Leadership. Every hockey team can’t get enough of it.
What is it? It’s an unquantifiable, varying trait possessed in different levels by different players. It can manifest itself in work ethic, accountability, fiery speeches, defense of teammates and probably dozens of other ways civilians who do not exist in locker rooms could never understand.
The idea was at the heart of the San Jose Sharks’ offseason. Their seven-game, first-round collapse against the Los Angeles Kings in last year's playoffs wasn't about execution on the ice or Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Logan Couture dealing with catastrophic injuries—at least, not entirely. It was about leadership.
Hence a summer of a change that saw Dan Boyle allowed to leave via free agency and Joe Thornton stripped of the captaincy. The hierarchy needed reordering, and general manager Doug Wilson and coach Todd McLellan would make sure that it happened, even if it meant a move with potential to publicly shame the best player in franchise history into a trade he would not allow.
Sixty games into the 2014-15 season, what have been the results of a summer focused more on letters and less on improving personnel?
“The situation of removing the ‘C’ from certain individuals isn’t an ideal one, but what we’ve got is what we wanted,” McLellan told Sportsnet’s Fan 590 this week. “We have different people stepping up. We have leadership by committee.
“In fact, this year I believe we’re better led than we were last year without having a ‘C’ on. And that’s not an indictment on Joe Thornton by any means.”
McLellan has the leadingest leaders to ever lead this season.
Yet through 60 games, the Sharks are eighth in the West with 68 points in 60 games as they enter Saturday’s critical showdown with the Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium for an outdoor game that has more meaning than any before it.
Through 60 games last season, the Sharks had 82 points, five fewer than league-leading Anaheim.
Perhaps that 14-point deficit is the cost of leadership.
If the Sharks, who are 10th in the West in points percentage and hold the final wild-card spot mostly by virtue of playing more games than the teams directly behind them, miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003, where will the blame fall?
If the Sharks want to hang that on “C”-less Joe Thornton, that would be a bigger mistake than the plan of attack over the summer.
Here are some of Thornton’s numbers over the past two seasons:
|Joe Thornton, 2013-14 vs. 2014-15 (through 60 team gms)|
|NHL.com, stats.hockeyanalysis.com, war-on-ice.com|
Thornton, wearing a "C" or "A" or Strokes T-shirt, is the same player he was a year ago. He is tied for 20th in the league in scoring and ranks 18th in points per game among those to play at least 50 games.
So if the leadership is in tip-top shape, as McLellan said only a few days ago, and Thornton, the player the Sharks seemingly hoped to trade, is producing at the same rates as he was last season when the Sharks were one of the best teams in the league, what's the problem?
Why the 14-point drop in the standings?
There is the obvious, beaten-to-death reason: Allowing Dan Boyle (a forgotten man in the whole "leadership" hullabaloo in the summer) to walk, moving Brent Burns to the blue line and making the one big offseason addition (John Scott) that has weakened the forward depth and overall defensive prowess of the blue line. With so many Western contenders improving in the summer, at best the Sharks stood pat and at worse...well, got worse.
Here are the Sharks' key numbers this season compared to last season:
|San Jose Sharks, 2013-14 vs. 2014-15|
|2013-14||2.92 (6th)||2.35 (5th)||34.8 (1st)||27.8 (6th)|
|2014-15||2.80 (13th)||2.78 (21st)||31.0 (9th)||29.8 (18th)|
Apologies to the dead horse, but it remains ludicrous that after a season this good, the Sharks spent the offseason using the word "rebuild" and wanted to change a winning formula based on one game. There are overreactions and then there's what the Sharks did after blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings.
The glaring difference from last year to this year is defense. And while those numbers may make you want to point to Burns or Antti Niemi, the problem isn't that interesting or headline-worthy.
Goaltender Alex Stalock was one of the best backups in the league last season, going 12-5-2 with a .932 save percentage; this season, he is 5-7-1 with an .899 save percentage.
"Backup goaltender submarines season" isn't a click-worthy headline, but Stalock has arguably done more damage than any of the other offseason moves or non-moves.
Boyle gone and Burns on the back end killing the defense? The Sharks are allowing two more shots per game this season compared to least season.
No Burns up front and Scott signed? Sharks forwards last season scored 183 goals; this season, they are on pace for 183 goals.
Last season, Niemi had a .913 save percentage, .919 at even strength; this season, he has a .912 save percentage, .918 at even strength.
It's easy to look at the standings and make a big deal over captains and leaders and letters, but Thornton's play doesn't even crack the top 20 reasons for why the Sharks are fighting for their playoff lives this season.
Even still, headlines about Thornton and leadership are more easily digestible than "Sharks on verge of missing playoffs due to minimal-yet-across-the-board declines in most statistical categories after stagnant offseason and competitors improving around them."
Leadership is important, but the Sharks' overemphasis on it after last season could lead them to their first playoff miss in 10 seasons.