Change must come to San Jose

There used to be a popular toy in our house called the Goofy Jalopy in which the lovable Disney character would drive off in a dilapidated battery-powered jalopy calling happily over and over: "Let's go for a bumpy ride."

It's hard to not think of the San Jose Sharks in that cartoon context, wheels akimbo, engine sputtering, traveling herky-jerky across the NHL landscape.

One day after former captain Joe Thornton's verbal beatdown of general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks were lit up for four third-period goals in a 6-2 shellacking at home at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. Now they prepare for the most important road trip of not just the season, but maybe in many years.

Let's go for a bumpy ride indeed.

Many have been waiting for this moment in San Jose all season: the moment where the seams so tightly sewn by Wilson and the rest of the team come slowly undone, bursting to reveal the true nature of this team beneath.

And it provides a sharper edge to the proceedings that this undoing is occurring with less than a month to go in the regular season and with the Sharks still nibbling at the edges of the Western Conference playoffs -- having made 10 straight postseason appearances.

Wilson needled Thornton from afar by suggesting to season-ticket holders late last week that he took the captain's "C" from Thornton last offseason because he couldn't handle the pressure. Then Thornton suggested not too subtly that Wilson keep his yap shut and stop lying. The two might as well have planted a cartoon tub of TNT outside the Sharks' dressing room and dragged a long fuse to ownership's door.

It is clear now that barring some sort of monumental recovery by the team that would see them make up the five points they are now short of the playoffs and then make a decent showing in the postseason, ownership cannot allow the passive aggressiveness that has been this team's identity to continue.

No, this offseason will be a time for doing, not waiting and tinkering around the edges.

But who will be left standing?

Now, that's the question.

The irony of this ugly situation is that given the three-year contract extensions handed out to both Thornton and Patrick Marleau last January -- extensions bestowed by Wilson -- the two players who have been lightning rods for much of the discontent surrounding the team may outlast both Wilson and head coach Todd McLellan.

Fewer than three months after both Marleau and Thornton took less than they would have received on the open market to stay with the Sharks, it was believed that Wilson was trying not so subtly to push them out as he publicly talked about needing players who wanted to play in San Jose, not just live there.

The Sharks melted famously against the Kings in the playoffs last season, losing in seven games after storming out to a 3-0 series lead. There were problems in the dressing room; there was an obvious disconnect between the coaching staff and some of the team's key players. There was talk that maybe Thornton and Marleau would or should waive their no-move/no-trade clauses to facilitate a trade and hasten the makeover that Wilson seemed determined to undertake with his underachieving roster.

Except Thornton and Marleau didn't want to go anywhere.

Stubbornness or a deeply felt desire to effect change in San Jose or maybe just a bit of both led to the reality that the two veterans were staying put.

So management decided to change the leadership dynamic by taking away the captaincy even though Thornton ended up wearing an "A" for the Sharks as the team went with rotating alternate captains as opposed to one captain this season.

Did we mention passive-aggressive?

The problem was that Thornton wasn't exactly told that he would no longer be the captain as the news came to him the same way it did everyone else: when Wilson and McLellan announced it.

Not particularly cool given Thornton's standing as one of the most productive players of his generation even if he's never been able to lead his teams to the promised land come playoff time.

For some it was seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to make Thornton uncomfortable enough to want to get out of town.

So, what happens now?

Let's assume the Sharks can't close the gap and make the playoffs -- certainly a road trip that will eat up more than half their remaining 13 games will provide a stern test of this team's mettle -- the carnage would likely begin immediately.

There was much speculation that McLellan would be sacrificed after last spring's collapse. Missing the playoffs as a follow-up would almost certainly spell the end of his tenure in San Jose. Given his high regard around the league, we are guessing teams would be lining up to have McLellan oversee their benches when and if that happens.

But it's easy to project that shoe dropping.

How can ownership allow the toxic relationship that exists between Wilson and Thornton to continue?

Given the public airing of the team's dirty laundry, how does ownership expect paying fans to have any confidence that another season of the same could yield any different results?

San Jose is a terrific hockey market. The fan base is passionate and loyal. But they're not stupid. This is a team that's never even been to a Stanley Cup final in spite of annually being blessed with great talent. At what point do they make their feelings known by staying away until they believe the problems have been fixed?

We know Wilson was simply answering a question from a season-ticket holder at a roundtable last week. And far be it for us to suggest hockey folk not be honest, brutally honest if need be. But Wilson is a smart guy, he had to know that his comments would be seen as what they were: a direct shot at his veteran center and former captain.

If he couldn't subtly persuade Thornton to ask out of San Jose last summer, maybe these kinds of comments would help Thornton revisit the issue, especially given the often disappointing play of the team this season.

That Thornton, who is second on the team with 58 points, responded in an unusual fashion -- publicly embarrassing his general manager by calling him a liar and perhaps questioning Wilson's work ethic by saying he (Thornton) wasn't on sabbatical -- suggests that Thornton knows he holds the most important cards in this hand.

The team may be sorry it signed him to the extension. It may wish he would help facilitate a move somewhere else. It may wish a whole passel of things when it comes to how this team was built. But the Sharks got exactly what they signed on for with Thornton.

If we accept that Wilson and Thornton cannot realistically share the same team space next season, there is only one of those elements that ownership can realistically and easily move.

And it's not the former captain that will go, but the longtime GM.

Perhaps that's how this bumpy ride is destined to end.