More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.
And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.
* * *
Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.
Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.
But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.
“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”
So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market?
It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.
Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 25, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.
Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.
* * *
Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.
Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.
While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”
At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.
That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”
As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason.
If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).
* * *
Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.
“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."
Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.
In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.