Sharks going to stay calm, move on

LOS ANGELES -- This game wasn't about revenge. This wasn't about retribution.

The 4-0 opening night win for the San Jose Sharks over the Los Angeles Kings wasn't about burying the memory of the Kings' comeback in the first round of the playoffs after the Sharks built a 3-0 series lead.

This game was about healing.

Not from the heartbreaking series loss to the Kings or another playoff letdown in San Jose. It was about the start of a healing process for a franchise that was fractured at every level when last season ended. Trust everywhere wiped away.

At this point, digging up the morbid details of the summer is counterproductive. The Sharks aren't talking details, anyway.

But it was, without doubt, a summer of dysfunction. What was seen publicly being only the tip of the iceberg. Joe Thornton lost his captaincy, and he, along with Patrick Marleau, was offered an opportunity to leave just months after signing a three-year deal if he wasn't eager about being part of a rebuild. The phrase "co-workers, not teammates" described the chilled relationship between players. There were divides between the most important people in the organization.

The wounds are still fresh enough that you don't have to peel the skin back too far to see the damage that was done.

The Sharks team that emerged against the Kings is a changed one, and not just the surface changes you notice immediately. It's not as talented as last season's team. Dan Boyle is gone. Brad Stuart is gone. The move of Brent Burns back to defense has thinned out the forward group. It's also younger, with rookies Chris Tierney and Mirco Mueller making impressive NHL debuts Wednesday.

That's not what's different.

The difference now is the mindset of the players. Of all the stories about how this summer in San Jose went down -- some that turned out real, some imagined -- the one that the rings with the most truth is how it changed the players.

Let's start with Thornton because, captain or not, that's still where everything begins in San Jose.

"He's always been our leader, always will [be]," said defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who will join Thornton, Marleau and Joe Pavelski as alternate captains this season. "Everything runs through him. It always will."

Thornton is the alpha male. He's still the guy you hear the loudest in the dressing room when the cameras are off but who has learned it's safest not to say anything of consequence when they're on.

Take this conversation, held two days before the Sharks opened the season. Thornton's world had been turned upside down this summer. He'd lost the captaincy. He'd been at the center of unfounded trade rumors. But you'd never suspect it by his answers. Does this season feel any different at all?






It feels exactly the same as every other year?

"Your goal is to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "So when you don't win the Stanley Cup, you start over again. So it's no different."

Are teammates treating you any differently without the C?

"No. Nothing's changed. I'd honestly tell you."

What he doesn't say is that his teammates rallied around him this summer. They sent texts when he was being ripped in the media. They supported him when he lost his captaincy.

"He's still big Joe Thornton," said Adam Burish. "He understands everything. He understands we still need him, still trust him, still love him. He's been awesome."

The players had a voice in the process that resulted in four alternate captains. If they wanted all young players, it could have happened. Instead, they doubled down on their old captain. They did so, in part, because it means something to them that he still wants to be there. He wants to win in San Jose.

The easiest thing in the world for Thornton to do this summer would have been to leave. After the season ended, GM Doug Wilson presented his offseason plan to Thornton. It didn't include spending money on free agents. It didn't include trading draft picks or prospects for veterans who could help win now.

When every other good team in the West was improving in the short term, the Sharks weren't.

At 35 years old, without a Stanley Cup, the degree of difficulty was only getting harder in San Jose. Thornton had an out. Teams were calling on him. Wilson made it clear to both Thornton and Marleau that he would never ask them to waive their no-trade clause but if they didn't want to be part of something that included a shift to younger players, he understood if they wanted out. He'd try his best to make it work.

Maybe that was tempting. The easiest thing to do would have been to leave. Instead, they both stayed.

"When [Thornton] told them, 'No, I want to stay here. I believe in this group,' that speaks volumes as a player," Pavelski told ESPN.com. "We want that. It was like, 'F---, they better not trade those guys. We have to work together. If there is an issue, let's work it out and go from there.'"

