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Sharks Need to Get Stories Straight

(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)

The way the San Jose Sharks have proceeded this summer has been heavy on theory and light on specifics. Their plan has been revealed primarily through  inaction and subtraction. “Giving more responsibility to young players,” for example, sounds like a great idea, but removing the C and the A from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau is the first specific step the team has taken in that direction. They also removed some veterans, letting Dan Boyle walk, and buying out Martin Havlat. Beyond that, Doug Wilson has left his plan wide open for interpretation. For those of us who like to think the team will take another run at the playoffs fueled mostly by the angry memory of recent failure, there is fodder enough to think that. But that same fodder, the minimal roster and staff changes, could be used to argue pretty much anything or nothing at all.

The Sharks’ captaincy is the more glitzy story, but the Raffi Torres knee surgery mess is at least as significant. In neither case are the specifics that momentous. Hockey players get hurt and sidelined all the time, and the knee should be a long way from a life-altering injury. The importance of who wears which letter is of debatable importance, but both stories red-flag communication problems with the Sharks.

One hint that information does not flow well in San Jose is the apparently catastrophic state of Raffi Torres’ knee. Why Torres had to have his knee repaired a second time due to an infection resulting from a procedure known to be highly susceptible to infections… well that is a very long saga that boggles the mind. It is enormously disappointing that there is no return date for Torres. In the few games he has played with the Sharks, he has been very much a difference maker, and not for the reasons his dubious reputation would suggest. When playing with discipline, he is exactly what the Sharks need right now: a middle-six winger with all the tools to score and create scoring chances. All of that is moot now, as he is out indefinitely.

The fiasco around who knew what when regarding the letters suggests that the Sharks will need more than new software to fix communication problems. Coach Todd McLellan accepted blame for not being clear in a meeting with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. That lack of clarity resulted in Thornton not being aware of the decision until asked by reporters. Sometimes being clear is only a matter of saying exactly what you mean. Euphemisms and metaphors are nice but people really do need to know what you are doing as well as why you are doing it.

It is easy to see why the phrase “clean slate” would not necessarily mean “we are stripping you of your letters to start training camp.”  In such an environment, McLellan should know that he has to spell things out, especially to his players. It is better to be accused of tedious repetition than of vagueness.

In an interview with TSN last week, Larry Robinson suggested that Joe Thornton might not have been as approachable as a captain needs to be. That came as a surprise to me, not because Thornton is such a jovial fellow with the media. The easy-going style the cameras are used to would not be very effective at motivating his team, so one could only hope Thornton shows a more assertive persona to his team-mates. Yet Robinson suggested the opposite, that Thornton maybe needed to have a softer touch to be a successful captain.

Obviously, leadership methods have evolved a lot since the Middle Ages, where a club served as well as courtesy, but even Machiavelli knew that subtle manipulation often worked better than mass terror. Certainly a hockey team captain should be available to listen to his teammates, but his teammates have to be willing to speak as well. Even if Thornton lacks the mastery to encourage a taciturn person to speak, I don’t buy that the Sharks are a particularly timid lot. I think it is misguided to put communication failures on any particular player.

Sharks media coverage misses Ryane Clowe, we will miss Dan Boyle. They were two of the more outspoken players in public. Were they also the most outspoken in team meetings? Few NHL players share as much as they did, few were as emotive in post game interviews. (Raffi Torres can be a good interview. Too bad his availability has been and will be so limited by injury.)

Is there really such a large gap between what we see in front of the cameras and what goes on off camera? Are the Sharks too careful with their words to get the job done? Will deposing the captain make a difference? Do players defer to a letter or to reputation and status? If longtime Sharks defer to players like Thornton and Marleau out of habit, then new arrivals will be hard pressed to do anything else.

It will take more than putting letters up for grabs to get this team talking. It might sound silly, but maybe they need to get a talking stick and pass it around at every meeting. Nothing could be sillier than a group of grown men unwilling to air their thoughts, good or bad, with a team they are supposed to be part of. They certainly need to do something to get in the habit of saying whatever is on their minds, before it festers and scuttles another season.

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