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Why such drama
Several reasons for the Wilson Thornton spat
3/16/15 - By Mike Lee -

Something has finally hit the fan in San Jose. Mired in the worst season in over a decade, the Sharks now find themselves embroiled in an internal dispute that has garnered national attention. The dust up between Joe Thornton and General Manager Doug Wilson is one of those things you see when an organization is teetering on the brink of collapse, so grab your bucket of pop corn and sit back to see how this one plays out.

What will be the most intriguing part of all of this is to try and figure out what Wilson's motivation was in calling out Thornton in the first place. Thornton didn't take the high road in his response to Wilson's claim that the Sharks former captain had an inclination to lash out at teammates when faced with stressful situations (namely the pressure of the NHL playoffs).

Amusingly, Thornton really proved Wilson's point, by lashing out at Wilson, albeit through the media.

"I think Doug just needs to shut his mouth," Thornton told the San Jose Mercury News on Friday.

"All I've got to say is I've been here every day working hard. I haven't taken a sabbatical. He just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth," Thornton told the newspaper.

Thornton was responding to comments that Wilson made during a round table session that the club holds regularly with season ticket holders on why the veteran centerman lost his captaincy following the playoff debacle against Los Angeles last Spring.

"He cares about the game so much," Wilson told the group of 300+ in attendance. "The reason we took the 'C' off him ... Joe carries the weight of the team on his shoulders and he's got such a big heart that when stress comes on him, he lashes out at people and it kind of impacts them.

"The pressure and stress, I felt, was getting to Joe. And I sat him down and said we need other players to step up and share this. He got it. He didn't like it, but he got it and he understood it."

So what was Wilson's reason for calling out his captain in such a public forum?

1. He's trying to light a fire

One of the most obvious things on Wilson's agenda is to kick start his team as they make one last desperate push to make the playoffs. The Sharks underwhelming season has left the club on the outside looking in with only a handful of games remaining in the season. The Sharks would need to run the table in order to sneak past one of the three teams that sits ahead of them in the standings.

Wilson needs his team to get in gear, following his verbal flub from last summer when he said his team was in rebuilding mode, then tried to make everyone believe that his definition of rebuilding meant adding enough pieces to be competitive this season. It had damning results on the business side of the table. Once the Sharks started to slide, attendance started dipping.

Hasso Plattner has owned the Sharks for a cup of coffee, and his investment has returned one playoff collapse and now dwindling attendance. Wilson hasn't exactly impressed his new boss with that kind of performance, so he has to show that he's the right guy for the job. So far that's not gone so well, so Wilson needs to get his team rolling in the right direction. Every other method seems to have failed with Thornton, so perhaps his comments were a last ditch effort to spark Thornton and the rest of the locker room.

2. He's trying to motivate a trade

Another motivation could be that Wilson simply wants to dump Thornton, but he can't because of the no-movement clause he wrote into the contract that he inked with Thornton last season. Wilson has proven to be savvy enough to write in certain outs in past contracts. It was long believed that Dany Heatley was thought to have no-trade protections in his contract with the Sharks, but there was a window that enabled San Jose to move him two seasons ago.

It's not clear if Wilson has the same escape hatch with Thornton, so if he doesn't, he'd have to resort to more egregious tactics. One option is to actually piss off Thornton to the point that the future Hall of Famer actually requests a trade.

If this was the reason, Wilson missed his opportunity to do something before the NHL trade deadline, but that direction would have been motivated by the fact that the Sharks still had a shot to move up in the standings. The holes in the hull weren't as perilous as they are today.

Wilson threw out a head scratching comment last week when asked if he had approached Thornton or Patrick Marleau on them relinquishing their no movement clauses before the trade deadline. Wilson responded that he felt it was the player's prerogative to approach him about a trade and that those two had enough cache in their careers that it was not is place to ask them to waive that clause.

Given that it's Wilson's job to make his team better, it's baffling to think that he wouldn't at least broach the subject with his two veterans. That of course could also be lip service, with the intent of not creating any rift by suggesting that he had asked them to waive the clause, only to have it rebuffed by the players. That simply makes Thornton and Marleau look bad publicly.

Given his most recent comments, Wilson doesn't appear to have any issue with making his players look bad. It couldn't be any worse than striping both of them of the Sharks captaincy, which he's done.

3. He got caught up in a question that he wasn't prepared to answer

One other reason for all of this is that Wilson could have been thrown a curveball by a fan, and he essentially whiffed on it. If anything, Wilson has proven to be as calculating as they come, and his polish doesn't tarnish that easily. But let's say for the sake of debate that he simply didn't have the chance to think through his response and he actually let one slip.

He's done it before. Like, last summer when he said his team was rebuilding. Then they were "retooling". He's human and human make mistakes. He's certainly had his fair share of personnel gaffs, so who's to say that he can't botch a response to a contentious question.

Honestly, this is a viable reason.

He's backed into a corner now. Once Thornton called him out publicly, he's been forced to treat the matter as an internal affairs issue that he will address with Thornton, after Thornton comes to him. Yes, when Thornton comes to him. Why let this fester? Man up and address the problem if it was a mistake.

4. He's resigned himself to his own fate

Finally, Wilson may recognize that his days are numbered in San Jose and he's simply taking shots on his way out the door. This one is probably the most unlikely scenario, but I'll throw it out there for giggles.

If anything, Wilson's track record has been successful (minus the fact that the Sharks have never made it past the Conference Finals), and for the most part he's considered an A-list GM in the NHL.

If he did his job, he recognized that his aging superstars have a limited shelf life, so he's prepared Plattner with the reality that San Jose needs to retool the lineup by getting younger, faster and bigger. That means that a rebuild really is required. Season ticket holders don't want to hear that, but the reality is San Jose can't be successful without tools to work with and right now, the tools they have are not performing with any consistency.

It's unlikely that Wilson was simply shooting from the hip when he criticized Thornton.

5. He meant what he said

The most likely scenario in all of this is that he actually said what he believed, but didn't expect Thornton to react the way he did. Wilson actually praises Thornton early in the comment, and has traditionally paid much respect to his veteran players.

Wilson may never have intended the comments to be disrespectful, or realize that Thornton would take the comments as criticism. There's no doubt that there is a ton or pressure that goes along with being captain of an NHL team. Throw in the fact that this particular team has endured more then their fair share of failure when it comes to performing in the playoffs.

Perhaps Wilson really believes that Thornton is best suited to dish out assists, and isn't the guy to be the focal point in the locker room. He certainly figured that out with Marleau, and that worked out in the end. Marleau had several quality season following the removal of the C from his sweater.

There's also the cruel reality that Thornton isn't getting any younger and Wilson realizes that he needs an infusion of youth in the locker room to grab the helm. With so many youngsters on the roster, sharp criticism from your locker room leader can unnerve a young player. Perhaps Wilson simply meant no disrespect in the fact that the style in which Thornton applies behind closed doors isn't the best way to lead young hockey players.

Maybe Thornton is over reacting to reality, harsh as it may seem.

Regardless, the Sharks are now at a cross roads. Both parties need to resign themselves to the situation or one needs to go. Only Plattner can decide on the latter.


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