There was a group email among teammates before training camp that began as a way to plan a team bonding trip to Lake Tahoe. It evolved into one that kept the players in constant communication. If a media story flared up, it got mentioned in the email or in group texts. Sometimes just for a laugh, others for support. It was the players' attempt to control one tiny part of the process spinning around them.

"We can't control what Doug [Wilson] is going to do. We can't control what you guys are saying. We can't control the coaches," Burish said. "People want to say this team wasn't close enough, we had issues in the dressing room. We don't think we do, let's address it. Let's talk about it with each other. Let's get away from San Jose. Let's deal with it."

The result?

"There's no gray area anymore. There's no Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau over here and Matt Nieto and Matty Irwin over there," Burish said. "It's a group now. Maybe it always hasn't been like that here, but it is now."

Why go through all this if you're Thornton and Marleau? Other teams are willing to spend money to win now. Other teams aren't plugging in untested players in important roles. Nobody faulted Ryan Kesler when he had enough of the Vancouver Canucks and orchestrated a deal to the Anaheim Ducks. You can understand why Jason Spezza asked out of Ottawa and accepted a trade to the up-and-coming Dallas Stars.

Thornton could have done that. Marleau could have done that.

"I want to be here," Marleau told ESPN.com. "I just want to win here. I've put in a lot of years here. Put a lot of sweat into doing that here in San Jose. I'd like to see it through."

There's still faith around the league it can still happen in San Jose.

"They're legit," said an Eastern Conference executive. "They still have really good players. Their goaltending is better than people think. Logan Couture is great. So maybe Joe Thornton is not a captain, maybe he doesn't have the personality. So what? They're still a pretty darn good team."

This summer, Wilson was as publicly critical of his team as he's ever been. He also made it clear that this is a team in the midst of a rebuild while still trying to win. He's not trading draft picks or prospects to help right now. The unspoken that comes with the word rebuild is that the best days are down the road. It's a word you never hear from the players.

The coaches don't use it either.

"I expect us to win," coach Todd McLellan told ESPN.com. "We're not talking about Stanley Cup. We're not talking about playoffs. We're not even talking about Christmas break. We're talking about today."

The Sharks caught a bit of a break in Los Angeles in the opener.

Tucked away in the visitors' dressing room at Staples Center, they couldn't hear a thing during the Kings banner-raising ceremony. They didn't know that the Stanley Cup was slowly lowered from below the scoreboard to center ice, raised one last time by Kings captain Dustin Brown to a huge ovation from the celebrating crowd.

They couldn't hear the highlights of their first-round series collapse being reveled in by the Los Angeles fans or the thunderous cheering that accompanied the banner being raised into the rafters. Had they left their dressing room just a couple minutes sooner, they might have crossed paths with the Stanley Cup, a reminder of what they haven't accomplished.

They missed it all, sticking together in the room. Some taping and retaping equipment, others watching games being played around the league. It was the NHL debut of a couple Sharks, so players used the extra time to share a little more encouragement. They waited it out together.

One of the things Kings GM Dean Lombardi often gets asked is how he built his team into one as tight-knit as his group has become. One that is so close that teammates get visibly emotional when Justin Williams wins the Conn Smythe. Or one so close that when a playoff series looks like it's on the verge of slipping away and a game lost, the players don't break off and try to win it individually. They do it the only way you can in hockey, trusting one another to be exactly on the ice where your teammate needs you to be.

There's no answer on how to build that trust and bond. It's different for every team.

All we know for sure is that last spring the Kings had it and the Sharks didn't. The healing in San Jose is still in the early stages. The trust is still being rebuilt. It could fall apart at the first sign of trouble. But maybe this was all necessary. Maybe, to build that bond like the Kings have, there needed to be a complete playoff collapse. Public humiliation. A captain losing his C.

Really, it couldn't get worse.

Yet there they all were Wednesday night against the Kings. Trying again. Antti Niemi in goal. Thornton and Marleau with letters on their jerseys.

So much of it looked the same. So much of it felt different.