Owen Nolan and the Greatest San Jose Sharks Captains Ever
On February 7th, Owen Nolan announced his retirement from the NHL.
The 40-year-old forward had not appeared in an NHL game since the 2009-10 season, and not for the San Jose Sharks since 2003.
Nonetheless, he came back to HP Pavilion—where he played the bulk of his career—to officially retire.
The action is indicative of what Nolan meant to San Jose, and what San Jose meant to Nolan. Not only did he enjoy his finest season as a Shark, but Nolan also was the team's first great, long-term captain.
With his retirement comes an opportune time to look back at his tenure as team captain, and see where he ranks among the greatest players to ever have a teal "C" stitched to their jersey.
5. Doug Wilson, 1991-1993
Doug Wilson was the first captain in San Jose Sharks history, which means he also has the worst record of any captain in Sharks history.
During Wilson's two years in San Jose, the Sharks went an astounding 28-129-7. Wilson's minus-38 and minus-28 ratings during those two seasons were ugly, even compared to the rest of the team. And when you consider he put up those numbers in two significantly shortened seasons due to injury, it's hard to know if the injury problems helped or hurt Wilson.
So then, why is he the fifth-best Sharks captain of all time?
Being the captain of a team that never existed before you were the captain is challenging to say the least. Wilson was not only asked to be the leader of a bad team, he was asked to lead a group of guys who weren't a team at all yet. While the players learned each other's names, the coaches learned who to pair on the ice and when to play them, and the people of San Jose learned how hockey worked, Wilson was expected to keep the team together.
So while he didn't do a superb job of it, the sheer impossibility of the task earns him a lot of points.
Wilson's experience also paid off. Although his declining game and injury problems ultimately led to his retirement after the 1992-93 season, many young Sharks learned from the veteran D-man. The team went on to make the playoffs the next year and upset the No. 1-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
And while Wilson may have been relatively unsuccessful leading the Sharks as a player, his time in San Jose left him with a good feeling. A decade after his retirement, Wilson was named the Sharks general manager. When examining his success in his new role, suffice it to say that he's never had a player post a minus-38 rating.
Regular-season stats as captain: 86 games, 12 goals, 36 assists, 48 points, minus-66
4. Rob Blake, 2009-2010
Rob Blake was only the Sharks captain for one year. And it was the last of his 20 years in the NHL.
This is exactly what makes his impact so remarkable.
Blake came to San Jose as a free agent before the 2008-09 season for one reason: to win a second Stanley Cup. In his first year as a Shark, the team had its best season ever, winning the Presidents' Trophy with 117 points.
But they did the bulk of that work in the first half of the season. The team lost its edge down the stretch, and by playoff time, they were simply dead in the water. The eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks knocked them out in six games.
As a result, Patrick Marleau lost his captaincy, and it was given to Blake. In a sense this made Blake the reincarnation of Doug Wilson for this team—a great defenseman whose best days were behind him, but whose experience would benefit the Sharks greatly.
Blake led the team to the playoffs as a No. 1 for the second straight year. But this was a different team—they competed for 82 games in 2009-10, and carried that momentum into the playoffs. The Sharks knocked off Blake's former team, the Colorado Avalanche, in a resilience-testing six-game series. In the next round, Blake defined his season as captain.
Blake was brought into San Jose because Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson essentially wanted to model their team after the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings, of course, are captained by an aging blueliner in Nicklas Lidstrom. And when Blake's Sharks took Lidstrom's Wings down in five games, Blake immediately vaulted himself into the ranks of all-time great Sharks captains.
Regular-season stats as captain: 70 games, 7 goals, 23 assists, 30 points, plus-14
Playoff stats: 15 games, 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points, plus-0
3. Owen Nolan, 1998-2003
Owen Nolan was the first great Sharks captain.
Before Nolan, no one was the team captain for more than two seasons. He reigned for almost five years. More importantly, Nolan led the Sharks to the playoffs in each of his four full seasons.
He, more than any other player, deserves credit for turning the Sharks from a decent expansion team into an NHL powerhouse.
Granted, the Sharks never got beyond the second round of the playoffs with Nolan at the helm. But the right wing did lead them to the second round with a career-defining series in 2000. The eighth-seeded Sharks took on the all-powerful No. 1-seeded St. Louis Blues. Nolan's six goals, including the winner in Game 7, propelled the franchise into the next millennium.
Nolan also helped groom Patrick Marleau, the only other Sharks captain to ever serve at least four seasons.
So, where does Nolan fall short? His playoff excellence in 2000 was more of an exception for him than an MO. He scored eight goals in 10 playoff games that year, but only five in 24 other playoff games as the captain.
Many think back on Nolan as the greatest Shark captain—while bashing more recent captains for their lack of grit and playoff success. While Nolan was certainly a gritty, strong mental leader on and off the ice who put up great numbers to boot, he simply was not the greatest Sharks captain.
Regular-season stats as captain: 349 games, 132 goals, 154 assists, 286 points, plus-17
Playoff stats: 34 games, 13 goals, 10 assists, 23 points, minus-9
2. Patrick Marleau, 2004-2009
Patrick Marleau is the greatest Shark of all time; to that there is no question. He has played the most games (1,089), scored the most goals (379), tallied the most points (810) and holds almost every other franchise record.
