Joe Thornton will go down as one of the most beloved and accomplished players in Sharks' history, no matter how long the franchise is around. But imagine for one second a world in which Thornton not only never played for San Jose, but rather, etched his name in the NHL record books time and again as a member of a chief rival.
Well, according to former Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, that hypothetical nearly became a reality.
Burke, who was hired as Anaheim's GM following the 2004-05 lockout, apparently tried to change the Ducks' early-season trajectory in 2005-06 by making a blockbuster trade for Thornton. Unfortunately for Anaheim -- and tremendously for San Jose -- that never came to be.
"There are trades where I was in on them and didn't get the player," Burke said Thursday on Sportsnet 650's "The Starting Lineup." "The most notable one is Joe Thornton. We were in hard on Joe Thornton when Boston traded him, and we made what we felt was a really outstanding offer the morning he got dealt, and we didn't know that they had already committed to the trade with San Jose. But we stepped up in Anaheim and made what I considered to be a huge offer, and a better offer than Boston got.
"I'm not going to tell you the players involved, but I can tell you one part of it -- 'I'm going to protect five guys on my team and you can tell me who else you want.' And we had a pretty good team in Anaheim, guys. It was a pretty good team. So if you're only protecting five, that sixth player is pretty darn good -- plus a first, plus a something -- we were going to package it up. So, we were talking a meaningful player, a first-round pick and a couple of kids. And they made the deal with San Jose instead. I was really choked about that. Mike O'Connell was the GM -- good guy -- but I didn't think they shopped him at all."
🔊Sound On🔊— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) March 26, 2020
"...I'm going to protect 5 guys on my team and you tell me who else you want"@Burkie2020 told @JamesCybulski & @psolkowski the blockbuster deal that never happened between Joe Thornton and the Anaheim Ducks pic.twitter.com/79trAaIkuA
Hindsight is 20/20, and it's important to remember that the trade that brought Thornton to San Jose happened more than 14 years ago. When the Sharks sent Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to the Bruins for Thornton, Sturm was 27 years old and coming off three consecutive 20-goal seasons, Stuart was 26 and regarded as a future Norris Trophy contender, and Primeau, 29, was a solid depth forward. It's impossible to know what the Ducks' offer consisted of, but a look at Anaheim's 2005-06 roster doesn't necessarily match up with Burke's conclusion.
Prior to that season, the Ducks had lucked out and ended up with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, which they used to select Bobby Ryan. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry -- two longtime Sharks nemeses -- both made the opening night lineup at just 20 years of age. Beyond the three youngsters, the Ducks' top players that season consisted of 35-year-old Teemu Selanne (40 goals, 50 assists), 32-year-old defenseman Scott Niedermayer (13 goals, 50 assists), 28-year-old Andy McDonald (34 goals, 51 assists), 22-year old Joffrey Lupul (28 goals 25 assists) and 26-year-old Chris Kunitz (19 goals, 22 assists).
Let's hypothetically assume that Burke would have protected Niedermayer, Lupul and the three youngsters. It's unlikely Boston would have accepted a 35-year-old as the centerpiece of a return for Thornton, and surely would have insisted on at least one of Ryan, Getzlaf and/or Perry. But let's say the Ducks stood pat. How would a package of McDonald, a first-round pick and one or more prospects have compared to what the Sharks offered?
As for which offer is superior might come down to personal preference, but I would argue the difference isn't very significant.
The trade worked wonders for San Jose. Thornton's arrival turned the team's season around, and he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's regular-season MVP. The Sharks made it to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated in six games by the Edmonton Oilers, whereas the Ducks advanced an additional round to the Conference final despite Burke failing to land his white whale.
Just as Anaheim did that season, the Sharks always have fallen short of the Stanley Cup, regardless of Thornton's presence in the lineup. San Jose fans have had to deal with their fair share of constant heartbreak, but at the very least, they haven't spent the last decade-and-a-half rooting against the player who undoubtedly has become one of their favorites.