Barring a significant injury or drastically shortened season, Patrick Marleau will soon become the NHL's all-time leader in games played as a member of the Sharks. His longtime teammate, Joe Thornton, likely will move into sixth place all-time on the very same list, but as for whether he'll play the necessary 17 games to do so in a teal sweater, that's still to be determined.
The Sharks' roster for next season has, for the most part, been filled out. Free-agent signees Ryan Donato, Matt Nieto, Stefan Noesen and Marleau will fill most of the forward vacancies, but at least one more center likely will be required. There are numerous candidates to fill that role, but it would appear it has been earmarked for Thornton -- that is, if he wants it.
"I talked to Jumbo a couple days ago," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson told reporters Tuesday via videoconference. "Any conversations he and I have are always kept in confidence. The respect and admiration we have for him as a player, as a person, as a man, what he’s done for this organization, but those conversations stay between him and I. We communicate quite a bit, quite often. We want what’s best for Jumbo and for everybody involved, but as I said, those conversations stay between him and I."
What's best for Thornton might also be what's best for the Sharks. Then again, it might not be.
From Thornton's perspective, San Jose presents a comfortable atmosphere and a defined role. But if he's looking for his best opportunity to win the elusive Stanley Cup, that might motivate him to play elsewhere. The Toronto Maple Leafs reportedly have been in contact with Thornton, and while they might not be Cup favorites, they're currently much closer to that status than the Sharks are.
For the Sharks, it's quite easy to understand why they would want to bring Thornton back. He's a known quantity, highly respected within the organization, and still a great playmaker, even at 41 years of age. That said, if San Jose is headed for a rebuilding year -- which could very well be the case -- the argument could be made that the Sharks would be better off giving opportunities to younger players.
That said, it sure sounds like the position is Thornton's, if he so desires.
"My feelings for people like Joe Thornton and Patty Marleau is beyond respect," Wilson added. "These guys love the game, what they’ve done for this franchise, but players have choices, and I want them to do what’s right for them. We want to treat everybody with great respect. With Jumbo ... he knows how we all feel about him. It’s no different than Patty. Here we have Patty coming back for the second time.
"It’s an interesting world, interesting time in this game, in this league where we’re at. The feelings that we have for Patrick when he left and came back, the feelings that we have for Joe Pavelski, for Jumbo -- anybody that’s been here and contributed to this franchise for a long time has a special place in our hearts."
As for Marleau, he definitely would be on board with playing alongside Thornton for at least another season.
"We kind of text here and there," Marleau said. "Obviously, if Joe came back, we’ve had a lot of years together, so that would be a comforting thing for myself and I’m sure a lot of the other guys. Not too sure what he’s going to decide to do, but would love to be able to be on the same club as him as well."
Thornton currently is training in his offseason home of Switzerland, and a decision on where he'll play next season is not expected to be imminent. The Sharks will keep a spot open for him in the meantime, and after everything Thornton has done for San Jose, he has earned that.