruins come out tonight, particularly with a fan base that is, to simplify things, peeved.

Stuart, Sturm, and Primeau won’t be the hockey equivalent of Cabrera, instantly revitalizing their team for a Stanley Cup run. The Bruins are far too dysfunctional to have such aspirations in this lost Boston hockey season. But they will be the target of much scorn over the coming days, weeks, as was Cabrera, in that they are what O’Connell got back in return for a former No. 1 draft pick who was supposed to be the next Milt Schmidt, Mario Lemiueux, and Cam Neely, all rolled into one.

Is it any wonder that Thornton never became the player we expected him to be in this town? The common thread among the four former faces of Boston’s respective franchises is they all came with an expectation tag attached upon arrival, one that in retrospect was far too heavy on each of them. It’s different when a player is thrust into a situation needing greatness. See Brady, Tom. When said player comes here with the weight and pressure of a title-starved fan base on his shoulders, it is simply impossible for him to be the player that everyone thought he would be when their team started to nurture him. Too much is expected, more than most players can be expected to realistically give. It’s the precise reason why some folks out there might not want to mail Jonathan Papelbon’s resume to Cooperstown just yet.

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To say Joe Thornton was a huge disappointment in Boston is a statement bordering on the idiotic. Great? Hardly. The one season when it seemed he was on the cusp of breaking into his expected potential was the 101-point season of 2002-03, a high water mark he has yet to come close to reaching. Besides that, Thornton was more Keith Primeau (Wayne’s brother) than Wayne Gretzky.

But he was a damned good hockey player all the same. Captain? About as good as Nomar would have been with the Sox.

Imagine Joe Thornton for a moment was just stats. Not the laid-back, No. 1 pick, good guy he was here, but just stats. You look at the numbers he’s put up for seven-plus seasons and five playoff appearances. You find out that in return, you can get a top-five defenseman (Stuart) to plug up your biggest hole, plus one solid second-tier player (Sturm). In addition, you save $1.9 million toward the salary cap, an issue that is always touchy when you discuss money and Bruins among the fans.

You forget for a moment that this guy was supposed to be the face of your future. You wake up and realize what Joe Thornton is, not what you’d like him to be. And you make the deal. It’s that simple.

He is a Canadian icon, but can you say without guffaw that Thornton leaves Boston as a legend? Nomar and Bledsoe did to some extent leave with a heritage of greatness behind them, Garciaparra perhaps one of the best righthanded hitters in the city’s history for four glorious seasons, and Bledsoe the centerpiece of a franchise revived from the dregs of the league. Thornton? Walker? Please.

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But let’s get one thing straight. When we discuss Thornton’s potential, it’s not like it’s something he never lived up to, and we’re looking back on his career now, sorting out his Hall of Fame potential. Thornton is just 26 years old. Josh Beckett arrived here last week, and everybody gushed about how great it was to have such a young guy for the future of the franchise. He’s one year younger than the departed Thornton.

It’s not so shocking that the Bruins traded away their franchise player last night. We’re getting used to this with the Nomar, Bledsoe, and potential Manny Ramirez deals over the past few seasons. What is so mind-bending about it is just how rock bottom things have gotten over at the Garden. This isn’t the kind of deal that prompts a shakeup, it’s the kind that waves the white flag with the expressed need that things have to start over again.

Is O’Connell the guy that should be in charge of that? Despite not having proven that he is for the past four years, he’s likely not going anywhere. And for everyone expecting Mike Sullivan to be fired any day now (CN8’s overtime clock is at 192 hours and counting since it reported the coach would be fired in 24 hours) this much is clear: Sullivan is this team’s guy for the long-term. Remember Thornton grumbling a couple of weeks back about how the guys in the dressing room weren’t buying into their coach’s philosophy? The team backed the coach. Not the captain, whom they shipped away to another last-place team in the Sharks.

Today, they’re trying to rationalize in San Jose that they didn’t give too much up for a player that everyone keeps waiting to be the best in the game. They got the best player in the deal, but it’s clear, or will be once the rose fog clears from some fans’ glasses, the Bruins got the better package. For all the success we’ve seen here since Adam Vinatieri’s kick sailed through the uprights in the Bayou, sometimes we forget it’s not about the stars, but the collective group.

And the Bruins might not be finished. If they’re smart, Glen Murray might be the next to go while he has some value. Murray has never reached a level of success without Thornton on his side, and could see his stats plummet now. At $4.15 million, he’s now the team’s highest-paid player, a good sign he’ll be on the block along with Thornton’s fellow 1997 draftee, Sergei Samsonov, who won’t be back next season regardless, and will inevitably be shipped to a contender for something of value in return.

There are a very few good teams in the new-look NHL, but none better than Ottawa. There are plenty of bad teams too, not many worse than Boston. It’s not a slump, hiccup, bad start, lack of conditioning, or otherwise. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror and realize who you are, not what you want to be.

In an ideal world, Thornton would have been invited by the mayor to raise that Lord Stanley’s Cup on City Hall Plaza, not the Colorado Avalanche’s Ray Bourque. But there’s a difference between potentially great and great. There were a lot of great things about Joe Thornton. He is a great player. But he is far from being one of the game’s greats, and he may never be.

That was the expectation from Thornton, to become one of the game’s greatest players, a torch now handed to Sidney Crosby. Anything less is never enough when that stigma follows you. If this deal were based on what Thornton has done in the NHL and not what he could do, O’Connell is getting thousands of apologetic messages today for pulling off one of the game’s great steals. Joe Thornton was a name and a great player. He was the face of a franchise.

But faces don’t bring titles. You’d think by now that we’d realize that.