The courtship of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau never swam in the unrestricted free-agent pool before.

The San Jose Sharks had paid them handsomely, were a contending team and never offered a salient reason to leave, especially because they loved living in the Bay Area. But they were both turning 38 before next season. The suddenly money, and especially term, were considerations for the Sharks as they shifted resources to younger members of their core.

So Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau tested the waters. And one of them floated away.

“Obviously, I’m bummed that Patty’s not coming back. But he’s going to do great in Toronto. It’s going to be a good fit,” said Thornton, who officially announced his return to San Jose on a one-year deal worth $8 million on the same day that Marleau inked a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Neither player anticipated the level of interest in their services. Marleau had a dozen teams reach out, whittled that down to four teams and then was down to three suitors when he signed with the Leafs.

As for Thornton, well …

“I don’t know the number, but it was a shit ton,” he said, as Joe Thornton does.

Thornton had the easier call. Term was less important than geography. He listened to other offers, but never visited any other team. That included the Los Angeles Kings, where his friend Rob Blake is now the general manager, which made things a little surreal.

“Obviously. You’re good friends. It was nice getting courted by all these teams. I felt bad saying I’m going back to San Jose, but that’s where my heart is,” said Thornton.

“I feel like I’m a Shark. It was a fun process. But yeah, I’m coming back.”

But the process didn’t end with Thornton’s decision to remain resplendent in teal. He committed to San Jose, but didn’t commit to a salary. That was by design, because Patrick Marleau had yet to make up his mind. Thornton kept in contact with his friend, hoping some variable would change.

GM Doug Wilson said that there were “different versions depending on the circumstances” for Thornton’s contract. Those circumstances were tied to Marleau’s future.

“Jumbo gave us that flexibility. Without going into details, Joe deserves a huge compliment for what he was willing to do,” said Wilson. “He was so willing to do whatever it took. We agreed it was going to be a one-year contract, but his flexibly as far as compensation, to do anything to help, was at the forefront. He’s a special, special guy.”

Marleau’s decision involved money. The Sharks weren’t willing to go as high as other suitors. Marleau’s decision involved term. The Sharks weren’t willing to go three years with the veteran forward, partially because Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski would both need new contracts before that third year of a 40-year-old Marleau.

Their offer was two years and $10 million. Marleau could do better.

But better would also mean leaving San Jose, the only team he’s known since 1997, and leaving the Bay Area, where his family loved living, and leaving teammates like Thornton.

“I think I’ve worn out a few carpets pacing around the house and trying to make this decision over the last couple days,” said Marleau.

“Having my wife and four boys, it was extremely tough to finally pull the trigger and have them move to a new country, from one coast to the other. But everybody here in our house is extremely excited to be part of the Maple Leafs and where they’re going.”

The Leafs offered Marleau a unique opportunity, and not only because they were willing to pay him handsomely and guarantee a third contract year. They offered him the chance to play for Mike Babcock, the coach with whom he won two Olympic gold medals for Canada. They offered him a chance to play for a team on the rise and, in the process, be counted on as a veteran sage to one of the best collections of young forwards in the NHL.

“This is the only time, in our opinion, that we could do something like this,” said GM Lou Lamoriello. “This is the most difficult year for them, coming off what they did. Adding a player like Patrick will only help their growth.”

He joins defenseman Ron Hainsey and center Dominic Moore as the team’s infusion of veteran savvy this summer.

At 38, the Leafs were also a chance to Marleau to reenergize himself after three years of offensive decline in San Jose, at least in Lamoriello’s eyes.

“He’s been in one organization. We’ll see a surge in his production here,” he said. “I don’t think you sell anything [to him]. You give what the opportunity is, and how the young players we have here will make him a better player.”

So for the first time 2006, the San Jose Sharks will not have Marleau and Thornton on the same roster. For the first time since 1997, they won’t have Marleau wearing the crest.

He played 1,493 games for San Jose, amassing 508 goals and 574 assists. He’s the franchise leader in no less than nine categories, including games and goals and points. Statistically, he never broke 90 points and only broke 40 goals once, but was considered an elite offensive talent thanks in part to his wheels and his durability.

The credit he was given for the Sharks’ successes was dwarfed by the grief he was given for their failures, like being stripped of the captaincy because the Sharks lost in the first round as a No. 1 seed. Every playoff ousting would produce questions about Marleau’s no-movement clause.

Oh, and then there were those questions of competitive fire. Not just from his most vocal critic, Jeremy Roenick, who infamously called him “gutless” on national television. But also from those subtle inferences from Wilson about players with no-move clauses being content to live in the Bay Area.

It’s hard to say if Marleau would have been back if all things were equal. Those trade requests from the last few years linger on the brain. But no matter how it ended, or when it ended, this is not the end of Patrick Marleau’s legacy with the San Jose Sharks. It’ll be celebrated whenever the Leafs visit the Shark Tank. It’ll be celebrated when his career comes to a close. And it’ll be celebrated when No. 12 hangs from the rafters, the first Sharks player to ever receive the honor.

“Patty’s going to be a Shark for life,” said Thornton, “and he’s going to go down as the greatest Shark of all-time.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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