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Patrick Marleau still an important member of the Sharks even without 'C'

San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau celebrates a goal. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ben Margot)

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San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau celebrates a goal. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ben Margot)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - A captaincy change hasn't changed how much Patrick Marleau means to the San Jose Sharks.

It was natural for an outsider to wonder what kind of season the veteran forward might have after relinquishing the 'C' over the summer. Marleau has responded with a start that not only has him on pace for a career year, but has kept him on the radar for Team Canada.

It's exactly what people within the organization expected from the homegrown Shark.

"I'm not surprised one bit," said coach Todd McLellan. "Anybody on the outside would wonder (how it might affect him). Patty is a player that genuinely cares about his teammates and the Sharks organization and he'll do whatever it takes to be a winner."

Even though the Sharks have done a lot of winning over the past six or seven years, they've yet to get over the hump and earn a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

A first-round playoff loss to Anaheim last spring prompted a lot of soul-searching within the organization. Marleau had been captain since January 2004 and decided to step aside after meeting with McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson. Some mistakenly suggested he had the 'C' taken away.

"I don't think it was as much of a stripping as kind of an agreement with Todd and with Doug," said Marleau. "It was a different look for our club and maybe something that will make us turn that corner come playoff time and hopefully come home with a Stanley Cup."

The move made headlines as it's fairly rare for a player to lose the captaincy and remain with a team. Marleau was asked about the situation repeatedly during Canada's Olympic orientation camp in Calgary and continues to get the odd question about it now.

A key part of the transition has been his continued support of veteran defenceman Rob Blake, who now wears the 'C' for the Sharks. The native of Aneroid, Sask., has impressed Marleau's teammates with the way he's handled everything.

"I don't think anything fazes the guy," said linemate Joe Thornton. "I think he wanted to prove to his teammates - nobody else - just his teammates that he's still a leader. We still consider him a leader on this team. He wants to be here, he loves this organization. From Day 1 since he lost his captaincy, he's been just like he's always been. Hasn't changed at all."

Marleau has spent his entire NHL career in San Jose, playing a combined 998 regular-season and playoff games since getting draft second overall in 1997 - one spot behind Thornton.

Even without a letter on his jersey, the 30-year-old remains an unofficial leader in the dressing room and on the ice. The coaching staff has gone out of its way to see that he's still given plenty of respect.

"We just felt we needed a change," said McLellan, who is in his second year in San Jose. "We couldn't keep going with the same thing. Patty responded very well. We make him just as important as he was in the past. If we talk to the leaders, Patty is included.

"If we make decisions as group with the captains, Patty is included."

Marleau is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. There likely won't be any discussion of a contract extension with the Sharks until the off-season, although Wilson wouldn't comment on that because of his policy of not discussing contract negotiations.

Marleau already has 21 goals this season and is on pace to eclipse the career-high 38 he scored a year ago. With the three points he had in Thursday's 4-1 victory over Anaheim, he's up to 37 in 35 games and is within reach of a 90-point season.

In many ways, the success might be directly related to the burden that was taken away when the 'C' came off his jersey.

"What it's done is it removed that weight off his shoulders when he has to answer for everybody else's actions as the captain," said McLellan. "Right now he just has to concentrate on his own game. He gets the odd collective question but it's more about worrying about what he does."

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