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Coach's 'no captain' move for Sharks: clever, risky or both?

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Matt Burt, TSN.ca Staff
8/25/2009 10:43:16 AM
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"As of now, nobody is our captain."

Those words made a few headlines and rustled a few more feathers around the NHL last week when San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan announced his team was currently without a captain (or an assistant) heading into training camp.

On the heels of McLellan's statement, questions arose about everything from the team's direction as a whole to the future of Patrick Marleau, who had donned the "C" for the Sharks since 2004, not to mention the rest of the team's leaders, including Joe Thornton, who previously had an "A" stitched on to his teal blue jersey.

It also left Sharks fans wondering about the motivation behind the coach's unorthodox move: was it a clever piece of reverse psychology designed to anger his best players into producing on the ice in a somewhat vengeful state of mind? Or was it an honest attempt to wipe the slate clean and start fresh in San Jose following years of sub-par post-season performances?

For Thornton, a member of the team since being traded from the Boston Bruins in November of 2005, there was nothing but positive spin on the news that the Sharks are currently without a defined leadership group.

"I think it might be innovative," he said Monday from Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp in Calgary. "I think more teams will probably look at this and say, 'hey, we can't get by the second round, some teams aren't making the playoffs', maybe they're going to change it too, so I think it might be innovative on San Jose's part."

The 6'4, 235-pound forward also said he wasn't phased by the decision and was willing to trying anything that would work.

"It's okay. We've gone a long way as the Sharks and we just want to keep going and we think we've got more on the table so whoever's going to be part of the leadership group, we'll support and I'm sure we'll be part of that group," Thornton said.

He was also quick to dispel the notion that players were certain to lose their roles as captain and assistant, saying rather that it was simply the case that no one technically held those roles currently.

"I don't think, necessarily, they're saying we're losing our letters," said Thornton. "I think as of right now nobody has the captain, nobody has the assistant so we're just going to wait on that and see what happens after camp and I think right now it's still up in the air."

McLellan's comments last week seemed to be of a similar nature.

"I want to see who's stepping up to the front," McLellan told the Mercury News. "We'll see as it evolves. I can walk around town and everybody's giving me a suggestion. We can talk about it internally - everybody has an opinion. I believe it'll sort itself out."

The other assistant last year, Mike Grier, signed with the Buffalo Sabres in the off-season, meaning one "A" was up for grabs regardless.

As for Marleau, the move didn't exactly come as a surprise.

"We had discussions at the end of the year with Doug (Wilson, General Manager) and Todd (McLellan) and we're just looking to get to the next step and this might be one of the ways of getting there and we're just excited to get into camp and get the season started," said Marleau, who was drafted second overall by the Sharks in 1997 and has been with the team ever since. "We can kind of put the past behind us and go after that ultimate goal of winning the Cup and if this will do it, then I'm all for it."

The Aneroid, Saskatchewan native echoed the sentiments of his teammate Thornton; that all of the players were willing to sacrifice personal titles if that move was more likely to achieve a greater good for the team.

"I'm just here and I want to win so if they think this is what we need to do to win, then I'm all for it," said Marleau, who turns 30 in September. "We've had really good teams there in the past and we haven't won it and maybe this will be the thing that takes us over the hump."

Marleau registered 38 goals and 33 assists in 76 games last season, adding two goals and one assist in a six-game first-round post-season exit at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, the latest in a string of mediocre playoff performances for the Sharks.

But despite all the noise about the captaincy (or lack thereof), Marleau said he was not under the impression he was on his way out of San Jose.

"It hasn't been expressed to me that way so I can't really speculate on what's happening in the back but as far as I know, no, it's not going to transpire that way," said Marleau, who will make $6 million in this, the final season under his current contract.

Thornton defended Marleau's tenure as captain and reasserted that, by the time the puck drops on the Sharks' regular season on October 1st, Marleau could very well be wearing that same "C" on his jersey once again.

"Patty's been a good leader, he's been fine, he's definitely not the problem. He's been great for us - he's been great in the post-season, he's been great in the regular season, so I think they just want to go in a different direction," Thornton said. "Maybe Patty's going to be the captain, we don't know...right now nobody has the captaincy or the "A"s so it's too early to talk about it."

In using the phrase "he's definitely not the problem" about Marleau, Thornton is acknowledging that there is indeed "a problem" in San Jose. No one there seems to be doubting that - and maybe honesty is the first step.

Thornton, who was selected first overall by the Bruins in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, had just seven points in 55 games in his first season in 1997-98. Since then, Thornton, now 30, has put up two 100+ point seasons and three 80+ point campaigns between the Bruins and the Sharks and has tallied 842 points in 836 career NHL regular season games.

But a constant thorn in the side of the St. Thomas, Ontario product has been his perceived lack of scoring and passion when it counts. Thornton's critics point to his lack of playoff numbers and the lackluster performance of his teams in the post-season as evidence of an absence of leadership and presence, a missing fire for the game. Contrasting Thornton's impressive regular season numbers with his playoff statistics is definitely an interesting exercise: in 76 games played, he has 12 goals and 41 assists for 53 points - hardly terrible but certainly not on par with his regular season achievements and what many would expect of him in the second season.

A glance at the playoff results for Thornton's squads since he joined the NHL 12 years ago also tells a story of disappointment once April hits:

1997/1998 with Bruins - lost in Conference quarterfinals (6 games)
1998/1999 with Bruins - lost in Conference semifinals (6 games)
1999/2000 with Bruins - did not qualify for playoffs
2000/2001 with Bruins - did not qualify for playoffs
2001/2002 with Bruins - lost in Conference quarterfinals (6 games)
2002/2003 with Bruins - lost in Conference quarterfinals (5 games)
2003/2004 with Bruins - lost in Conference quarterfinals (7 games)
2004/2005 - no NHL season
2005/2006 with Sharks - lost in Conference semifinals (6 games)
2006/2007 with Sharks - lost in Conference semifinals (6 games)
2007/2008 with Sharks - lost in Conference semifinals (6 games)
2008/2009 with Sharks - lost in Conference quarterfinals (6 games, despite winning the Presidents Trophy with a 117-point season)

Regardless of this distinct lack of playoff success, the Sharks are obviously dealing with two extremely skilled players in Marleau and Thornton. For some reason, their achievements on the ice during the first 82 games have not translated to post-season accolades. It's a safe bet that everyone in the Sharks organization is trying desperately to figure out why that is. To some, McLellan's move is a bold and risky maneuver, a response to that unanswered question, and only time will tell if it will pay off and prove effective in changing the culture in San Jose.

Until further notice, though, "nobody is our captain."

Marleau and Thornton (Photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
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