Ratto: Sharks' Grind (Molars Included) Begins

October 8, 2010, 5:16 am
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The San Jose Sharks are not, by and large, long on surprises. They are who they are, they do what they do. The roster is fairly static, the regular seasons look a lot like each other, and to their tooth-grinding frustration, so do the postseasons.

Ad so it almost is with this edition as well. The goalie turnover from Evgeni Nabokov to The Fightin Ants (-ti Niemi and tero Niittymaki) is interesting, the fight to see who can be the blue line power play specialist in the absence of Rob Blake has its intrigues, and Manny Malhotras departure puts a good deal of pressure on Logan Couture to stand up to full height.

But most of the what the Sharks were is the same . . . with the notable and surprise exception of Joe Thornton, Team Captain.

Thornton got the extra letter on his sweater today, as reported by Comrade Brazil, and for those who believe that being the captain has great import, this is a bit of a jaw-dropper. Thornton is not by nature the guy who grabs the flag and says, Follow me, lads, nor is he known for his inspiring oratory inside the room when things get a little sluggardly.

But there he is anyway, expanding his presence, either because he was the best candidate for the job or because he was the best candidate once Dan Boyle turned the job down, as has been rumored. Either way, this is at least superficially a broadening of the Jumbonian presence in a room has always seemed to function well enough without a demonstrative captain.

Now that, if youre looking for a surprise, is pretty much as good as its going to get.

The rest of the Sharks place in the universe will largely be defined not by their own work, though, but by the shifting sands around them.

Barring significant and persistent injuries, which they havent really been confronted with the last few seasons, they will be at or near the top of the Western Conference race. Patrick Marleau will alternately madden and enchant. Thornton will please and disgruntle. Boyle will ignite and frustrate. Joe Pavelski will be the guy who dominated the early playoff rounds and also the guy who couldnt find his pace in the Chicago series.

In all, they will be about what they usually are, give or take a guy.

But Chicago has been undercut by cap gambles that paid off in a Stanley Cup and were punished with post-parade turmoil. Detroit showed age that needs dealing with internally. Vancouver reloaded after running out of players in the playoffs. Colorado, Los Angeles and Phoenix are supposed to be on the come, Calgary, Nashville and St. Louis are supposed to be on the go.

And somewhere out of that morass will come the team that San Jose has to beat to finally achieve the unachievable June hockey.

Last year, it was Chicago. Before that, Detroit. And sometimes the Sharks didnt even get that far, which is how they came to be known as The Little Engine That Couldnt. Indeed, so few people fancied their chances last year because they were perceived to be who they usually are, the team that finesses its way right onto the golf course.

Instead, they got to the conference final before receiving their just desserts from the mega-loaded Blackhawks. And now, there seems to be a void at the top that they are capable of filling as much as anyone else.

But they need the Fightin Ants to be Nabokov 2.0. They need Couture to break out, and Pavelski to consolidate his gains, and Marleau to be the Marleau of the Chicago series, meshing effort and results. And finally, they need Joe Thornton of all people to rise to whatever it is new captains rise to. The void of Blake is a hard one to quantify, and Thornton does better when you look at his numbers than at his room-filling presence. He likes not to be separated from his teammates by reputation or salary comps, one of the reasons they like him as much as they do.

But he does have to figure out how to make his captaincy work for them, or at least not cause them to shrink. This will be delicate work, and it starts now. It would have started earlier, but the Sharks didnt feel like they needed a designated locker room foreman in the room during training camp; otherwise, they would have named Thornton at the beginning of the process.

The proof of this, and all the other tweaks, starts now in Stockholm in a building that looks like the top half of a football helmet against a team (Columbus) that has barely been on their radar. As always, the season really starts in April, but the grinding begins now.

Including the tooth-grinding.