Will Joe Thornton finally lead his team to the Cup finals?

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Thornton.jpgSan Jose Sharks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
3:00 p.m. EDT, May 16, 2010
Live on NBC

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chat during today’s game!

The San Jose Sharks needed a difference maker on their
team. Fresh off the lockout and just a season removed from a painful
exit in the Western Conference finals the Sharks traded for Joe
Thornton, sending Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau to the
Boston Bruins. The talented center was known for his playmaking ability
and Thornton instantly sparked the offense of the Sharks, putting up 92
points in just 58 games after being traded in the fall of 2008 and has
since remained one of the top playmakers in the NHL. Just one problem:

He completely disappeared in the playoffs.

Thornton’s struggles have been directly tied to the
failings of the Sharks in the playoffs and for good reason. This was the
player the Sharks needed to be at his best in the postseason, the one
who worked so hard to get them to that point and the last player they
needed to fade into the background.

The past four seasons he’s averaged less than a point a
game in the playoffs, managing just a goal and four assists in last
year’s first round departure against Anaheim. In the first round this
season, it looked as though his postseason struggles would continue. He
had just three assists in six games against the Avalanche and was
certainly a non-factor in his team’s series victory.

He can thank Joe Pavelski and Dany Heatley for picking
up the slack.

With the pressure taken off of Thornton, he emerged
against the Red Wings and just with the rest the Sharks seemingly
smacked that monkey right off his back. Three goals five assists in just
five games against the Red Wings saw Thornton’s energy and playmaking
vigor renewed. You could see the weight lifted off his shoulders as
Pavelski took over the role of leading scorer for the Sharks, and while
you’d prefer that Thornton would be able to step up perhaps having the
pressure off has freed him up.

Unfortunately, Thornton will always have the stigma of
flailing in the postseason until he leads his team to at least the
Stanley Cup finals. Getting to this point is great, but it’s tough to
say that Thornton actually was “leading” the Sharks. He’s coming on
strong now, and has a chance to prove that everyone claiming he’s a
failure in the playoffs was wrong.

If he continues his strong play against a great team
like the Blackhawks, his critics will be momentarily silenced. That is,
at least, until the Sharks get to the Cup finals and he manages just
three points in a five-game series loss. Then he’ll be a failure all
over again.

Oilers go captain-less, name four alternates instead

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Edmonton’s made a fairly significant shift in its leadership group.

The big news is the Oilers won’t have a captain this season, as Andrew Ference will relinquish the “C” he’s worn for the last two years.

Ference will, however, remain part of the group and wear an “A” as part of a four-man alternate captain collective, one that also includes Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.

The news of Ference being removed as captain doesn’t come as a huge surprise. The veteran d-man is a well-respected leader, but isn’t expected to be in the lineup every night this season.

The decision to go without a captain, though, is something of a surprise, especially given what new head coach Todd McLellan endured during his final season in San Jose.

The Sharks’ captaincy issue — stripping Joe Thornton, then going with four rotating alternates — was an ongoing problem, something that players, coaches and GM Doug Wilson had to repeatedly address until it blew up in spectacular fashion.

That said, the circumstances in Edmonton are quite different.

It’s believed the club’s intentionally keeping the captaincy vacant, on the assumption that Connor McDavid will evolve into a superstar and, subsequently, the club’s unquestioned leader.

Finally, McLellan noted that with Eberle currently sidelined, a fifth Oiler would be added to the leadership group — veteran forward Matt Hendricks, who will serve as a temporary alternate.

Brandon Sutter didn’t have the greatest preseason

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When Brandon Sutter was acquired by the Vancouver Canucks, GM Jim Benning called the 26-year-old a “foundation piece for our group going forward.”

Sutter was quickly signed to a five-year extension worth almost $22 million, more evidence of how highly management thought of the player.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Benning was asked the following question:

“What does it say that you made the trade for Sutter, you called him a ‘foundation’ player, and it took him until the final night of the preseason to find a spot (with the Sedins) on the wing, which isn’t his natural position?”

Here was Benning’s response:

“Well, [head coach Willie Desjardins] wants to try that out, he thinks that’s going to be a good fit. At various times, the Sedins played with wingers with speed, with [Ryan Kesler], who could get in on the forecheck and had a good shot. Sutter brings some of those qualities, too.”

While all that may be true, Sutter was not signed to play the wing; he was brought in to play center, specifically on the second line. He finished the preseason with zero points in five games. And as mentioned, he’ll start the season on the wing, not his natural position.

Meanwhile, youngsters Bo Horvat, 20, and Jared McCann, 19, had outstanding camps and are expected to start the regular season (tonight in Calgary) centering the second and third lines, respectively.

Though Sutter did finish the preseason with 12 shots on goal, up there with the most on the Canucks, it’s fair to say he did not look like a “foundation” player.

“I haven’t seen him play his best,” Desjardins said last week. “I see a guy who’s big and a good skater and who understands the game real well, but just hasn’t got that involved.”

Now, we are only talking about the preseason here. New players often take time to get comfortable. Perhaps playing with the Sedins can provide Sutter with some confidence.

“I know he’ll be there and I totally believe that,” said Desjardins.

But it hasn’t been the best start, and if it wasn’t for the encouraging play of the youngsters, it would be a far bigger story in Vancouver.

Related: Canucks roll the dice on rookies, waive Vey and Corrado