Sharks now must solve dressing room problem

Sharks now must solve dressing room problem
August 21, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Joe Pavelski is on the short list of players who could be named the next Sharks captain. (USATSI)

There’s a comment that was made by a group of my players, that we were co-workers and not teammates.
Doug Wilson

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks' now vacant captaincy shouldn’t be all that surprising to Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, or anyone that has paid attention to Doug Wilson’s increasingly biting comments since shortly after his team’s historic playoff collapse.

All the way back on May 22, appearing on Comcast SportsNet’s Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, Wilson said there would be “different players in core leadership roles” for the 2014-15 season. He couldn’t have been much more clear that at the very least Thornton would not be wearing the captain’s C moving forward, if he were still on the team at all. It was finally made official nearly three months later on Wednesday, and none of the attending local media speaking with Wilson dropped their coffee in shock.

There are now fewer than four weeks until the start of training camp, and the roster may be set. It will be a fascinating camp, to say the least, after management made it crystal clear that there was an issue in the dressing room that only became evident after four straight playoff losses. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in Wilson’s office during the exit meetings.

Removing Thornton as the captain -- and don’t think that he has any realistic chance of regaining that letter, by the way -- is management’s way of saying that this is no longer his team. It’s not Patrick Marleau’s team, it’s not Logan Couture’s team, it’s not Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s team. Everyone will need to have a voice, and taking letters off of some players’ sweaters is more a message to the entire roster than it is to the individual players losing those letters.

[NEWS: Thornton no longer Sharks captain]

That can be traced back to something else Wilson said earlier this summer, that no returning player has any equity from what they’ve done in the past. That includes potential future Hall of Famers, fourth line energy guys, and everyone in between. On Wednesday, both Wilson and Todd McLellan used the term “clean slate.”

That could make McLellan’s job more complicated, though, and he may have to adjust his approach himself. If the head coach has one flaw, it’s probably that he sticks with veteran guys a bit too long when he doesn't have to. When Dan Boyle was struggling last season, he was still getting 20 minutes a night on the blue line. When Marleau hit a rough patch, such as his disappearing act in the two weeks before the Olympic break, his struggles were not reflected in his ice time. If Thornton stayed out longer than he should have on a power play shift, he was still on that top unit on the next advantage. Despite struggling for much of the second half of the season, goalie Antti Niemi’s job was apparently never in jeopardy, even when Alex Stalock was outperforming the starter.

Expect that to change. McLellan will have a shorter leash, straight through the roster, and if that upsets some people or ruffles veteran feathers, too bad. Don’t like it? Then you don’t have to play here, will be the likely response.

[REWIND: Fixing Sharks' culture a priority for Wilson]

* * *

From the outside, particularly from some media that aren’t regularly in the dressing room or coach’s office, the team has been on the receiving end of some pretty harsh criticism. Some of it is certainly warranted. The Sharks were unable to trade either Thornton or Marleau, and signing the pair to three-year contract extensions with no trade clauses now seems like a mistake. At the very least, Wilson should have left himself with some flexibility there, or made them prove they had what it took to lead a team to another deep playoff run before re-upping them.

There’s more. If a guy like Joe Pavelski is eventually named captain (and he’s probably the best bet), it might cause an awkward situation in that he’ll have two former team captains sitting just a few feet away from his locker stall. The team didn’t add anyone of note other than bruiser John Scott, who likely won’t even be in the lineup half the time. A strong argument can be made, too, that the Sharks only needed to add a few pieces to a team that pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champs to seven games.

But much of that condemnation tends to conveniently forget or gloss over the issue in the dressing room, and that really is the biggest issue of all. Had there not been some sort of change, there’s no reason to believe that the Sharks wouldn’t flame out in the playoffs again, as they have so many times in the past. A problem in the room can often translate into poor results on the ice, and the Sharks’ dropping four straight games to Los Angeles in ugly fashion is only the most recent example.

To be clear, too, not all of the Sharks’ locker room issues should be pinned on Thornton, Marleau and the departed alternate captain Boyle. If some of the other players felt like they were “co-workers instead of teammates,” another one of Wilson’s many pull quotes this summer, why did they wait until after the playoff collapse to let either the coach or the general manager, or even the teammates they felt were responsible for the disconnect, know about it? Perhaps they should have manned up and said something while there was still time to fix it.

Still, the focus now is on the two players that have been the faces of the franchise for so long, and how they react could determine how the Sharks fare this season. If Thornton and Marleau decide to stick it out in San Jose they’ll have to accept the new philosophy. The days are over where either of them will ever be viewed internally here as The Man. They can certainly still be contributors, and their performances last season showed they can each still play at a very high level, but behind the closed dressing room doors this isn’t their team any more.

If they can accept that, the Sharks are still a club that still has some pretty darn good players, and can compete. Despite some other Western Conference clubs getting better, this should still be a playoff team. There’s some repair work that has to be done among many of the players themselves, and they’ll probably have to have a pretty lengthy meeting to hash it out, but it can be done. They’re all adults, right?

Fix the room, and it could be an exciting season unlike any in recent memory, and they may even be in better shape mentally when the postseason begins. Don’t fix it, and it could be bumpy ride in which everyone from management to the coaching staff to the roster would be responsible.