With a 5-1 game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings last spring, the San Jose Sharks became just the fourth team in NHL history to lose a playoff series after having a 3-0 lead.
Their first round exit was just one of many disappointing post-seasons for the Sharks, a team that has never advanced past the Conference Finals despite having made the playoffs in 10 consecutive years and 17 of the 22 seasons since their inception. Management decided it was time for a change, and chose to reset the team’s leadership hierarchy. In late August they announced that training camp would begin with no named captains or alternates.
If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu right now, it’s probably because this exact situation happened 5 years ago following the 2008-09 season. That year the Sharks racked up a league-high 53 wins and 117 points on their way to the franchise’s only Presidents’ Trophy. Unfortunately, their regular season success again didn’t carry over to the playoffs and they were bounced out of the first round in 6 games by the Anaheim Ducks. In the summer that followed, Coach Todd McLellan made the announcement that they were vacating the captains, although as was said this year, the former captains had the chance to regain their titles. Patrick Marleau would lose the captaincy to Rob Blake for the next season, and a couple years later Joe Thornton would receive the honour. It seems certain the captaincy will change hands once again this year.
Marleau and Thornton will definitely still be competing for the leadership positions at training camp this year, but they will have plenty of competition from some younger players that are hitting their stride – players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture are continually getting better and showing they can compete with the best in the league. I believe management will look for a shift to the younger players to take on the leadership roles of the team going forward, so when the puck drops to begin another season the new hierarchy could look something like this:
Captain – Joe Pavelski
A smart centre with a great shot, Pavelski is one of those players that seems to see the game differently. He moved to the left wing beside Joe Thornton last year and had his most productive season in goals (41) and points (79). Pavelski also played for Team USA at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, registering a goal and four assists this past year.
Alternate – Marc-Edouard Vlasic
A defenceman that played his first full NHL season at the age of 19, Vlasic is already heading into his ninth season with the Sharks. ‘Pickles’ gained valuable experience playing alongside Rob Blake for a couple of seasons and won the Olympic gold medal this year with Team Canada.
Alternate – Joe Thornton
The former captain will definitely still be a major part of this team’s leadership group going forward regardless of whether or not there ends up being a letter on his jersey. Jumbo Joe showed he can still play at an elite level this year, putting up 65 assists and 76 points while not missing a game.
Other possible candidates: Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns
Fortunately, the Sharks have quite a few talented players competing for these spots and the result could be completely different than I imagined here. Whether or not the changes result in playoff success is all that really matters though.
In 2009-10, the season after Marleau was removed as the team’s captain in favour of Rob Blake, the Sharks finished first in their conference again and advanced through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs in 11 games (4-2 over Colorado, 4-1 over Detroit). Ultimately the Sharks were swept in 4 games by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Conference Finals, in what would be the first of 2 times they’ve been eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup Champs (LA Kings the last year). In 2010-2011 they again reached the Conference Finals, their third and most recent appearance, falling to the Vancouver Canucks in 5 games.
So while the team did manage to make it further than they had in the previous 4 years, their quick exits from the third round isn’t encouraging enough to believe it will make a large difference again this year, and it seems doubtful that their marginal improvement would be the sole reason for the recent shake-up. Management stressed a rebuild this offseason and got rid of some veterans, choosing to trade Dan Boyle’s rights to the New York Islanders and buying out the final year of Martin Havlat’s contract. Maybe the change in captains is the team hoping to encourage Thornton and Marleau to finally leave the team in favour of a younger team, both players have no-move clauses and have expressed their desire to remain in San Jose.
No matter who the captains are, or if Thornton or Marleau (or both) eventually get traded, the Sharks still face some stiff competition in the Western Conference this year and will have many tough battles along the way as they search for some playoff success in hopes of their first Stanley Cup.
Cover Photo: Getty Images (http://www.nhl.com/ice/gallerylanding.htm?id=45534&location=/photos&pg=5) – Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images.