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Will San Jose's 'rebuild' mean the end for Sharks stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau?

Sharks players react after losing to the Kings in the first round of the playoffs. San Jose led the series 3-0 before losing four straight games. (USA Today)
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Sharks players react after losing to the Kings in the first round of the playoffs. San Jose led the series 3-0 before losing four straight games. (USA Today)

Doug Wilson says the San Jose Sharks are committed to a “rebuild.” The general manager says they are now a “tomorrow team” and this is a phase the organization maybe should have gone through “many years ago.”

But what does that mean?

It does not mean the Sharks plan to tear down everything to build it back up again. It does not mean they’re trying to trade captain Joe Thornton and winger Patrick Marleau. At least not yet.

What it means is this: The Sharks feel they are not close enough to the Stanley Cup, and so they are not in win-now mode. They will not trade draft picks or young players for veterans – nor sign free agents who would leapfrog young players – to put this team over the top in the short term. They will put younger players in better positions to play, lead and develop for the medium and long terms. How the ice time is distributed – and whether Thornton keeps the ‘C’ if he returns – will be up to the coaches.

The Sharks have already parted with 37-year-old defenseman Dan Boyle, trading the rights to the pending unrestricted free agent, and will part with 33-year-old winger Martin Havlat, via trade or buyout. They have made the “rebuild” clear to Thornton and Marleau. To Wilson, it’s not forcing them out. It’s being up front with them. Do they want to stay in San Jose under the circumstances?

Ultimately it will be up to Thornton and Marleau, who have no-movement clauses in the three-year contract extensions they signed in January. Wilson has received calls from other teams and knows who is interested if the time comes. But he will not explore a trade unless Thornton or Marleau tell him to do so, and they have not told him to do so at this point. He has set no deadline.

The Sharks still have never made the Stanley Cup Final. They became only the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead this year when they did it against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.

But the Sharks have made the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons – only the Detroit Red Wings’ 23-season streak is longer – and have made the Western Conference final three times in that span. They were the third-best possession team in the NHL during the 2013-14 regular season, behind only the 2012 champion Kings and the 2013 champion Chicago Blackhawks. They had 111 points, tied for fourth-most in the league.

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Sharks goalie Antti Niemi will compete with Alex Stalock for the starting job in 2014-15. (AP)

Sharks goalie Antti Niemi will compete with Alex Stalock for the starting job in 2014-15. (AP)

Though blowing that 3-0 series lead was bitter, they blew it to the Kings, who went on to win the Cup for the second time in three years, and they blew it partly because of an injury to top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and issues in goal.

This is a delicate time. The Sharks would be unwise to panic and break up one of the best teams in the league, and they haven’t in many ways. Wilson still has his job. So does coach Todd McLellan. But they don’t want to keep the status quo and pretend everything is OK, either. They don’t want to be longtime contenders who never make the final, let alone win the Cup, and they are willing to take one step backward to take two steps forward.

“Remember where we’re trying to get to,” said Wilson in a conference call on Tuesday. “It’s not about here, it’s about there.”

The Sharks aren’t going to bottom out and restock their talent with top draft picks. They don’t need to. They have already have Vlasic, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski; Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto and more. They have 16 draft picks over the next two years – including three in the first two rounds this year – and a history of finding good players late in the first round and later in the draft.

To the Sharks, a “rebuild” means taking the focus off the Cup for a year or two. It means letting those players grow as individuals and bond into more of a cohesive team – a tight group like the Kings – while using those picks to bring in even more young talent.

The Sharks have told Antti Niemi that he will have to compete for the net with Alex Stalock. Niemi has one year left on his contract; Stalock just signed a two-year extension. They told Boyle that they wanted to make room for younger defensemen, and they have told Brad Stuart something similar. Stuart has a limited no-trade clause and one year left on his contract. Vlasic is already an elite player. Brent Burns is moving from the wing back to the blue line, as was the plan. The Sharks think highly of Justin Braun, Jason Demers and Matt Irwin, and then there is Mirco Mueller, the 19-year-old prospect the Sharks drafted 18th overall last year.

Thornton and Marleau are trickier. They are still elite players as they approach their 35th birthdays. Thornton ranked second in assists last season with 65, three behind the leader, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Both were in the top 16 in scoring. Marleau won a gold medal with Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics. But Thornton had two goals and three points in the seven-game series against the Kings – including zero points in the final four losses. Marleau had three goals and seven points – including zero points in the final three losses.

It should be noted that the Sharks chose to re-sign Thornton and Marleau six months ago, and Wilson said this at the time according to the San Jose Mercury News: “What I love about them is not only do they make some of the other players around them much better, but they’ve really allowed the growth of the Logan Coutures and the Marc-Edouard Vlasics and the Joe Pavelskis.” McLellan said this: “I think they’re just going to keep the same level at least and maybe get better.”

Thornton and Marleau signed those extensions for below market value – $6.75 million per year for Thornton, $6.67 million for Marleau – because they wanted to stay. There are few places they could go realistically that would give them a better chance. Why would they want to play for below market value somewhere else now? Why would they ask Wilson to trade them?

The Sharks can make this more uncomfortable – if McLellan strips Thornton of the ‘C,’ if McLellan puts Thornton or Marleau in roles they don’t like. You’d think those possibilities would have come up already behind the scenes; both sides are keeping those conversations private.

If Thornton or Marleau ask to be traded, then Wilson could flip an aging star for something to help the “rebuild.” If he gets enough in return, the Sharks might be better off. But we’re not at that point. At least not yet.

Listen to what John Thornton, Joe’s brother and agent, told the Mercury News: “He’s perfectly happy there right now. He wants to stay there and win the Cup. He believes they still have enough talent.”

Will Thornton or Marleau leave because of the “rebuild,” or do they believe the Sharks need to be rebuilt at all?

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