SAN JOSE, Calif. — Before training camp, the San Jose Sharks retreated to Lake Tahoe. No executives. No coaches. Just players – 22 of them, pretty much the whole team. They spent two days together sleeping in cabins, hiking in the woods, going out on the water, watching football, barbecuing. They built a bonfire.
“Ninety-nine percent was not hockey,” said center Logan Couture. “One percent was maybe hockey.”
NHL teams take bonding trips all the time. The Sharks once did military-style training. But the Sharks had never done anything like this before camp, and it followed a tumultuous few months.
The Sharks became the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 lead and lose a series when they fell to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. General manager Doug Wilson used the word “rebuild,” called the Sharks a “tomorrow team” and revealed players told him they felt more like co-workers than teammates. Coach Todd McLellan took the ‘C’ from Joe Thornton and an ‘A’ from Patrick Marleau, leaving the captaincy open entering camp.
It might not be as bad as it looks. The Sharks were one of the best teams in the league in the regular season, and a 3-0 lead isn’t what it used to be. Wilson doesn’t want to lower expectations; he wants to keep winning as he transitions to a younger roster. Players deny there is a rift in the dressing room, and McLellan has said the opening of the captaincy is not an indictment of Thornton and Marleau. It is a challenge to others players to assume more leadership. If they can speak up after the season to the GM, they can speak up during the season to each other.
Wilson signed Thornton and Marleau to three-year extensions in January. He gave them no-movement clauses; they took at least a little less than they could have received on the open market (Thornton $6.75 million per season, Marleau $6.67 million per). He has not asked them to waive their no-movement clauses and will not explore a trade unless they request it; they haven’t asked to go for the same reasons they wanted to stay in the first place.
“I still believe in this team, ultimately,” Thornton said. “If I didn’t, I think … You know, that’s the easy way out, just pack your bag and leave. I still believe this team can do some things.”
“I still think we have a good group of guys in here,” said Marleau, entering his 17th season in San Jose. “I’ve made a commitment here to this team, and I’d like to see it through. I have a lot of skin in the game being here so many years. I want to succeed here.”
But these guys needed to get away and have some fun. They needed to face what happened and do something about it themselves. Why did they blow that 3-0 lead? Why did guys tell Wilson what they did? How can they come together better? What kind of team do they want to be?
“It’s no different than any office,” said winger Adam Burish, who helped organize the Lake Tahoe retreat along with defenseman Jason Demers. “When you’re not around your boss anymore, you can kind of open up and be yourself. For us, that was kind of the idea. Let’s do something as a group. Let’s be together as a group. …
“Now you start Day 1, and there’s nobody tiptoeing. If you’re a first-year guy or you’re Joe Pavelski, everybody’s on the same page.”
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It wasn’t just that the Sharks blew that 3-0 lead. It was how they blew it. They lost keystone defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic in Game 5, and they flip-flopped goalies in Games 6 and 7. But that doesn’t explain why players strayed from the structure when adversity struck, trying to do too much themselves, not trusting their teammates to do their jobs. The Sharks gave up odd-man rush after odd-man rush.
Emotions were raw. “Any time you lose the way that we lost in that series, fans are going to react, the organization’s going to react, players,” Couture said. “Things happen. You come back now, and maybe people look back and regret maybe some of the things that happened, but that’s the way it goes. I still think we have a very good team in here.”
They do have a very good team.
In many ways, the Sharks did not panic. Ownership did not fire Wilson. Wilson did not fire McLellan or make major changes. If you look at the rebuild, it really goes back to what Wilson called a “reset and refresh” in the second half of the 2012-13 season – and it looks a lot like what the Sharks did a decade ago.
In 2002-03 and 2003-04 – Dean Lombardi’s last season as Sharks GM and Wilson’s first – the Sharks reduced their average age to one of the youngest in the NHL. They parted with veterans like Adam Graves, Bryan Marchment, Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne, and they replaced them with homegrown players like Jonathan Cheechoo and Christian Ehrhoff. Wilson added an enforcer, Scott Parker, to protect the kids.
In 2012-13, Wilson traded veterans Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray before the deadline, then added Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres. After the 2013-14 season, he traded Dan Boyle’s rights, bought out Martin Havlat and traded Brad Stuart. He acquired draft picks and gave opportunity to homegrown players like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and Mirco Mueller, lowering the Sharks’ average age again. Like it or not, Wilson added another enforcer, John Scott.
