Editor’s Note: The Sharks are the only team in the Pacific Division -- other than the nascent Vegas Golden Knights -- who have not raised the jersey of a former player to the rafters. This week, NBC Sports California will examine the cases of the five likeliest candidates to have the Sharks’ first retired number. We continue with Joe Thornton.
The history of the Sharks can be split into two eras: Before Joe Thornton, and after Joe Thornton.
It’s befitting of a man nicknamed “Jumbo,” as San Jose’s acquisition of the probable Hall of Famer from the Boston Bruins on Nov. 30, 2005 marks the biggest turning point in the franchise’s history. The Sharks were no longer "up-and-coming” after the Thornton trade: His arrival meant they had arrived.
Thornton’s presence began an era in which San Jose climbed to the NHL’s elite, in large part on the back of his superstardom. Let’s examine the case for, and against, the Sharks retiring Thornton’s No. 19 jersey first.
The case for
Save for Brent Burns’ run on defense over the last handful of seasons, no Shark has been as dominant at their peak as Thornton. He remains the only San Jose player to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies, leading the league in scoring and winning MVP honors in the season he was traded to the Sharks.
Thornton owns three of the four 90-point seasons in Sharks franchise history, scoring 92, 114 and 96 points, respectively, from 2005-06 through 2007-08. The fourth belongs to Jonathan Cheechoo, who led the league in goal-scoring in 2005-06 with 56 goals. Forty-nine of those goals came after Thornton was acquired.
Cheechoo, Devin Setoguchi, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and even Burns all took their goal-scoring to the next level playing on Thornton’s wing. He is one of the best passers of all time, and his dominance is reflected on the Sharks’ all-time scoring charts: Thornton owns eight of the 10 highest single-season assist totals in San Jose history, and is 206 helpers clear in first place on the team's all-time list.
Despite his absence on the NHL’s list of its 100 greatest players of all-time, Thornton simply is one of the best to ever play the sport. He’s the best player in franchise history, and his best years came in San Jose. This should be an open-and-shut case.
The case against
It’s not clear-cut for the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NHL Draft, however, because of the No. 2 pick in the 1997 draft. Thornton very well could pass Marleau on the Sharks’ all-time points list -- he’s 59 shy of doing so -- but he would need to play 460 more games for San Jose to surpass Marleau.
He undoubtedly has had a more productive career than Marleau, but tenure and sentimentality should count for something when it comes to jersey retirements, which are about a place in team history as much as anything else. Thornton and Marleau were simultaneous faces of the franchise during their shared Sharks tenure -- for better or worse -- and something would seem off about retiring one before the other.
Plus, Thornton doesn’t seem ready to retire any time soon. He has not yet re-signed with the Sharks, but he told reporters at June’s NHL Awards in Las Vegas that he is thinking about playing this upcoming season and beyond.
If -- and it’s a big if -- Thornton plays into his mid-40s a la Chris Chelios and Jaromir Jagr, would the Sharks wait until he calls it a career before lifting the first number into SAP Center’s rafters? They’ve gone nearly three decades without doing so, but Marleau retiring from the sport before Thornton could mean No. 12 gets raised first.
The Sharks can’t go wrong with retiring Thornton’s number first. Thornton likely will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame as the first player primarily remembered for their time in teal, and he’ll also be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time.
Whether you want him or Marleau to have their number retired first, it’s clear that one of them will. But, we’ll pose one question as a counterargument in Friday’s series finale.
Why not both?