Programming note: Talk shop with Sharks Insider Kevin Kurz today at 2 p.m. when he hosts his weekly live hockey chat
SAN JOSE -- In the Sharks' 22 years of existence, no player has been more important to the franchise than Joe Thornton.
When he was acquired from Boston, he made a solid team a Stanley Cup contender overnight. If the 34-year-old retired tomorrow, he’s already done enough in his career to merit consideration for the Hockey Hall of Fame, and it’s primarily for his accomplishments during his eight-plus seasons in teal.
The Cup never came, though. And, now it could be time for Thornton and the Sharks to amicably part company.
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To be clear, Thornton is far from only player to blame for the Sharks’ historic collapse to the Kings in the first round, or for any of their previous failures in the postseason. Against Los Angeles last month, the team’s core players all failed in spectacular fashion in the final three games of the series loss, the goaltending was unsteady, and the defense missed its most vital cog in Marc-Edouard Vlasic in the final two games.
But at the conclusion of that collapse, no one in the organization argued that San Jose didn’t have the talent to match up with the Kings, and a 111-point regular season backs that up. Instead, general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan pointed to the coaching staff’s message inexplicably not getting through to the players.
That’s an indictment of the team’s leadership, or lack thereof.
Comcast SportsNet Sharks analyst Bret Hedican said: “It does speak to the leadership group, and is saying to me that the leadership either isn’t on board with what he’s trying to do, or strictly isn’t bought in to understanding what it’s going to take to win. … If the leadership has not bought in with the understanding of what it’s going to take to win, then it probably explains why we’re in the predicament that we’re now in, watching the Sharks get beat by the L.A. Kings for the last couple of years.”
Two moments in particular in the seven-game series stand out. The miserable start at home in Game 5, a 3-0 loss, was baffling. Then, in Game 6, Justin Williams’ controversial go-ahead goal resulted in a fragile Sharks team completely collapsing en route to a 4-1 defeat.
If those kinds of occurrences hadn’t happened time and time again over the years, an argument could be made that the current group and its leaders should get another try. But, that’s simply not the case, as the Sharks have shown they don’t have the extra gear required in the playoffs.
And, really, they haven’t even come all that close to advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Sure, they made consecutive trips to the NHL’s final four, but they weren’t all that competitive in either Western Conference final series, getting swept by Chicago in 2010 and, after nearly blowing a 3-0 series lead to Detroit in the second round in 2011, fell in just five games to Vancouver.
In the three seasons since then, the Sharks have won just one playoff series. They’re getting further away, rather than closer, to the ultimate goal.
Something is missing, and it can’t necessarily be identified on any stat sheet.
“I think we’ve got to become mentally tougher,” McLellan said last week. “We’ve got to become a little more consistent in that area. There’s got to be a little more bite.”
That’s why the terms like “culture” and “rebuild” have made their way into Wilson’s vernacular.
“We’re going to have to take a step back as an organization, take an approach that goes a little deeper than we’ve taken in the past, and with that will come pain,” Wilson said. “There will be some tough decisions.”
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Now that Wilson and McLellan are both confirmed to be returning, the focus – fairly or unfairly – shifts to Thornton, the most recognizable face of the team and the guy still wearing the captain's 'C' on his sweater.
There are strong, strong indications that Wilson and McLellan have already decided that there will be a new captain in 2014-15, as both have talked several times about turning the team over to the younger players. Last week on Yahoo! Sports Talk Live, Wilson went a step further, saying there will be “different players in core leadership roles.” Smart money has Joe Pavelski getting the C, with Vlasic and Logan Couture as his alternates.
You can’t hand the team to the younger players without choosing a new captain and leadership group. Should that happen, it leaves Thornton in an odd position, or maybe worse – a distracting one.
Stripping a player of the captaincy is a rare enough occasion as it is, and if the Sharks do it twice in a six-year span (including when Patrick Marleau was removed from that role before the 2009-10 season), it’s an organizational embarrassment. Wilson would shoulder a large portion of the blame for failing to envision a worst-case scenario when he signed Thornton, and to a lesser extent, Marleau, to three-year contract extensions with full no-trade clauses in January.
If a new captain were named this offseason, it would be difficult for that player to not be constantly looking over his shoulder, creating a complicated dynamic in a dressing room in which there are already leadership issues. Thornton’s boisterous personality doesn’t lend itself to handing over the reigns of the team to another player, like Marleau’s does, and a reduced role on the ice – another likelihood should Thornton return – might not sit well, either.
Hedican agreed that that potential scenario is less than optimal.
“It’s going to be a difficult situation. The only way that situation survives is if those new captains and the peripheral guys around the captains make sure that their voices are stronger than anybody else’s in that room,” Hedican said.
Regarding Thornton, Hedican said: “Maybe he’s fine with it. Maybe he becomes a peripheral guy. His status then has to be peripheral.”
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It’s difficult to imagine the Sharks being a better team if Thornton is wearing a new sweater in the fall. If the Sharks offered to trade him, something they would owe him if they plan on removing him as captain, Thornton would have to agree to a new locale. Wilson’s options could be extremely limited, making the return minimal. In addition, Thornton skated in the middle of what was the Sharks’ best and most consistent line during their generally successful regular season.
Thornton’s brother and agent, John Thornton, has already indicated that Joe has no desire to play anywhere else. He’s earned that right, and if Thornton doesn’t want to go anywhere, Wilson has no one to blame but himself if the locker room devolves into a place where no one takes any ownership of anything.
But, Thornton still wants to win, too. Anyone who stood next to him in his post-Game 7 media scrum could see that this most recent defeat was extraordinarily crushing, as he got choked up during his brief assessment of what went wrong.
While his effectiveness as the team captain is a valid target for criticism, his skill level and ability to contribute to a winning team not be in doubt after he finished second in the NHL in assists this past season. His best chance to hoist a Cup in the immediate future, though, is somewhere else, when you consider how McLellan described the team’s aim for next season.
“We’re not going to talk about winning Stanley Cups, playoffs and that kind of stuff,” McLellan said. “We’ll talk about being the best we can be.”
Playoff failures notwithstanding, it’s been a thrilling run for Thornton in San Jose. His tenure here, including helping to pack the SAP Center on a nightly basis, shouldn’t be taken lightly or glossed over. The health of the franchise and the state of hockey in the Bay Area has as much to do with Thornton as any single individual.
Every era has its lifespan, though, and the Sharks’ decision-makers are publicly hinting that they are ready to close the book on this one. The question now is if, or when, Thornton will agree.