The San Jose Sharks are a team in transition. Announcing that Joe Thornton was no longer captain was the evening prelude to CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz reviewing the transition in the dressing room Thursday, Aug. 21.
That is the final of the pictured changes the Sharks have made to rebound from their 2014 Stanley Cup playoff choke. None of them might seem that big, but to see if they are collectively enough requires they be examined further.
After dropping four straight elimination games in the Pacific Division semifinals, general manager Doug Wilson spoke of a rebuild. It was time to turn San Jose over to its young players, including in leadership roles. Veterans would have to go, including some of the leaders. "I want players that want to play here, not just live here," was almost certainly directed at Thornton, Patrick Marleau or both.
Maybe, just maybe Wilson should get credit for his tough talk. He has the best regular-season record of any NHL general manager since taking over the Sharks in 2003. He also was an All-Star captain.
More to the point, he was actually there for private conversations that can tell a lot more about where players are than Examiner can glean from the outer dressing room or fans from the stands and their couches. Perhaps this will finally shake up a team that not only underachieves in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but has repeatedly coasted on series or game leads.
Coming close to beating the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings in each of the last two years does not always mean the team is close. Something is missing from a San Jose squad that has now underachieved in nine consecutive springs, and a course change is warranted.
Presumably, Wilson made every reasonable move he was able to. If Thornton and Marleau still refuse to move on after being called out and stripped of the captaincy, that means they are probably no longer (if they ever were) the players deserving of being called out by their general manager.
Even though only two Sharks to play more than one 2014 Stanley Cup playoff game (Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart) are gone, he has managed to make at least minor changes where major ones were promised.
He said San Jose would rebuild and focus on younger players, and he has accomplished that on at least one unit. He let go of two aging blue-line veterans, moved Brent Burns back from the right wing and could have Matt Irwin and any number of rookies get ice time over Scott Hannan.
If that happens, the three oldest players on the ice for the 2014 Stanley Cup choke will be replaced with three players under 30. The veterans were first, fourth and fifth in minutes during that postseason. Replacing those roles with younger Sharks might actually qualify as a rebuild, so long as Hannan is in the press box most nights.
Losing Marty Havlat may be inconsequential because he skated for less than 12 minutes of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, but his role as a reserve and that of Burns will also likely be filled by younger players. Pollak also reported Thursday that Raffi Torres could miss half the season with another surgery on the knee injured last September.
Add those depth openings for forwards to the extra ice from Burns moving back and there are opportunities for young forwards. As long as the depth minutes rarely go to marginal or worse players over 30 like Mike Brown, Adam Burish or John Scott there will be room for more young talent to shine than just San Jose's co-rookies of the 2013-14 NHL season (Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto) now that they will be in their first full seasons.
That might not be a rebuild up front, but it is at least a tweak. Even the goalie position with the same two players is believed to be in transition. Expect the younger Alex Stalock to at least get more starts in the 2014-15 NHL season than he has in the rest of his career. The 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist, 2010 Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi could be the backup and even wind up shipped out of town by the trade deadline.
Starting Stalock would not only be a move in direction, but toward youth. All told, a lot of young players would have to earn ice time over aforementioned veterans that could become merely insurance policies if even more young Sharks leapfrog them as injury replacements.
Could a change in net, on half the blue line, plus a scoring-line and depth forward be considered a rebuild? Not if the leaders were the same guys. Saying Thornton is no longer captain may not be the earth-shattering news it is to the rest of the hockey world, but it not as meaningless as many San Jose fans would prefer to think...so long as it is backed up just as those personnel changes with a shift toward youth.
Is it possible Thornton could not have the "C" but still have the dressing room? Yes, in that sense the letter is meaningless.
If the letter is handed to the player that takes charge throughout camp, he should have the dressing room. Thornton and Marleau can still be leaders without wearing letters, but this team will almost certainly belong more to some hierarchy of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.
That is the right move. The other leadership had 10 chances in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it is time for change.
Everyone thinking the only two constants in eight years of different kinds of failure should remain the focus of this team is really seeing only what they want. Knowing that leadership cannot continue—especially given the "co-workers, not teammates" quote in May—is not saying it is all their fault. It is acknowledging the current model is not working and needs change.
Thornton responded to losing the captaincy by telling David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News Thursday that being captain was an honour (Canadian spelling from the Ontario native) and responsibility to be captain, so losing it would feel strange. He also vowed to play hard and be professional, but revealed he was not told in advance of the announcement he would no longer be captain.
If the team can get on the same page and Thornton plays well in May, his leadership for being a team player will be lauded. If he wins the Stanley Cup, his past failures will be erased. Adapting from those failures means changing, just as it does for the Sharks.