A lot of teams have tough decisions to make this off-season and that’s even without taking the expansion draft into consideration, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another team that finds itself in a situation similar to that of the San Jose Sharks.
With the season over — and over three playoff rounds earlier than it was one year prior — the Sharks enter a summer of uncertainty when it comes to their roster. Sure, there are some no-brainer decisions, such as re-signing restricted free agents Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney, but the bigger questions come in addressing what steps this roster needs to take in order to take a crowbar to the slowly closing window and pry that sucker open for a little while longer.
Almost every single member of the current squad is, at this point, set to return, and San Jose GM Doug Wilson is entering the summer with decisions to make as to who will be sticking around and which areas need some refreshing through an addition or two in the off-season. Wilson will have the money to work with, too. It’s not exactly a Scrooge McDuck-sized sum, but once the RFA signings and expansion draft are complete, Wilson might have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million to spend. That’s a lot of coin, even if he wants to chase a big fish.
But the pressing question when looking at the Sharks’ current cap situation is what, if anything, San Jose is planning to do about Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
A few seasons back, this wouldn’t even be a question. Sign both and set sails for the post-season. That was the answer. Thornton and Marleau were both incredibly effective players, two of San Jose’s very best, and though no longer in their prime, both were still chipping in offensively and sound at the other end of the ice. The truth now, though, is that Thornton and Marleau are both en route to turning 38 before the start of the coming campaign and finishing up contracts that paid them each more than $6.5-million annually. That’s a hefty salary for two players inching ever-closer to their 40th birthdays and not exactly an ideal amount of cap space to fork over to two players of that age.
Here’s the thing, though: Thornton and Marleau have both said they want to come back. Whether or not that comes to pass is a different story, of course, but that both are not only open to the idea but said it’s something they’d like to do puts the ball in Wilson’s court. And while no one is about to suggest he lowballs two players who have meant so much to the Sharks’ franchise — Marleau and Thornton are one-two in all-time scoring, respectively — Wilson might be able to negotiate a deal that’s in the best interest of Thornton, Marleau and the future of the club.
When it comes to any contracts for the veteran duo, price has to be the big concern. It’s hard to imagine either Thornton or Marleau have illusions of another $6-million deal coming their way, but both were still effective scorers this past season — it’s not as if they’re going to be headed for one-year, $1-million deals. A better estimate, and a more team-friendly one, would see the combined salary come in around $8 million, and $4 million for each doesn’t sound so absurd from a team perspective, nor does it sound all that bad for Thornton or Marleau.
Some would posit that both veterans should be able to command a higher salary, and based on production alone, there’s a valid argument. Among this summer’s unrestricted free agent forward class, Thornton was the fifth-highest scorer with seven goals and 50 points, while Marleau cracked the top 10 with 27 goals and 46 points. Only T.J. Oshie and Patrick Eaves scored more goals. The difference, however, is most of the top free agents have several years on Thornton and Marleau.
And if you consider why Thornton or Marleau would accept a pay cut such as that after having fairly solid campaigns, it’s worth considering what both stand to accomplish in San Jose should they stick around and allow the Sharks to have extra cap space to throw at improving the team.
Despite Brent Burns’ jaw-dropping offensive performance, one of San Jose’s biggest flaws this season was scoring. The Sharks finished 19th with 219 goals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear an impact player is going to be coming into the lineup via any of their prospects in short order. Danny O’Regan might be ready next season, and Timo Meier got his shot in the post-season, but it could be a few years yet before either is providing the scoring punch up front that San Jose needs to contend.
However, if Thornton and Marleau remained in town at a price that afforded Wilson wiggle room there’s a chance he could land an Oshie, Eaves or Justin Williams to boost the offense. Even if the free agent market didn’t fair well, it also opens up the option of trading for secondary scoring and that could mean adding some additional salary in a deal.
Realistically, adding a piece or two could be all the Sharks need to rocket right back into contention in the Western Conference. This is a team that’s one season removed from the Stanley Cup final and playing in both a division and conference that were the most wide open they have been in recent memory. All the major pieces are still in place, from Burns to Joe Pavelski to Logan Couture, and Thornton and Marleau remaining give the Sharks two veteran players who are both more than capable of contributing at a high level during the regular season and in the playoffs. Marleau’s three goals and four points were proof positive he’s can still produce in the post-season, while Thornton’s determination to play through ACL and MCL injuries is a show of his desire to win.
The only major concern in inking Thornton, Marleau and adding another offensive piece or two in the off-season is what becomes of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Wilson needs to ensure that Vlasic, who’s contract is up following 2017-18, remains in San Jose for the long haul. As important as Burns is, Vlasic’s defensive game is arguably the lynchpin holding the back end together and he’s going to be due a raise in short order.
There of course remains the possibility that the money, either for the Sharks, Thornton or Marleau, simply doesn’t work out. And that would be a shame. There may not be another team where either fits quite as well, nor a situation where either is as close to winning a title. And for the Sharks, losing one or both leaves a hole in the lineup and some big shoes to fill, even if Thornton and Marleau are closer to retirement than they are their primes.
If Wilson can find a way to re-sign Thornton and Marleau and leave some space to make an off-season signing, it stands to keep the Sharks’ window open at least a little bit longer. It also offers the two veterans the chance at winning in the place they’ve spent the majority — and in Marleau’s case, all — of their careers. And it’s hard to imagine either side would pass up the opportunity at making that happen.
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