What many people do question, however, is if Marleau was the greatest Sharks captain. This time, the questions are warranted, and the answer is narrowly "no." But he's not far off.
First, let's look at the knocks on Marleau. People have questioned his playoff performances, calling him a choker. In fact, his captaincy was likely stripped due to this perception. People have called his mind and game soft, his defense lackluster. He's even been called "heartless."
Well, the Sharks have never won a Stanley Cup, and being the greatest and most-tenured Shark of all time, Marleau is an easy scapegoat.
Now let's look at the facts.
In Patty's five seasons as captain, the Sharks finished with an average of 107 points. They won three division titles, one Presidents' Trophy, made their first-ever conference finals appearance and won five playoff series.
Marleau put up 30 game-winning goals in those five seasons, and seven in the playoffs. His regular-season and playoff numbers trumped those of Owen Nolan's, and his skill and clutch play turned the Sharks from perennial playoff team to a perennial Cup contender—into a team that could bring in stars like Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake and Dany Heatley.
While Marleau never did lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup as team captain, what he meant to the franchise was greater than any other Sharks captain to date. And even if the Sharks lift the Cup while his linemate wears the "C," Marleau will be the first guy it gets passed to.
Regular-season stats as captain: 353 games, 134 goals, 178 assists, 312 points, minus-9
Playoff stats: 58 games, 26 goals, 17 assists, 43 points, minus-5
1. Joe Thornton, 2010-Present
I'm sure you're wondering how a guy that has only been captain for one full season can finish on top of this list.
The most important reason is playoff success. In Thornton's one season as captain, the Sharks went to the conference finals for only the third time in franchise history. And while Patrick Marleau and Rob Blake both captained semifinalists as well, no Sharks captain has ever had a postseason like Joe did last year.
Thornton's 2011 playoffs tied Joe Pavelski's 2010 mark for most points in a single postseason (17). From Jumbo's series-winning goal against the Los Angeles Kings to his six assists against the Detroit Red Wings to his outplaying every Vancouver Canuck in the Sharks' final game despite a separated shoulder, Thornton embodied what it meant to be a Sharks captain.
Which brings us to the next reason Thornton is No. 1: Leadership. Out of every Sharks captain, Thornton has been the first to really take the role to heart. In his first year as captain, Thornton put up his worst numbers since coming to San Jose. He did so, however, because of a focus on defense that he knew would help his team win.
And sure enough, it did. Every night the Sharks needed to win, whether it be down the stretch or in the playoffs, Thornton was the best Shark on the ice. And by the end of the regular season, his teammates had bought into his three-zone approach.
Even Patrick Marleau was playing Joe's game, which somehow led to the previously alluded to "heartless" accusations. To inspire a former captain to redefine his game takes incredible leadership.
The final reason is ability. Thornton is simply the best player to ever be the Sharks captain. While Rob Blake is likely going to be a Hall of Famer, he was well past his prime as captain. Thornton is still in his prime, and might be better than ever—which is saying something for a former Hart Trophy winner.
Nothing is on Marleau's or Nolan's resume that isn't on Joe's, and he's only had one year to accomplish that. Being the current captain, Thornton is also the only Sharks captain so far who has a chance at leading the franchise to its first Stanley Cup—and he's the best bet yet to get it done.
Regular-season stats as captain: 134 games, 33 goals, 87 assists, 120 points, plus-18
Playoff stats: 18 games, 3 goals, 14 assists, 17 points, minus-5
If Joe Thornton doesn't lead the Sharks to a Cup in the next couple of seasons, there is a chance he is traded, or stripped of his captaincy. The most likely candidate to replace him—assuming he's still a Shark—would be Dan Boyle.
Already an alternate captain, Boyle has been the Sharks' best playoff performer in his three years in San Jose. The veteran defenseman also has a Stanley Cup under his belt, and could be the most effective edition of the aging D-man captain (Doug Wilson, Rob Blake) to date.
Although Clowe is less experienced than several other Sharks, he has established himself as the team's emotional leader over the past couple seasons. Common sense would say that Boyle will become the captain if a change occurs while he's still playing, but post-Boyle, Ryane Clowe appears to be next in line.
The feisty forward is vocal, tough, competitive, defensively responsible and comes up big in the clutch. He embodies what the Sharks want to be as a team, and could very well be the captain during the latter part of his career.
This one is a ways away. Couture is one of the youngest players on the Sharks roster, and is very low in the future-captains pecking order. Not only are Thornton, Boyle and Clowe ahead of him, but so are Joe Pavelski and maybe even Patrick Marleau.
That being said, the 22-yea- old is the best young Shark of all time—hands down. Couture scored more goals as a rookie than Marleau scored until year eight, and became just the fifth Shark to ever score 32 goals. With an even better sophomore season in progress, Couture's career path looks destined to be a combination of Marleau's and Thornton's—a career-long Shark who becomes the captain well before his 30s (Marleau) who is also one of the best centermen in the entire NHL (Thornton).
In 10 years, Couture could be No. 1 on this list.