San Jose’s Offseason “Changes”
After their 2013-14 season ended in disastrous fashion, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson promised change. “Status quo is not an option” is how the man in charge put it. Fortunately, one could argue cooler heads prevailed as not much has changed with the Sharks. Nor should it have. With young players like Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto establishing themselves in the top-six, and prospects Mirco Mueller and Nikolay Goldobin right behind them, the Sharks have a ton of young talent to mix in with veterans like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who are still elite caliber players. It’s only speculation how hard San Jose tried to move their top veterans but trading either one of them would have been a terrible mistake. Thirty goal scorers and top assist men don’t grow on trees.
The biggest actual “change” this offseason was the decision to take the captaincy away from Thornton. Considering it has never been proven that one player as captain provides any more on ice success, it is a “move” that gets more buzz than it really deserves. In all likelihood, had Thornton kept the captaincy, the Sharks wouldn’t fare any better nor worse this season. However, clearly the front office wanted younger players to take on more of a “leadership” role. Leadership is put into quotations because it is a tricky to define. Ideally, no player should need a letter on the front of their jersey to lead. That said. if removing the C from Thornton’s chest gives more confidence in younger players to step up, than the Sharks have made a wise decision. After all, Thornton and Marleau won’t be around forever.
Leadership by Committee
Over his six plus years as Sharks head coach, Todd McLellan has continually preached leadership by committee. By going with only alternate captains this season and not naming a captain, he is finally allowing his team to do just that, be led by a committee. While I’m not a fan of how much is made about leadership “hierarchy” in the locker room, (is this the NHL or Medieval Times?), perhaps this move makes Thornton more one of the guys and not the lone top dog. With Thornton, Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Joe Pavelski all wearing A’s this season, it’s really like they have four different captains. For a team that has so much pressure on it after years of playoff disappointments, this is probably a good thing. Thornton and Marleau don’t have to be the center of attention anymore. Pavelski and Vlasic can help share the load. While it wasn’t mandatory, as the singular captain, Thornton would almost always be the first to meet with the media after every game. Media attention is never an excuse for poor performance but perhaps no longer being captain allows him to clear his head rather than having to deal with reporters every single night.
The Sharks aren’t the only team to decide to go with only alternates this season. The Montreal Canadiens have also gone this route. With last year’s captain Brian Gionta gone via free agency, they decided to go with Max Pacioretty, Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec, and P.K. Subban as alternates. Sound familiar? A good mix of older veterans and younger veterans.
My colleague at The Hockey Writers Felix Sicard (who has followed Montreal since childhood) put it best when talking about their decision to go with alternates. “It’s smart for the Canadiens because it establishes that they want younger guys to step up in leadership roles while also affirming that veterans are part of the leadership core.”
A number of Sharks fans want to see Logan Couture named captain. A handful of Canadiens fans want to see Subban named captain. While these are fair opinions to have, it seems rather unnecessary to put that kind of pressure on younger players to be the captain. There is a certain level of mystique to wearing the C and it can often create more negative attention than positive, particularly in the hockey crazed market of Montreal. Do Marc Bergevin and company really want to have their star young defenseman have to deal with the pressure of being captain of the most storied franchise in hockey? Past Montreal captains include Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Bob Gainey, and Guy Carbonneau. Those are some gigantic skates to fill.
While the Sharks don’t have the same illustrious history, they’ve had so much made about their captaincy over the last few years. Therefore, going with all A’s is arguably the smartest choice outside leaving things status quo. Remember Marleau had the C stripped from him in 2009 after the first round collapse to the Ducks. Rob Blake then wore it for a season before Thornton took over. Going without a captain is a fresh of breath air for this team.
Only three NHL captains live the glory life free of outside pressure/criticism. Dustin Brown, Jonathan Toews, and Zdeno Chara have little pressure on their shoulders. These men account for the last five Stanley Cup championships. Outside of them, every other NHL player with a C on his chest has to face the brunt of the criticism for their team’s failures. Media and fans alike love to come down hard on the captain. Even the great Sidney Crosby has received boat loads of criticism lately. It is quite common to hear fans say, “what’s wrong with Crosby? The Penguins haven’t done much since winning the Cup, and that was awhile ago.” Chances are at least some of that criticism would be spread around to Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and others if only A’s were worn. It seems silly, but a piece of felt in the shape of a C brings a lot of unwarranted criticism on a single player. Do people forget this is a team sport? For the near future at least, the Sharks and Canadiens have made the smart move by alleviating pressure off the individual. They’ve put it back where it belongs, on the team.