One of the things I've always liked about the way the San Jose Sharks run their team is that they have resisted the temptation to overreact to postseason disappointment.
When a team comes up short in the playoffs, they sometimes have a tendency to overreact and do more harm than good to their roster. The Sharks, though, have typically recognized that they still have a great, contending team even though they haven't reached the Stanley Cup Final. They believed in the process and stayed true to it when other teams might have torn things to the ground and started over.
But this offseason feels different. It's almost as if their latest postseason exit, a historic collapse in the first-round against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, has finally driven them to madness.
A bizarre offseason
The offseason started with talk of a rebuild and raised questions about the immediate future of veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau with the team. But in the end, the "rebuild" consisted of nothing more than losing Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle, shifting Brent Burns back to defense and signing enforcer John Scott to a bottom-six that already has Adam Burish and Mike Brown wasting minutes and cap space.
That's not rebuilding. It's not getting better. It's not even maintaing the status quo.
But while the team on the ice, in an objective sense, gets a little bit worse, the Sharks seem to be taking aim and directing their focus at the leadership structure of the locker room, as if that's the only thing that has kept them from a Stanley Cup.
Strip the 'C' and make it worse
The team is going with a "clean slate" approach that includes Thornton losing his captaincy and the other assistants having the 'A' removed from their sweater. It's a move that wasn't handled in the best possible way, as Thornton told David Pollak of the Mercury News that coach Todd McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson did not inform him of their plans regarding the captaincy during discussions that very day.
Here is what McLellan said, via Kevin Kurz of CSN:
"We’re going to reestablish the hierarchy and the culture in the organization," McLellan said "If it’s real evident that [Thornton] is the guy, he’ll be the captain. If there’s somebody else that assumes that role and is prepared to take it on and is doing a very good job, then they will be. To say we stripped him, no. We’ve cleaned the slate, and we’re going to go forward.They’ll sort it out. They’ll show us. They’ll tell us. Their actions will speak volumes," McLellan said of the team.
They're not stripping him of the captaincy ... but they stripped him of the captaincy.
Fear the Fin
At the end of the day, the captain stuff probably isn't going to make much of a difference in the success or failure of the Sharks.
It's just a weird place for the team to focus, especially when Thornton is still the best and most valuable player on the team. But this is what tends to happen in sports. We like to cling to the win as a team concept, but all that seems to go out the window when a team loses or comes up short. Then it always seems to fall back on one player, usually the best or highest profile player. It comes with the territory.
Thornton is still their best player
But through all of the criticism, Thornton remains the straw the stirs the drink in San Jose and when he's not on the ice, things tend to go off the tracks. In two of the last three years the Sharks have been outscored during 5-on-5 play when Thornton is on the bench, and the three year total comes in at a minus-12.
Along with driving possession better than almost any other player in the league, he's doing all of it while usually being asked to play against the best players in the league on a nightly basis.
It's worth asking where they would be without him.
I've long believed that Thornton is the type of player that will be far more appreciated 10-20 years after he retires than he was during his playing days when we didn't realize what it was we were watching. The one exception to that always seemed to be in San Jose, who always seemed to know how good they had it.
We've Fixed The Sharks!
We've Fixed The Sharks!
Now I'm not so sure. It's not that players like Thornton should be above criticism, but when the biggest thing about your offseason is taking a clean slate approach to your leadership and going out of your way to make your best and most important player uncomfortable (whether it be trade rumors, or his status as team captain, or making him "earn his place on the team") it's more than a little bizarre to say the least.
Especially while several of your top contenders in the Western Conference were actively improving their teams (St. Louis added Paul Stastny, Dallas added Jason Spezza, Chicago added Brad Richards).
The Sharks are still a playoff team, and their championship window is still open, especially with a core that includes Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, but they haven't exactly done themselves any favor this offseason when it comes to making it better.
The funny thing is, if they didn't lose Vlasic in the playoff series against Los Angeles there is a very good chance none of this is even happening this summer.