The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
The San Jose Sharks entered the NHL in 1991-92 season. In that span of 28 seasons, they have only had 10 permanent captains. During this 10th day of Sharks Hockeymas, I’ll examine the captains and how the team did during their tenure.
Doug Wilson 1991-93 – 2 Seasons
Doug Wilson was the inaugural captain of the Sharks and arguably one of the most important. By the time he arrived in San Jose, he was already in the twilight of his stellar career. He lent instant credibility to what would be a very bad team. As a Shark, his resume already included a Norris Trophy, Canada Cup champion, and nine NHL All-Star selections.
Wilson wasn’t taken in the expansion draft by the Sharks; rather, he was the fifth ever trade made by the organization. Considering the magnitude of the impact he had on that young team and his prolonged tenure with the organization, it’s fair to say that was one of the most important trades in team history.
It isn’t exactly fair to blame the Sharks’ 28-129-7 record on Wilson. There wasn’t a whole lot of talent on those teams and they struggled to win the games they did. What he gave the organization during those years was class, even when the likelihood of losing every game was high. He taught the young players, fans, and executives how to comport themselves and set the stage for success that would come soon.
Bob Errey 1993-95 – 1+ Season
Bob Errey was the second captain for the Sharks. He came to the team soon after winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. While Errey may not have been the star of those teams, he was an assistant captain and a leader. When he came to the Sharks for the 1993-94 season, it made sense then that he would be the next captain after the retirement of Wilson.
Errey’s time as captain saw the Sharks enjoy their first taste of Stanley Cup playoff action. After two dreadful seasons, the team made some key acquisitions, including Sergei Makarov, Jeff Hackett, and Link Gaetz ahead of the 1993-94 season that enabled them to finish 33-35-16, good for third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference. That was good enough for a playoff berth — their first in franchise history.
As luck would have it, they would face the Detroit Red Wings who finished at the top of the Western Conference. The Sharks were huge underdogs in that series — in fact, they had yet to win a game in their entire franchise history at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. To win the series, they’d obviously have to win at least one there. The series went back and forth, each team winning at home setting up a decisive Game 7. Jamie Baker won the series on a shot from just inside the blue line in the third period. Their first playoff series win and the great white underdog story was born.
Jeff Odgers 1994-96 – 1+ Season
Errey would begin the 1994-95 season as the Sharks’ captain. Fresh off their first Stanley Cup run that ended in Game 7 of the second round, optimism was high in San Jose. Hopes for a second playoff berth were reasonable, though they would not include Errey, as he was traded on Feb. 27, 1995 for a fifth-round pick in that year’s draft, which became Michal Bros.
Perhaps wanting more of a gritty, workman-like captain, the Sharks named Jeff Odgers to succeed Errey in the role. The undrafted Odgers earned a spot on the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League (IHL), the Sharks’ affiliate at the time. He had been with the organization since the inaugural season where he played 61 games.
In all but that first season, Odgers led the Sharks in penalty minutes. With the “C” on his sweater, the team finished seventh in the Western Conference in 1994-95, tied in points with the Dallas Stars, but with two more wins. They played the mighty Calgary Flames and again pulled a seven-game upset. This was starting to become a trend. In the next round, the Red Wings would avenge their previous-season loss and whip the Sharks 4-0.
The 1995-96 season did not go as well for the Sharks as they finished dead last in the Western Conference with only 47 points. They didn’t win the draft lottery and ended up with the second-overall pick in the 1996 draft. Sadly, that was not a draft with a plethora of top-end talent, certainly not the kind that would change the face of the franchise.
Their 1996 first-round pick turned out to be Andrei Zyuzin, who wasn’t a franchise changing player. Zyuzin was the main part of a trade package that landed the Sharks Niklas Sundstrom, a stout two-way center. They would have to wait for a high draft pick to change the course of their franchise.
Todd Gill 1996-98 – 2 Seasons
Todd Gill came to the Sharks after nine seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he was an assistant captain. He was coming off a season that saw him have more than four times the number of penalty minutes than points. It seemed like the tough guy captain trend would continue.
The two seasons under Gill as captain yielded mixed results. They finished seventh in the Pacific Division in 1996-97 and did not qualify for the playoffs. On the bright side, their 1997 second-overall pick was Patrick Marleau, who would forever change the state of the franchise.
