Thornton and Marleau have been teammates in San Jose since 2005.
The decision to trade Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau would not be an easy one for San Jose Sharks' GM Doug Wilson. We're talking about the two highest scorers in franchise history. So would they be better off trading one or the other? Maybe both? Maybe neither?
We wouldn't be having this discussion if the Sharks had lived up to expectations over the last seven seasons in which Thornton and Marleau have been teammates. Much of that time they've also been linemates, meaning each individual's successes and failures have been directly influenced by the level of the other one's play.
Thornton is the captain and unquestionable leader of the team. He's been commended over the last few seasons (basically since Todd McClellan took over as coach) for his improvement in his own end of the ice. His offensive numbers have suffered slightly, but his playoff performances have been much stronger.
Marleau on the other hand is the former captain, one who received a healthy dose of criticism when he held that title. Soft, inconsistent play and a perceived lack of a "locker room voice" were the most commonly heard criticisms when he wore the "C" from 2004-2009.
With that said, let's take a look at a few reasons the Sharks would be better off shipping Marleau out of town rather than Thornton.
Marleau is heading into the third year of his current four-year deal.
Their salaries in 2012-13 are basically identical. Thornton is set to make $7 million this year, while Marleau is scheduled to make $6.9 million. The real question here is who's giving you more for the money?
Few would argue that you're getting a bigger contribution to the team and its overall success from Thornton at that price than you are from Marleau.
More than anything though, the Sharks' current salary cap situation may be the biggest factor. According to FearTheFin.com:
If the NHL's latest proposal in their ongoing labor negotiations with the Players' Association is accepted, the 2012-13 salary cap will be set at $58 million. What does that mean for the Sharks, who would be $7.2 million over the proposed cap, and the 15 other teams also currently slated to spend more than $58 million in cap space next season? It's impossible to say for sure since the few specific details that have leaked out regarding the league's new proposal don't seem to cover that.
If the Sharks' hand is forced, trading Marleau would make much more sense, assuming he would waive his no-trade clause. It's highly unlikely the Sharks would buy him out, even if given the chance to under the new CBA. They'd be better off shopping him for picks and/or prospects in an attempt to get under the cap.
Thornton has become one of the league's most complete players.
Simply put, Thornton is a better hockey player overall.
It's true that he's not the same Joe that had back-to-back 90-assist seasons, one of only three players in league history to do that (Gretzky and Mario are the other two). Yet he's still a point-per-game guy and he's been able to reinvent himself by focusing more on becoming a two-way force.
He's constantly matched up against the other team's top line. Thornton's even-strength play has vastly improved as a result of this.
The 6'4", 235 lb. center won a little more than 56 percent of his faceoffs last year and can still mix it up physically if need be.
Marleau isn't a one-dimensional player, but he seems to excel in less areas. His scoring always seems to be incredibly streaky, he spends a majority of his time on the perimeter and would hardly be classified as a physical player.
When you're 6'2" and 220 lbs, fans are going to expect you to bang bodies. The "soft" label has followed Marleau since the beginning of his career, no matter how many goals he's scored along the way.
The Sharks are still more than likely a playoff team without Marleau. Subtract Thornton and that streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances would be in serious jeopardy.
Players like Thornton don't come around too often.
Don't get me wrong. Replacing a six-time 30-goal scorer wouldn't be easy. In fact, it would be hard for the Sharks to get equal value in return regardless of which one they traded.
Again, you have to factor in the cap because if the Sharks are forced to unload Marleau, they can't take on any salary in return. That means you're giving up a proven goal scorer and receiving no immediate help to your team back.
However, No. 1 centers with the size and skill of Joe Thornton are even more of a rarity. He's everything you want in a captain. The perfect combination of offensive and defensive talent. He has the respect of his teammates and his coach. Strength up the middle is coveted in today's NHL, making Thornton as close to irreplaceable as possible.
The further emergence of Logan Couture and the return of a healthy Martin Havlat would shoulder some of the offensive burden if Marleau is sent packing.
Oddly enough, these two have been connected since the 1997 draft, when Thornton was the No. 1 overall pick and Marleau was No. 2. Back then, it was two separate teams evaluating the both of them, trying to decide who was the better player.
Now it's the same team that may be forced into that evaluation process. Just like the Boston Bruins did back in '97, my money's on the Sharks picking Thornton over Marleau if it comes down to it.