SAN JOSE – The biggest news coming out of Sharks-land on Saturday, the first day of free agency, was Joe Thornton agreeing to return on a one-year deal that will be finalized shortly and Patrick Marleau continuing to weigh offers from other clubs.
But more vital to the team’s long-term ability to compete was general manager Doug Wilson extending defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and goalie Martin Jones to eight-year and six-year deals, respectively. Each player would have been an unrestricted free agent in exactly one year without an extension.
In Vlasic, 30, the Sharks will continue to employ one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen, and a player that has been as vital to their success over the past decade as just about anyone. In Jones, the Sharks made it known that the 27-year-old is now their franchise goalie. He may be the first that can boast of that title since Evgeni Nabokov.
They are two pieces that the team can build around, to borrow a commonly used phrase from Wilson, both now and for the future.
“They are core pieces of our team in key positions,” Wilson said. “I said it at the end of the year and I say today, getting these guys under contract was just a really high priority for this organization. We’re glad it’s done and behind us.”
There never seemed to be much doubt that these deals would get done, as Vlasic and Jones both expressed their desire to remain in San Jose past the 2017-18 season. Vlasic, who earned an average $4.25 million over the course of his current deal, gets a pay bump to an average of $7 million per year, while Jones, who will earn $3 million this season, will see his salary nearly double to $5.75 million per year on average beginning in 2018-19.
Indications are that negotiations were smooth, and the fact that they were both signed on the earliest date allowable by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is evidence enough of that. There will be no distractions once training camp begins for two players that would have generated all kinds of interest had they reached unrestricted free agency.
“All I have to worry about it focusing on playing hockey right now. It’s important,” Jones said. “I didn’t have a lot of doubts that it wasn’t going to get done anyway. But, it’s nice to get it out of the way and just focus on hockey, for sure.”
Vlasic said: “I wanted long term because I want to be in San Jose for a long time.”
Along with Brent Burns, who will see an eight-year extension kick in this season, Vlasic gives the Sharks have the kind of one-two combination among their top four on their blue line that few teams possess. Vlasic will skate against the opposition’s top players more often than not, while Burns will create offense like few NHL defensemen can.
In March, Vlasic said a big part of the reason he wanted to stay in San Jose was because the Sharks are “competitive every year.” The team has missed the playoffs just once since Vlasic broke in as an 18-year-old rookie in 2006-07.
Speaking before it was learned that Thornton would return, something Vlasic was clearly hoping for, he said: “I signed because we have the players and the team to go all the way, and it starts with a foundation of players, with a good goalie, a good back end.”
Jones, who came to San Jose in the 2015 offseason, has shown he can handle a heavy workload while giving the team steady goaltending on a nightly basis. Critics point to his .915 save percentage over his two seasons in San Jose as being an average mark, but Jones doesn’t often see an abundance of shots, and tends to make some of his biggest saves in key moments. He rarely allows bad goals.
Jones also has a tendency to elevate his game in important situations, including the postseason, as he has a .925 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average in 32 career Stanley Cup playoff games.
“He plays big when it matters,” Wilson said. “That’s always been his history. Obviously, we don’t get to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago without him. The ultimate compliment for a goalie is that his team loves playing in front of him and they trust him. He has that. He’s just coming into his prime, too, as far as a goaltender.”
Jones was no sure thing to succeed when Wilson made the gutsy decision to send a first round pick and a prospect to Boston for a goalie that had just 34 games of NHL experience.
It’s a deal that currently looks like one of the best that Wilson has ever made in his 14-plus years as the team’s top hockey executive.
“They put faith in me, and ever since I’ve been in San Jose it’s been a really good experience for me,” Jones said. “I just felt really welcome and at home. Very excited at the prospect of just playing at least seven more years here.”