The two-season span of 1995-96 and 1996-97 is the last time the Sharks endured a true rebuild. During this time, aside from Zyuzin and Marleau, they drafted Marco Sturm and Scott Hannan. All three, aside from Zyuzin, played prominent roles in their rise from basement dwellers to perennial favorites.
Things even got a little better when in 1997-98, the Sharks finished fourth in the Pacific, qualifying for the playoffs. As the Sharks geared up for this playoff run, they traded Gill for Joe Murphy. However, the fun would only last one round as they lost in the conference quarterfinals to the Dallas Stars. This playoff berth would start their first true streak of playoff appearances.
Owen Nolan 1999-2003 – 4+ Seasons
In need of a new captain in the 1999-2000 season, the Sharks turned to Owen Nolan, who came to the team in 1995 via trade for Sandis Ozolinsh. During his tenure as captain, Nolan finished second, first, second, and fourth in points on the Sharks.
Previous Sharks captains all had grit, but none had the ability to light up the scoresheet. Nolan had both and seemed to be the perfect fit for the identity the Sharks wanted to portray: a beautiful mixture of skill and toughness.
With Nolan as their captain, the Sharks made the playoffs in four of five seasons. They won two series, besting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000, a series that featured two signature goals. One thrown in his own goal by Marc Bergevin and the other by Nolan via slapshot from the blue line. The other series they won was against the Phoenix Coyotes. That year, 2001-02, they finished first in the Pacific Division and had high hopes of a deep playoff run, only to fall in the conference semifinals to the Colorado Avalanche.
The 2002-03 season saw the Sharks struggle mightily. They would miss the playoffs, a bit of a shock after winning the division the previous season. As a result of their poor performance, they were sellers at the trade deadline and dealt Nolan to the Maple Leafs for Brad Boyes, Alyn McCauley, and a first-round pick in 2003.
Boyes was later traded to the Boston Bruins for Jeff Jillson, who had a controversial tenure in San Jose. The Sharks used that pick to acquire Steve Bernier, who had a modest impact. McCauley was a serviceable forward for his tenure, but Nolan was never quite as productive in his stops in Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, and Minnesota as he was in San Jose.
2003-04 Rotating: Alyn McCauley, Patrick Marleau, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci
For the 2003-04 season, the Sharks did not name a permanent captain. Instead, they rotated the leadership role amongst veterans Marleau, Mike Ricci, and Vincent Damphousse. McCauley also had a turn, and he was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league. Ultimately, when the “C” rotated to Marleau, there seemed to be a permanent fit as it would rotate no longer.
The Sharks finished first in the Pacific Division for the second time in team history and went on the deepest playoff run to date. They beat the Blues in the first round, 4-1, and the Avalanche in the second round, 4-2. Their run came to an end at the hands of the Calgary Flames in six games in the Western Conference Final. The following season would be lost to the lockout, but the 2003-04 season started a run of 10-straight playoff appearances.
Patrick Marleau 2005-09 – 4 seasons
Marleau matches their highest draft pick the Sharks have ever had at second overall. Beyond that, he holds the franchise record in just about every important offensive category including goals, points, power-play goals, game-winning goals, shots, and games played. For many years, he was their best player and although mild mannered — he was an effective leader.
During his tenure as captain, the Sharks made the playoffs every season. They only lost in the first round once, his last as captain, and that might have signaled a change. But before that, the Sharks came close to making it back to the conference final every season. They just couldn’t seem to get over the hump. Perhaps they needed a different voice, and it seemed like they already had that guy on the team.
Rob Blake 2009-10 – 1 Season
Longtime member of the rival Los Angeles Kings and Avalanche, Rob Blake spent the last two seasons of his career with the Sharks. The 2008-09 season saw him be fairly productive with 10 goals and 34 assists in 73 games and his 2009-10 season was similarly effective. It wasn’t on the score sheet where he made his biggest impact, though.
Having already won at just about every level from the NCAA, to the World Cup, to the Stanley Cup, and Olympic Gold, Blake was a proven winner. It seemed like exactly what the Sharks needed to get over whatever mental hurdle was stopping them. It seemed to work as the team made it as far as they had previously under Blake, losing in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Blake is the second Sharks captain who has been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Wilson being the other.
