Joe Thornton knew for a while he was re-signing with the San Jose Sharks for three more years. He just waited for Patrick Marleau to get the same assurance.
On Friday, Thornton and Marleau each signed three-year contract extensions to keep San Jose's perennial playoff core intact. Thornton got US$6.75 million per season, while Marleau got an average of $6.67 million.
Unsurprisingly, the franchise cornerstones came as a package deal.
"Both players said one of the priorities is that they really would only come back if the other one was coming back," general manager Doug Wilson said on a conference call Friday afternoon. "It was contingent (on) them knowing that we're a better team with both of them instead of just one."
Thornton's agent/brother John said in a phone interview that the Sharks captain wanted to win in San Jose alongside Marleau but also recognized his value to the team.
"Is it the same team without a 35-goal scorer?" John Thornton said. "It's a different team without him. You can't just replace Patrick Marleau."
Fortunately for the Sharks, they won't have to.
This is Marleau's 16th season with the Sharks after being their second overall pick in the 1997 draft. In 1,216 career games, he has 425 goals and 483 points—both franchise records—and was captain from 2003 through 2009.
The Sharks have made the playoffs in all but one season of Marleau's career.
Thornton has been Marleau's teammate in San Jose since a November 2005 trade from the Boston Bruins and has been captain since 2010. Since the trade, he has 168 goals and 549 assists, second in points to only Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and the Sharks also have the most points and regular-season victories in the NHL.
John Thornton had no trouble seeing this kind of success more than eight years ago.
"I knew my brother would be one of the best as long as he wants to be one of the best," he said.
A key component to this deal was Thornton and Marleau still playing strong at the age of 35. Thornton leads the Sharks in scoring with 53 points on six goals and 47 assists, while Marleau is third with 47 points on 21 goals and 26 assists.
"They're elite-level players that are still playing at an elite level," Wilson said. "They make other players around them better, but they can still carry their own weight."
And they still fit in with a young group led by centres Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, winger Brent Burns, rookie forward Tomas Hertl and defenceman. All of those players expect for Hertl have long-term contracts, and Vezina Trophy-finalist goaltender Antti Niemi is signed through 2014-15.
"I think we're really fortunate that we certainly have everybody in key positions," Wilson said. "Our scouts have done an excellent job of the defence position and the centre position, which are really, really hard to find in the league, and certainly in goaltending.
"I think when you're strong in those positions, it enables you to bring in some younger players that maybe can play on the wing or can play on the back end around the strength of the centre position. We think we're set very well for the future, and we also think we're in a very good position to focus on the now."
The now includes trying to erase the San Jose stigma of this group not making it to a Stanley Cup final. In signing these deals, Thornton and Marleau threw in on the hope that it's still possible.
"He really believes in Pavs and Vlasic and Nemo," John Thornton said of Joe. "A hundred per cent, he believes he can still win there and wants to win in San Jose."
Wilson wants to do that, as well, and part of that is what he calls the Sharks' "Reset, Refresh" strategy that began at last year's trade deadline. San Jose dealt away defenceman Douglas Murray and forwards Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe because they didn't play fast enough for what Wilson and coach Todd McLellan wanted.
Marleau, who will represent Canada at the Sochi Olympics, is fast, and Thornton—a 2010 Canadian Olympian—also fits in to Wilson's wide definition of the word.
"There's many different ways to play fast—one is thinking the game fast, going to the right places, obviously athletically moving your body fast," Wilson said. "Everybody that we have, and this is no disrespect to anybody that's not here, fits in (with) what we're trying to accomplish. These guys certainly play that way. That was how we started it last year and that's how we continue: Any player that we bring into this organization has to play a fast, hard, supportive game, which includes playing in all three zones."
Veteran defenceman Dan Boyle has fit in well with this group, but he's the biggest outstanding part of this core. Boyle will be 38 not long after he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Wilson would not comment on the status of negotiations with Boyle, saying only that it's a different kind of conversation than he had with Thornton and Marleau because the Ottawa native would be signing an over-35 contract.
That's not to say getting Thornton and Marleau signed was easy. Their wanting to re-sign together made for a different dynamic in negotiations, Wilson said, as did Marleau doing his own deal after respected agent Don Baizley died this past summer.
"I think a lot of the approach that we took was probably the foundation that had already been put in place by Don several years ago because Patty's made this type of decision several times," Wilson said. "When they're high-end players like this, they have not only numerous choices of contracts that could be of different dollars and different term. But we really appreciate them helping us keep this group together and contributing in this way. They both did step up."
In John Thornton's mind, there was no doubt.
"It wasn't like we were waiting for free agency or waiting for more money," he said. "Joe loves playing there. He could never really see himself going someplace else."
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