Among many dilemmas the San Jose Sharks face this offseason, none looms larger than the decision the franchise must make about its two longest-tenured members, pending unrestricted free agents Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.
The first two picks from the 1997 draft hold the top two spots in goals, assists, and points with the franchise, and no pair of players has meant more to the franchise than Thornton and Marleau.
As it has to every player before them, age has started to catch up to the duo. Marleau failed to crack 50 points for the second consecutive season, the first time since his second and third seasons in the midst of the dead puck era. Thornton scored just seven goals, the first time in his career he had not cracked double digits in a full season, and posted his lowest assist totals.
Although Marleau and Thornton remained remarkably productive their age, the Sharks have to be worried about what comes next. Marleau was just one of 17 players in the modern era to score 25 or more goals in his age-37 season, and Thornton was one of just 23 to finish his age-37 season. The lists of players to match those totals in their age-38 season continue 9 and 11 players, respectively.
Thornton, too, will be coming off of major knee surgery, that he just successfully underwent yesterday. Although the Sharks indicated that he will be ready for the start of the 2017-18 season, it’s fair to question just how ready he will be given the nature of that injury and his age.
Yet, even factoring in continued decline and Thornton’s return from injury, that is still a lot of offense to replace. Couple that with the potential loss of another forward, such as Mikkel Boedker or Joel Ward through the expansion draft, and the Sharks could need to replace three forwards if they choose not to re-sign Thornton and Marleau.
Internally, the Sharks do have options that are ready for larger roles. Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier are expected to take steps forward in their development next season, while AHL Rookie of the Year Danny O’Regan may be ready for a full-time NHL role come the fall. But, asking them to replace the offensive output of Thornton, Marleau, and Ward or Boedker may be too much, especially if the Sharks still hope to contend.
Given that, the Sharks would be smart to bring back Thornton and Marleau at the right price. San Jose will have over a little over $18 million in cap space if the cap remains stagnant, and that’s before factoring in who they lose in the expansion draft.
Although extending RFAs Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, and Chris Tierney likely won’t break the bank this summer, extending Tomas Hertl, Martin Jones, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and/or trying to sign John Tavares prior to 2018-19 likely will. Thus, the Sharks can’t afford to lock Thornton and Marleau up at prices that limit their flexibility.
San Jose won’t bring back Thornton and Marleau at the same cap hits they carried this season ($6.75 million and $6.67 million, respectively), and not for the same number of years either. There aren’t many points of reference around the league for players performing at the level Thornton and Marleau have in their late 30s, but there are some that could be instructive.
Entering his age-37 season, Jarome Iginla signed a three-year, $16 million deal with the Colorado Avalanche, but scored more points the previous year than Thornton and Marleau did this season. The deal, much like the last contract Pavel Datsyuk signed with the Red Wings, carried no performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.
Prior to this season, Shane Doan and Jaromir Jagr signed one-year deals carrying cap hits of $2.5 million and $4 million, respectively, with the potential to earn more money if each player hit certain performance bonuses. Doan and Jagr signed their deals at an ahead of their age-40 and age-44 (!!!) seasons, so Thornton and Marleau may well be able to sign for more than either Doan or Jagr did.
But Marleau and Thornton’s point production declined more than Iginla’s had ahead of his last contract, and each fell in between Doan and Jagr’s levels of production in their seasons prior to their most recent contracts.
Given Thornton’s injury, I think it’s reasonable to expect he’ll sign a short-term, bonus-laden deal, with plenty of games played incentives. Marleau can probably sign a fully guaranteed contract a la Iginla, but I’d be surprised if he got as much money, or even as much term.
This, as well as the Sharks’ fairly abundant cap space and lack of readily available internal options, means San Jose can bring back Thornton and Marleau on shorter term deals. Maintaining flexibility is paramount, and signing them to anything longer than a two-year deal inhibits that.
ESPN previously reported that Thornton wants a three-year deal, while Marleau told reporters in his season-ending media session that he thinks he can play for another five years. While I wouldn’t count out either playing for that long, I wouldn’t bet on it, and the Sharks shouldn’t, either.
If Marleau and Thornton are willing to sign one-or-two-year deal, and in the sweet spot between Doan and Jagr’s deal in terms of guaranteed money (with potential performance bonuses for Thornton coming off of injury), it’d be worth it to bring the pair back.
San Jose would, barring any trade or movement clauses, still likely be able to move either player if they no longer view themselves as a contending team. They’d still have plenty of flexibility going forward, and would keep the longtime faces of the franchise wearing the uniform they’ve come to embody.
Thornton and Marleau want to come back, and letting them do so makes sense for the right price and the right term. If the Sharks’ price is right for them, then it may not be time to close the book on the Thornton and Marleau era just yet.