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Stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy

Greg Wyshynski
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San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton heads off ice as members of the Colorado Avalanche celebrate in the background after the Avalanche's 3-2 victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Saturday, March 29, 2014
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San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton heads off ice as members of the Colorado Avalanche celebrate in the background after the Avalanche's 3-2 victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Saturday, March 29, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

These are confusing times for the San Jose Sharks and their fans. 

Win three games against the Los Angeles Kings, lose the next four. Bring back the head coach, but have the general manager start throwing around “rebuild.” Re-sign Mike Brown, let go of Drew Remenda. Oh, and if they don’t get a more favorable television contract, they might leave town.

On top of all of that, there’s this conundrum:

How does one turn over control of the dressing room to young leaders like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture when old leaders like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton are still there, controlling their future with no-movement clauses?

Well that’s the easy part.

You give either Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture the captaincy.

Joe Thornton is the captain of the San Jose Sharks. He’s also been the target of some serious indirect shade thrown by GM Doug Wilson, from “we want players who want to play here, not just live here” to “we’re going to change tactically, personnel wise and giving the younger guys the opportunity.”

Here’s the thing: Trading Joe Thornton for some “culture change” in the Sharks room is stupid. Epically stupid. It’s trading away a player that posted 65 assists last season and hasn’t missed a game in three years. It’s trading away a player that’s the 11th best in the NHL in driving possession for his team.

Here’s the other thing: He’s probably not going anywhere.

Wilson will only trade either Thornton or Marleau if they ask him to, according to Yahoo Sports’ Nick Cotsonika. And Thornton’s not asking. For all that Wilson talk about “I want players that want to play here, not just live here,” Thornton’s contract stipulates that he can do both, on his terms, through 2017, because that’s the luxury Wilson himself provided him.

So the trick for Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan is to transition the leadership group from Thornton to players like Pavelski, Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. The process begins with a ‘C’.

There’s precedent for this, although it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the process. The Dallas Stars took the ‘C’ from Mike Modano in 2006 and handed it to Brenden Morrow, essentially turning the franchise over to a younger player on a new long-term deal. Modano accepted the demotion, at least in public.

One year later, GM Doug Armstrong was fired. So there’s that.

Obviously there are different dynamics at play in San Jose. Take the ‘C’ off Thornton, and you’re left with three scenarios:

1. He accepts the decision, supports either Pavelski or Couture and moves into a glorious existence as a veteran point producer unburdened by the captaincy.

2. He accepts it in public, but the dressing room is split into factions supporting the new boss and the old boss that eventually tear it apart.

3. The Sharks go without a captain, and Thornton, Couture and Pavelski all wear the 'A'.

4. He rejects the decision as a show of indignity and demands a trade.

The third option may well end up being what the Sharks do, although it may not elevate either Couture or Pavelski to where their voices are above those of Thornton and Marleau. 

The fourth option obviously helps Wilson, but I don’t see it happening. This is how content Joe Thornton is living with this family in San Jose: I believe he’d be open to giving up the captaincy yet remaining a Shark. Make of that what you will vis-à-vis his makeup as a competitor.

The decision on next year’s captain will be made by the Sharks coaches, not the players. That takes the pressure off the players who might be too timid to tear down a teammate, a player they like and respect. That puts the pressure on the coaches, who are getting one more kick at this can themselves, to affect change in a dressing room that needs it.

The San Jose Sharks can win with Joe Thornton. But, perhaps, they can’t win as Joe Thornton’s San Jose Sharks.

As Wilson said after the loss to the Kings: “I expect our young players to take this kick in the ass as probably one of the great extreme learning moments to say, ‘You know what? That’s not happening again.’”

It’s time to give them that kind of voice. 

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