Wilson explained the rebuild to the players and openly wondered whether some veterans would want to go through it. To him, he was being up front, not trying to force out anyone. He is not in win-now, mortgage-the-future mode. He will not trade picks or young players for veterans – or sign free agents who will leapfrog young players – to try to put this team over the top. He will put younger players in positions to play and lead. How quickly tomorrow comes depends on how the team develops.
Boyle and Havlat were not given a choice, but other veterans were. Stuart wanted to play in the top four on defense, and when Wilson told him that spot was unavailable, he asked to go elsewhere and was traded to the team of his choice: the Colorado Avalanche. Hannan accepted that he would start out as the seventh defenseman and have to fight for a larger role. Antti Niemi accepted he would have to fight for the net with Alex Stalock. Thornton and Marleau accepted that they might play with younger players, too.
Thornton and Marleau are still elite players at age 35. They can help the Sharks win in the short to medium terms while helping bring along the youngsters. But if you take a longer-term view, the Sharks are building around a core of Couture, Pavelski and Vlasic, along with guys like Justin Braun and Tommy Wingels. Guys like Hertl, Nieto and Mueller are the next wave. One day, Thornton and Marleau will be gone. The Sharks want to win up to and past that day.
Which brings us to leadership. The Sharks don’t want younger players to defer to Thornton and Marleau. They want them to take more ownership, and they want more accountability for everyone. McLellan cannot be afraid to use the hammer of ice time the way Darryl Sutter has in L.A., benching captain Dustin Brown, demoting star Mike Richards to the fourth line.
Note that in 2003-04, the Sharks rotated captains – Marleau, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci and Alyn McCauley all wore the ‘C’ – and tomorrow came quickly. The Sharks made the Western Conference final.
“I have such great respect for the dressing room,” said Wilson, who captained the Sharks in their first two seasons in the NHL, 1991-92 and ’92-93. “I trust our coaches and our players. There’s some things that they’ve discussed that they want to do. It’s now time just to do it.”
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There is tension, no question. On the first day of camp, Thornton was asked if Wilson’s “tomorrow team” comment gave him any extra motivation, and he said: “I have enough motivation. I don’t need somebody else telling me we can’t do it.” Marleau suggested there might be room to move Brent Burns to forward, even though Wilson and McLellan have moved Burns back to defense.
But if there is tension between the players and their bosses, if there is some discomfort after what happened, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on how everyone handles it. It depends on whether it unites the players or divides them.
Lake Tahoe was the first step. Listen closely. Hear a theme?
“It’s hockey, and you go out and play, work hard, support each other and win,” Thornton said.
“We know what we have to do,” Marleau said. “So if that’s sticking together like we should and always do, then that’s what we do. … If everybody’s into the system, plays it the right way, has each other’s back and plays to their full potential, the sky’s the limit.”
Marleau lost the captaincy in 2009-10 to Rob Blake. “When Patty lost his ‘C,’ I don’t think anybody thought any different of him,” Thornton said. “When he was wearing the ‘C’ and when he wasn’t, I still thought of him the same. I think he’s still a leader of this team, and I think that probably holds true with me. You might not have the ‘C,’ but guys are still going to look to you to be a leader on the ice and try to do things right.”
Thornton has said the Sharks need 23 captains. “I’ve been around a long time,” Thornton said. “You know you have to have everybody pulling together. … Everybody has equal share on this team and everybody should feel free to voice their opinion.”
To a man, the players say they will support whoever is – and is not – wearing a letter. “The letter thing is I think overblown by people on the outside,” Couture said. “Within this room, we’re confident going forward. If we have a captain, if we don’t have a captain, if someone else is the captain, we don’t really care. There’s enough leaders in here to do a good job.”
Do the Sharks feel more like teammates than co-workers now? Will it translate to the ice? Will it make a difference?
“We’ll see,” Marleau said. “For me, talk’s cheap sometimes, you know? But I think it’ll be a good thing if we get off to a good start. All the things that were happening this summer, just talking to guys … We talked to each other. Knowing we’ve got each other’s back, that’s the main thing.”