Joe Thornton wants to keep playing with Patrick Marleau, preferably with the San Jose Sharks. He made that clear after the Sharks lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference First Round.
"Hopefully I can come back and Patty can come back," Thornton told reporters then. "I think this is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup-caliber team. I really believe that."
But two months have passed without Thornton or Marleau signing with the Sharks. Each veteran forward has received significant interest from around the NHL during the interview period this week and will become an unrestricted free agent at 12 p.m. ET on July 1.
The closer we come to free agency, the more you wonder: Will the two greatest players in San Jose history be back? Will the Sharks be a Stanley Cup-caliber team without them, at least in the short term?
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Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has tough decisions to make.
Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic ($4.85 million salary-cap charge, according to CapFriendly.com) and goaltender Martin Jones ($3 million) have one season left each on their contracts and are eligible to sign extensions starting Saturday. Vlasic is 30, Jones 27.
Forwards Logan Couture ($6 million) and Joe Pavelski ($6 million) have two seasons left on their contracts and are eligible to sign extensions next July 1. Couture is 28. Pavelski turns 33 on July 11.
Thornton's last contract had a cap charge of $6.75 million. Marleau's had a cap charge of $6.67 million. Thornton turns 38 on Sunday. Marleau turns 38 on Sept. 15.
Considering the Sharks' situation and the players' ages, Wilson might want Thornton and Marleau back on one-year contracts. He might want Thornton more than Marleau simply because Thornton is a center, Marleau is a wing and the Sharks have up-and-coming wings Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen.
But Thornton wants a three-year contract, and Marleau wants a three-year contract at minimum. Each might receive better offers on the open market.
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And the key to Thornton is Marleau.
Thornton has played the past 11-plus seasons for the Sharks, since the Boston Bruins traded him to San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005, while he was on his way to winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. Marleau has spent his entire 19-season NHL career with the Sharks, who selected him No. 2 in the 1997 NHL Draft.
In Sharks history, Marleau ranks first in regular-season games played at 1,493, Thornton second at 914. Marleau ranks first in goals at 508, Thornton first in assists at 722. Marleau ranks first in points at 1,082, Thornton second at 937.
Thornton waited for Marleau so they could announce nearly identical three-year contracts together on Jan. 24, 2014. After the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead and lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round later that year, Wilson talked about rebuilding and openly wondered whether some veterans would want to stay. Thornton lost his captaincy. Still, Thornton and Marleau never asked to be traded.
"I still believe in this team, ultimately," Thornton said during training camp before the 2014-15 season. "If I didn't, I think …"
"You know, that's the easy way out, just pack your bag and leave. I still believe this team can do some things."
The Sharks made their first Stanley Cup Final in 2016.
Thornton went from 82 points (19 goals, 63 assists) in 82 games in 2015-16 to 50 points (seven goals, 43 assists) in 79 games in 2016-17. But that was after a short summer and the World Cup of Hockey 2016. He played four games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a badly injured knee that needed surgery, even though he was set to become a free agent. He should bounce back with a summer of rest and rehab.
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San Jose remains Thornton's first choice. It would be more satisfying to stay and win the Cup than to go elsewhere and win it, because he has so much invested in the Sharks. He has rehabbed at home in Ontario and not visited other teams during the free-agent interview period. Would he be willing to sign for one year if the Sharks gave Marleau a multiyear deal?
But if the Sharks lose Marleau, who scored 52 goals during the past two seasons, Thornton is less likely to believe they are a Stanley Cup-caliber team and more likely to leave himself, making them even less of a Stanley-Cup caliber team.
How would the Sharks replace Marleau's scoring and Thornton's passing? How would players like Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns feel about it?
Thornton has options. The New York Rangers need a center and have left wing Rick Nash, Thornton's friend and former teammate in Switzerland. The Kings need someone to turn possession into production, and their new GM is Rob Blake, Thornton's former teammate in San Jose. The Nashville Predators, who just went to the Final, will need a center if Mike Fisher retires; and need a wing after losing James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.
A few teams could afford Thornton and Marleau.
A general manager who wants one might go for both.