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Sharks still see Thornton as leader despite loss of 'C'

by Eric Gilmore / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton opened training camp tied for 24th on the NHL's all-time assists list with 852 and ranked second among active players, trailing only Jaromir Jagr. Thornton has 1,194 career points, good for 46th all-time and second among active players, behind Jagr.

Thornton is San Jose's highest paid player, earning $6.75 million per year in his new three-year contract.

Yet, in the wake of San Jose's collapse against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Thornton was stripped of his captaincy, losing the "C" after wearing it for four seasons.

So the question when camp opened was this: How would losing the "C" affect Thornton, a player who continues adding to his possible Hall of Fame credentials and is crucial to the Sharks' hopes of rebounding after blowing a 3-0 series lead and losing the final four games against Los Angeles?

"It doesn't feel any different," Thornton said. "When I got it put on me, it really didn't feel any different. You've still got to go out and work hard. It really doesn't matter if you have it on or off."

Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said if anything, losing the "C" could spur Thornton to be an even better player this season.

"Nothing bothers him, but he's motivated more than ever to prove (people) wrong," Vlasic said. "When a 'C' or an 'A' gets taken away from you, I don't know how it feels, but maybe you've got something to prove. Joe's a guy that we believe in, and we need him to be his best, and he is and he will be."

Thornton ranked second in the NHL in assists last season with 65, which was 27 more than any other Shark. He finished with 76 points, three behind Joe Pavelski for the Sharks' lead.

Pavelski scored a team-high and career-best 41 goals, many of those coming while playing on Thornton's line or with him on the power play. There's a reason why Thornton's linemates thrive and why wings loves playing with him. His uncanny passing skills make life good for everyone else on the ice.

Sharks forward Patrick Marleau lost his "A" as alternate captain after last year's playoff debacle. He had the "C" taken away from him earlier in his Sharks career. If anyone, Marleau can relate to what Thornton is going through.

"Obviously you don't like seeing something like that happen," said Marleau, the Sharks' all-time leader in goals and points. "It doesn't change what he brings to the group. It's just a patch. He's still going to be a leader. He doesn't necessarily need that. He's going to do the same things. I look at him as a leader. So it doesn't change my point of view of him, and it shouldn't change a lot of people's point of view."

As he does after every season, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson conducted exit interviews with all of his players. According to Wilson, some Sharks told him they felt more like "co-workers" than "teammates," and were concerned about the team's leadership. Those concerns led to Thornton and Marleau losing their letters. The Sharks opened camp without a captain or any alternates.

"I thought a lot of us got along," Thornton said. "Obviously when you go out the way we did, people are going to be upset, and I think that's just voicing their opinion, but I think if you'd ask anybody after we were up three games, I think they would have said we have a pretty tight-knit group."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan said he has no target date for selecting a captain or alternates. There's a chance no Shark will emerge with the "C" to start the season.

"That's going to be out of our control," Marleau said. "What guys need to be focused on, and I know what I'm focusing on, is just playing hard, being a professional and coming to the rink and helping your teammate out. If everyone does that, we've got 24 leaders and we'll be better off for it."

Sharks defenseman Jason Demers said even though Thornton and Marleau have lost their official leadership roles, they aren't being treated any differently.

"They're some of the best players in the NHL," Demers said. "They're good friends of ours. They're family. It's not going to be as awkward as people are going to make it. I think it will obviously be a change. However people take it is one way, but I think within our room we're all going to stick together.

"We support them no matter whether they have a letter or not. To us, they're still some of the best players, so that's how it's going to be."

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