It always had to come back to San Jose. Patrick Marleau spent the first 19 seasons of his NHL career with the Sharks and now the veteran forward returns for a third and likely final stint with the franchise.
As a team, the stakes are low - San Jose is in a rebuilding trough right now - but for the individual, history is on the horizon: Marleau is just 45 games shy of breaking Gordie Howe's record for games played in the NHL, a mark that currently stands at 1,767. While Marleau has spent the past couple of seasons chasing that elusive Stanley Cup (first with Toronto, then with Pittsburgh), now he returns home to Northern California to cement a legacy that is sterling, with or without a championship.
"I still love playing," said the 41-year-old Marleau. "I still love the competition and going after my dream of winning the Stanley Cup. As far as the record, you never know what can happen. But if it does happen, it would be something special, that's for sure. And Gordie being from Saskatchewan, my home province, it would be a cool connection with him."
This is Marleau's third spin around with San Jose, having played some of last season with the Sharks before the deal to Pittsburgh, but in the grand scheme of things, he's always been a Shark. Marleau was drafted by the team way back in 1997, meaning a number of players in today's NHL weren't even born when he first pulled on the teal for the 1997-98 campaign.
"He's one of the most iconic players in not only Sharks history, but NHL history," said GM Doug Wilson. "And it's not just about this record: Patty wants to compete. His elite level of fitness is inspiring to everybody, including our young players. And if he's going to set that record, which is an incredible record, he should do it in a Sharks jersey."
For years, Marleau was the co-face of the franchise with Joe Thornton. San Jose had sustained success for much of that run and only recently has the team faced the inevitability of a rebuild.
Due to the Erik Karlsson trade, the Sharks did not have their lottery pick for 2020, a move that proved disastrous when the team cratered in the standings (Karlsson's injury woes didn't help) and Ottawa was handed the No. 3 pick overall. That trade also cost the Sharks prospect center Josh Norris, who ripped it up in the AHL last season and will likely get a shot at a nice role with the Senators next year.
San Jose does have a cadre of young players, but none really stepped up this past season in a difference-making way. Bringing back Marleau - as well as Stefan Noesen and former Shark Matt Nieto - provides both internal competition and a great mentor in the dressing room for those kids that do crack the roster, whether it be Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski or any number of young Sharks hopefuls.
The fact Marleau's new deal is a one-year contract for the league-minimum $700,000 also means there's nothing to lose for the Sharks and everything to gain, while the left winger/center gets to play in a comfortable environment with his wife and four hockey-playing sons.
"I appreciate it quite a bit," Marleau said. "But they're critics too when I come home. It's pretty fun to be able to talk to them about it. They're a huge reason I'm still playing."
Marleau also said that he really didn't look at any other teams for free agency, instead hoping that a fit could be worked out with San Jose. Now that he's back in the fold, his mission is the same as it ever was: bring a title to town. He was there when the Sharks lost the final to Pittsburgh in 2016 and now he wants to finish the job. The fact San Jose has taken a big step back since then doesn't faze him at all.
"Everybody knows we didn't do what we normally do here in San Jose," he said. "I look forward to coming back in training camp and everyone will have a little extra get-up-and-go to get back into that playoff picture and chasing that Cup."