Thursday, December 1, 2005

Cam Neely is not walking through that door

My latest, at BSMW Power Play, on the Bruins trading Joe Thornton:

In the first few hours after Joe Thornton was traded to the San Jose Sharks for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart, and Wayne Primeau, many media reports were comparing the trade to the deal in 1975 that sent Phil Esposito to the Rangers for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle. While that is an obvious comparison because of the positions involved (a star forward for a front-line defenseman and a 20-goal scorer), my first thought was to the Barry Pederson trade of 1986.

At this stage in his career, Thornton bears some similarities to Pederson at the time he was dealt. Both were first-round draft picks; Pederson was 25 years old at the time he was traded, Thornton is 26; and statistically, they were remarkably similar. Between his 20th birthday and the day he was traded, Pederson recorded 403 points, Thornton 406.

Chart 1.JPG

A couple of things stand out in the comparison. First, while the points are nearly even the comparison doesn’t take into account the difference in playing styles between the NHL of the early 80’s—where players routinely recorded 100 points, and the clutch-and grab era in which Thornton played all but 23 of those games. The other item that stands out is Joe’s 529 penalty minutes, a fairly health sum for a player who has been called soft by some of his critics.

Those same critics point to Thornton’s lack of a strong performance in his playoff opportunities as a symptom of his softness. While I don’t subscribe to this point of view, the comparison to Pederson’s playoff performance is stark:

Chart 2.JPG

So if the players are similar, how do the trades compare? Trading Pederson to the Canucks for Cam Neely and a draft pick (which became Glen Wesley) turned out to be one of the most one-sided trades in NHL history. Neely became a hall-of-famer, and although Wesley is best remembered in Boston for missing the net in game 1 of the 1990 Cup finals, he has been a #1 or #2 defenseman for most of his 18 seasons.

Pederson had two 70-point seasons immediately following the trade, but then tailed off drastically as he fought injuries following the 1987-88 season. Although he did not retire until 1992 (as a Maine Mariner!), Pederson never appeared in another playoff game after being traded from the Bruins.

The Pederson trade was a high risk deal, in the sense that they received a player without much of a track record in the NHL, and a draft pick. While the Bruins were rolling the dice in 1986 that Neely would become an all-star and they’d be able to turn a high draft pick into another solid player, the 2005 Bruins are trading for known quantities. All three players the Bruins received for Thornton are in at least their sixth season, and all are older than Thornton.

Another difference is that in 1986, Harry Sinden made the trade because he believed that Neely could come to the Bruins and make a difference. In the November 30 issue of The Boston Globe, then scout Bart Bradley said as much: ''O'Reilly had called it quits, and we needed that physical presence, a fighter. We were figuring Cam for maybe 25-30 goals a year, and we wanted that toughness in the lineup to replace Terry. We got the toughness, and a whole lot more goals than we figured."

Compare that to Mike O’Connell, who said last night that “We felt we needed to shake up the team…” Are the Bruins making this trade because they see some talent in Sturm and Stuart that San Jose couldn’t maximize? No, they’re going for some mythical “shake-up.”

Had the Bruins traded for three 21-year olds with huge “upside” this deal might be more palatable to Kevin Paul Dupont’s “teen angels, fan boys, and stat geeks.” But they didn’t. They traded one of the best players in the NHL for two solid players and a mucker, not for their potential, but “to shake up the team.” Rarely does trading a star player in a panic make things better. I’d be surprised if this trade is the exception.

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