Joe Thornton 2010-14 – 4 Seasons
By the 2010-11 season, Joe Thornton had been with the Sharks for four full seasons. Following his Art Ross and Hart Trophy season of 2005-06, he enjoyed tremendous success and the Sharks were a perennial contender with him on the team. After Blake retired and it seemed like the message Marleau was giving had perhaps gone stale, the team decided it was time to make their best player their captain.
Thornton holds team records in assists, plus/minus, and points per game. He is the only player in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy in a season in which he was traded. He has 220 more assists than Marleau to lead that category in 447 fewer games. His points-per-game mark of .96 bests Dany Heatley’s mark of .90 even though Heatly only played 162 games for the Sharks and Thornton played 1,104.
Still in his prime, Thornton hovered around the point-per-game mark during his time as captain. The Sharks made the playoffs every season under his leadership, which began with a first-place finish in the Pacific Division and another trip to the conference final, losing to the Vancouver Canucks, who went on to lose to the Boston Bruins for the Stanley Cup. The following season, 2011-12, the Sharks lost in the first round to the Blues, then in 2012-13 they made it to the second round before losing to the Kings.
The 2013-14 regular season went pretty well as the Sharks finished second. They were primed for another deep playoff run, which started really well, going up three games to none on the Kings. What happened next is one of the darkest chapters in franchise history known as the reverse sweep. The Kings rattled off four straight wins en route to their second of two Stanley Cups and the Sharks simply had no answer. That playoff performance perhaps led to the Sharks removing the “C” from Thornton.
Joe Pavelski 2015-19 – 4 Seasons
“Little Joe” Pavelski, as he is affectionately known, worked his way onto the Sharks’ roster after winning a USHL and NCAA championship. The former seventh-round pick had to earn every opportunity he got and in some ways was a throw back to the early captains the Sharks had. Pavelski had a ton of skill, but without the high draft pedigree, he embodied the hard-working, blue-collar attitude the team seemed to want after what was becoming annual playoff disappointment.
The 2014-15 season was a bit of a transition year as the Sharks went with four assistant captains in Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The season did not go well as they finished fifth in the Pacific and did not qualify for the playoffs. Ahead of the 2015-16 season, the team named Pavelski their ninth full-time captain. The American-born player from Wisconsin was commonly known as Captain America, both because of his nationality and his heroics.
The 2015-16 season was the best in team history as they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final — their first and only appearance in team history. Expectations were finally low as the team had failed to qualify the year before and the core of the team was considered too old. In his first season as captain, the transition from “Little Joe” to “the big Pavelski” was complete as he had done what no other captain had. Of course, it wasn’t the ultimate goal and any season without the Cup can be considered a failure, but it was also their most successful season ever.
Pavelski led the Sharks to the playoffs every season he was captain. The 2016-17 season was good, despite the Cup hangover, but they were hit by the injury bug and lost to the upstart Edmonton Oilers in the first round. They came back strong in 2017-18 before losing to the surprising expansion Vegas Golden Knights in the second round.
In his last season with the team, the Sharks pulled off the miracle at the tank as Pavelski was injured in the third period of Game 7 against the Golden Knights. The ensuing major penalty turned the tide of the game and they moved on. The Sharks went on to beat the Avalanche in the second round before bowing out to the Cup champion Blues.
Logan Couture 2019-20 – 1 Season
The torch has now been passed to Logan Couture. After Pavelski left in free agency, Couture was the logical choice.
He’s been with the team for a decade and is one of the best two-way centers in the game — strong points for his resume. It wasn’t his fault the team sustained several key injuries to Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, and Couture himself. They also endured a coaching change and were amongst the league’s worst goaltending. They failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the seventh time in team history. The Sharks are certainly hoping for similar success to 2015-16 after the last time they missed the playoffs and bounced back to the Cup Final appearance.
Who Was the Best?
The Sharks have had tough guys, highly skilled forwards, Norris Trophy defensemen and everything in between as their captains. While it isn’t fair to totally judge the effectiveness of the captain on team success, he certainly has more influence than most other players.
Some of these captains had very poor teams to work with and that can’t be held against them. However, all that considered, I think Pavelski has to be considered the best captain in team history. Aside from some bad injury luck, the team was highly successful under his leadership and got farther than any Sharks team ever has.