Digging into the reported “culture clash” in the Sharks’ locker room

Those who follow the Sharks entered Wednesday’s locker clean-out expecting answers about Todd McLellan’s future in San Jose. What they got was glimpses of a team — coaches, players, whathaveyou — that doesn’t appear to get along too well.

Joe Thornton’s verbal stab at McLellan (“Todd has to talk to his family. Maybe he should talk to this family as well in here.”) perhaps cued the start of a meltdown in Teal Town, but it was comments that Thornton and other players made about the current culture in the dressing room that I was struck by most

While Logan Couture’s admittance that all is not well inside the dressing room (“Not great. That’s my personal opinion, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”) is a striking new quote, that doesn’t mean it’s a new problem. It’s something we’ve been talking about, at the very least, since last season’s locker clean-out.

Really, how long has San Jose’s locker room culture been in a bad state?

Admittedly, I was not present for the clean-out on Wednesday, as it basically costs you your soul to get from SF to Sharks Ice down in San Jose when you don’t have your own vehicle. (I would start a GoFundMe to get myself a car, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough people out there that care whether or not I have my own set of wheels.) I do, however, have every batch of quotes from times I did make it out to the practice facility, and from every home game this season. So when the beat guys on the scene Wednesday started reporting quotes and reactions from the team, I started going back through all my own notes to figure out when the culture change might have occurred.

After a couple of days of rummaging, here’s what I came up with:

— On the first day of training camp back in September, many players were asked about rumors that there was a divide within the locker room following the nasty end to the Sharks’ previous season. The questions were of course refuted, possibly because the players were just happy to get back to work and put the awful end to the last season in the rear view mirror. The only player I remember getting a bit worked up over questions about the locker room divide was Tommy Wingels.

“Relationships are fine. There’s no concern,” Wingels insisted back on September 19. “For whatever reason, there was talk that there was this huge divide. That’s not the case.”

Over the past season, in a campaign that featured no captain and a lot of questions regarding team leadership, Wingels has emerged as one of the guys who has taken responsibility for the team’s actions, win or loss, much like Couture and Joe Pavelski. Either he was on the ice making his linemates play better around him or answering the media’s hardest questions after one of the Sharks’ many disappointing losses. He’s upfront, honest, and articulate. That honesty, however, doesn’t mean he’d air out issues if there was a problem bubbling over behind the closed dressing room doors.

Going back through audio from some of the Sharks tougher losses this past season, Wingels commonly said that the “guys in the locker room believe in each other.” While there were games that San Jose appeared to have faith in one another, there were still contests where it was clear that the guys on the ice were not on the same page. There might be a core group of players who have that belief in each other that Wingels spoke of, while a couple of bad seeds have been enough to make it difficult to rally and win more games.

— If anyone wants to get any bad seeds out of the dressing room, apparently it is Joe Thornton.

Aside from accusatory remarks about McLellan consulting with his family, No.19 reportedly took a hit at teammates who might still be affected by last season’s playoff losses to the LA Kings, saying: “We want tough individuals who can handle adversity. If it did, we don’t want them here.”

The former captain didn’t hold court with the media this past season like he had in others, more than likely because he wasn’t obligated. But whenever he did speak, whether it was after a win or a loss, he maintained the same calm and collected demeanor he had when answering questions during his captaincy.

Perhaps that’s what has made his venomous reaction to questions over the past season so shocking. First in regards to his now-public dispute with GM Doug Wilson, and now with appearing at odds with others in the dressing room.

The “we don’t want them here” comments are pretty inclusive. It doesn’t sound like Thornton wants to be around anyone who has anything bad to say about the state of the locker room culture. Was that the case after last season? Did the then-captain start throwing shade at anyone who said anything negative about the team’s dynamic?

It makes the air in the room a bit heavier, given that Couture just admitted that not all is well in the dressing room.

— It has been well-documented that Couture is as honest as they come. He doesn’t sugarcoat or put a rosy spin on a bad situation. So when he admitted that the current culture in the room is “not great” you know that it is just that.

Following the Sharks uninspired home finale loss to the Dallas Stars, Couture said candidly that the guys on the ice weren’t “playing for each other” in the last minutes of the tilt and that it cost them the game. “Selfish plays by guys, bad line changes, penalties.” When asked what the Sharks could do differently in the final games of the season, he responded with a heavy sigh: “Play for each other, play with pride. It’s disappointing because we didn’t… We let each other down, we let our goalie down.”

The game versus Dallas wasn’t the first time, this season or in season’s past, that the Sharks have lost in such a fashion. We have already rehashed that San Jose has a history spanning several season’s now of falling flat during games, or looking disjointed from each other. It gives wonder to how long the “selfish plays” and lack of locker room unity have been costing the Sharks games, whether it has been during the regular season or the playoffs.

Of course none of this paints a direct picture of what is going on in that dressing room when the doors are closed to the media and the public. There’s no fly-on-the-wall to tell us exactly who doesn’t get along with who, or how dire this “not great” culture is. We only a bushel of comments to obsess over until the players and coaching staff return for next season.

There is a long summer ahead that is promising to be more interesting, for better or worse, than the last. The changes to be made to the coaching staff and roster are still not completely clear. Now there is the added question of whether any of these changes will improve the state of this culture clash.

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