CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz dropped a bomb that nevertheless blew very little up Wednesday, Aug. 20: Joe Thornton is no longer captain of the San Jose Sharks. His four-year run is examined in the pictured summary as well as detailed below, along with his four years as an alternate captain.
Part of the reason this bomb lacks impact is it was expected. Thornton losing the captaincy has long been speculated about—with good reason considering the team’s general lack of leadership while he has worn a letter.
Taking the “C” from any player still with the team is enough of a rarity around the NHL for Sports Illustrated to pick up the story, but it is the second time it has happened in the last six San Jose seasons. In his first full season with the team, Thornton was an alternate captain for Patrick Marleau. They wore those letters for three seasons that ended with 6-5, 6-7 and 2-4 records in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In two of those three seasons, the Sharks lost to a lower-seeded team; in the other they were 35 seconds away from a 3-1 series lead. The 2008-09 NHL season ended with them winning the President’s Trophy but being bounced in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks. It was the second consecutive season ended by a Pacific Division rival.
San Jose smartly decided it was time for a leadership change, handing over the captaincy to Rob Blake for the 2009-10 NHL season. He led it to the Western Conference final for the first time in six years and second time in franchise history with Thornton as an alternate captain, but retired after the season.
The fiery Dan Boyle was blue-line star with a Stanley Cup pedigree, but was overlooked for the younger, more fun-loving but more dynamic and longer-tenured Thornton for the next captain. The Sharks failed to close out the Detroit Red Wings with a two-goal, third-period lead in the potential clinching fifth game. That left nothing in the tank to fight off the Vancouver Canucks in another Western Conference final, though a second consecutive sweep in that round was avoided.
The next season, San Jose barely made it into the playoffs and were barely competitive once there. Thornton had a good series, but not enough of his teammates followed him. Then he struggled in the second-round contest against the Pacific Division rival, higher-seeded Los Angeles Kings in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs (1 G, 3 A, +2 in seven games).
It looked like Thornton would get a chance at redemption in the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals, with the Sharks hosting the Kings for four of seven this time. He had two goals and an assist in the first three wins, but was held scoreless while being on the ice for six goals against over the last four games as captain of the fourth team to ever blow a 3-0 Stanley Cup playoff series lead.
It thus makes sense to hear San Jose general manager Doug Wilson declare, “It’s a clean slate—there are no captains, there are no letters.” This does not mean the team is still contending that they will enter the 2014-15 NHL season without anyone wearing letters. A captain will be chosen from what is seen throughout camp and the preseason.
The situation was laid out by head coach Todd McLellan. He would not rule out Thornton wearing the “C” when the 2014-15 NHL season begins, but made it obvious there is an open competition among the Sharks for letters:
If it’s real evident that [Thornton] is the guy, he’ll be the captain. If there’s somebody else that assumes that role and is prepared to take it on and is doing a very good job, then they will be. …They’ll sort it out. They’ll show us. They’ll tell us. Their actions will speak volumes.
Plain and simple, Thornton has been the leader of a team that should have gone farther (even if only by a win or two) than it did every single year he has worn a letter. The fact that back-to-back Stanley Cup eliminations have come at the hands of Pacific Division rival Los Angeles only brightens the spotlight on his poor performances in the last six postseason losses.
That is eight years of underachievement culminating in the historic Stanley Cup choke, and anyone part of that is not the right choice for captain. Examiner will next look at how sewing that letter on a new sweater fits San Jose’s off-season narrative.