By Allan Muir
Their names may have popped up in the occasional free agency prognostication piece, but it has always felt like a matter of when, not if, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau would decide to finish their careers with the Sharks.
The current and former San Jose captains both made it official today, signing extensions that will keep them in teal for the next three seasons.
That was clearly the goal all along for Thornton and Marleau. Both players took less term and dollars than they could have earned on the market this summer. In fact, they were even willing to take minor haircuts to get the deals done. Marleau's contract features an annual average value of $6.67 million, down from his current $6.90 million. Thornton will bring home an AAV of $6.75 million after taking home $7 million this season.
"Patrick and Joe continue to perform at an elite level in the National Hockey League and, most importantly, they make the other players around them better," general manager Doug Wilson said in a statement. "They both made it very clear that they wanted to stay in San Jose and we were able to agree on contracts that fit with our team building philosophy."
The team's history of playoff disappointments leaves plenty of room to quibble with that philosophy. The Sharks have never advanced past the Western Conference finals with the duo leading the way, and its fair to wonder why anyone should believe them capable of helping San Jose over that hurdle as they enter their late '30s.
Ultimately, this came down to weighing the options. The commitment wasn't onerous -- three years apiece definitely weighs in the team's favor as it avoids being burdened by long-term agreements -- but more importantly, there's apparently no one available, either in the Sharks' system or in free agency next summer, who can do more for this team than Thornton and Marleau. So Wilson decided it was better to go with the devils he knows, rather than the ones he doesn't.
At 34, Thornton is having trouble finishing (just six goals through 51 games this season, a career-low pace), but he remains the game's premier playmaker, leading the NHL in assists (47), even-strength assists (32) and assists-per-game (.92). Big, strong and healthy, he's more than capable of filling the No. 1 center role for the duration of his new deal ... or until the coaching staff decides that Logan Couture or Joe Pavelski is up to the task.
Marleau, who was recently named to Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics, still has the wheels to intimidate opposing defenders, and his two-way game is as effective as ever. His versatility -- he can play wing or center -- and his penalty kill presence ensure his value for the next three years.
Still, by sticking with more of the same, some fans may be wondering if Wilson is again damning the Sharks to also-ran status. Maybe. But while winning it all is the goal, it can't be the only means of measuring success. Consider that Wilson's team trails only the Red Wings in playoff games won since 2004. That has to count for something.
And with these two veterans in the lineup, San Jose has been one of the league's toughest outs this season. While the Sharks won't enter the playoffs as Stanley Cup favorites, they're definitely in the mix ... and that's where they should stay as these new deals play out.
Safe may be death on the ice, but it's key to survival in the front office. Wilson deserves full marks for what he's achieved, and how he has this team set up for the short term with these two extensions.