ANAHEIM, Calif. – Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau said potential unrestricted free agency hasn’t been a burden on them so far this season.
Maybe such a situation would have created stress for them in their younger years, but with both now 37, issues that come with UFA uncertainty aren’t a major problem – or so they say.
“I’m just having fun playing hockey. That stuff takes care of itself,” Marleau said.
Said Thornton, “No stress. That’s how I live no stress. I’ve really never stressed contracts or anything like that. Just go out and play.
Thornton is in the final season of a three-year contract worth $20.250 million while Marleau’s deal was worth $20 million of three years. Both players were signed to their contracts in January of 2014, before hitting the open market that summer.
Despite their chilled demeanors on the topic, their lack of contracts with the Sharks remains a big question around the team, where they’re still leaders and first-line players.
Thornton and Marleau have been linked as the big names of the Sharks’ core for over a decade. Since Thornton was traded to the Sharks in 2005, the two players have led the team to a high level of success that culminated in the organization’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2016. Marleau ranks first in Sharks career points while Thornton ranks second.
Both are top-six forwards in San Jose, but the makeup of the group has changed a bit over the last couple of seasons. Defenseman Brent Burns has taken over as the team’s top points producer this season with 34 in 35 games. Joe Pavelski is in his second year as team captain and has 33 points and center Logan Couture used a solid playoff to cement his NHL star status.
Goaltender Martin Jones has also gone from unknown quantity just a few years ago to one of the best starting goaltenders in the Western Conference and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has developed into one of the NHL’s top two-way defensemen.
Earlier this season, the Sharks signed Burns, a pending UFA coming into the season, to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension.
Marleau’s points per-game have dropped from 0.59 last season – where he was asked to sacrifice scoring to give the team center depth – to 0.37 this year. Thornton’s assists per-game are still at a high number at 0.63, but he has two goals in 35 games – both empty netters.
Though their numbers don’t look as good currently as years past, they still could have impactful seasons. Thornton was one of the top point producers in the NHL after the New Year in 2015-16 and he currently holds a 3.29 adjusted CF% Rel, which tops Sharks regulars – meaning the team holds onto the puck more when he’s on the ice.
Thornton noted the hectic World Cup of Hockey schedule hurt his production early on, but he has started to feel better of late. In December, he has picked up 11 points in 11 games.
Despite his age, Thornton is still seen as one of the league’s top centers and a big reason why the Sharks have been the NHL’s elite for almost every year since his arrival. Last season Thornton had 82 points in 82 games and was a league second-team All-Star
“At the start I think I was a little bit drained, but I feel good now,” Thornton said. “I feel healthy, I feel strong. I’m getting better as the year goes on but early on it was a lot of hockey but I feel really, really strong now.”
Part of this has to do with how coach Peter DeBoer has used rest to keep his aging veterans fresh. Thornton has again found himself benefiting from how DeBoer has worked the team’s schedule this year.
“We had that last year too and I think we kind of took advantage of it the second half of the year. I think it’s been great this year,” Thornton said. “He’s allowed us to get a rest in. Plus we’re a West Coast team so we’re always traveling and getting in at weird hours but it’s helping us again this year.”
Though Marleau’s numbers have dropped for three straight years, he has remained a versatile and durable hockey player who can provide veteran savvy at wing and center. Last season, it was reported Marleau had asked the Sharks to look into a trade, but he seems to have moved past whatever feelings led to that request.
“Feeling good physically and mentally feel good – playing some really good hockey and points are going to come, but I feel like I’m getting lots of chances, lots of looks and have to stick with it,” he said. “I just kind of go wherever I’m needed. I think I played a little more center and more center in the playoffs and then wing, but I can play wherever.”
For the Sharks, it would be tough to see both franchise icons walk when they’re still top players for the team and continue to be productive elsewhere. But signing them to multi-year deals and watching them decline could also be burdensome. After next season, Tomas Hertl Vlasic and Jones are all up for new contracts. It’s a delicate balance for a team that’s still in its championship window of opportunity.
“The one thing about our group, and it’s great, is we don’t talk about any contract negotiations,” general manager Doug Wilson said in a recent interview with Puck Daddy. “Like with Burns, we’ll announce it when it’s done.”
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