In 1997, the San Jose Sharks were anything but the apex predators of the NHL. Instead of tiger sharks that fear no fish in the sea, they were dog fish, feeding on whatever meager prey that they came across, swimming in constant fear that their lives may be taken by a hungry cod. As such, following their dreadful showing in the 1996-1997 NHL Season, they were awarded the second overall pick. The only team that performed worse than the Sharks that year were the Boston Bruins. With their first overall pick, the Bruins selected Joe Thornton. Subsequently, the Sharks would select Patrick Marleau. Both players would go on to have a profound impact on the San Jose Sharks as a franchise, taking them from bottom feeders to the top of the food chain.
However, for now, the Sharks only had one of the two on their payroll. Marleau, despite being the youngest player in the 1997 draft class, was immediately given a shot in the pros the subsequent season. Contemporary accounts were comparing the prowess he demonstrated at a young age to baseball savant Ken Griffey Jr., and this comparison seemed to be apt. Marleau made his professional debut less than a month after turning 18. While not becoming a crossover pop culture icon like Griffey Jr., Marleau put up solid, if unspectacular, numbers as the Sharks squeaked into the playoffs as the bottom seed from the Pacific Division. He was by no means a team leader, but his 13 goals and 19 assists were enough to make him the third most productive skater on the team from an offensive perspective. Being the lowest seed that made it to the playoffs that year, they had the misfortune of being matched up against the top seed from the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars. The Stars had won that season’s Presidents Trophy, a distinction that is awarded to the team with the best record in the regular season. The minnows from San Jose did not stand a chance, but put up a valiant effort, winning two games in the best of seven series. The next season, 1998-’99, brought more of the same but with slight improvements. The Sharks, once again, made the playoffs as the fourth best team in the Pacific but had a total of 80 points rather than 78 points. Marleau was again the third highest scorer on the team but scored 21 goals and contributed 24 assists. The next year, Marleau regressed, having been demoted to the third line towards the end of the previous season following the arrival of Vincent Damphouse. However, the Sharks would finally advance beyond the first round of the playoffs in 2000, triumphing over the St. Louis Blues in seven games. Marleau barely factored into that series, only playing in one of the games and failing to find himself on the scoring sheet. He would have a bigger role to play in the Conference Semi-Finals. However, they were once again consumed by the maw of the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Dallas Stars. Marleau would continue to contribute as the center for the third line for the two seasons, leading the team in scoring contributions in 2000-’01, but the Sharks never were able to get past the Conference Semi-Finals until the 2004 playoffs. By this point, Marleau had established himself as a team leader. After bouncing the C around throughout the early parts of the 2003-’04 regular season, it found itself embroidered on the front of his jersey. He would go on to lead them to the Conference Championship series, where the Sharks would find themselves engulfed by Jarome Iginla’s Calgary Flames. The 2005-’06 season would see no hockey played, as a players’ union strike saw the entire season abandoned due to a lockout, but the subsequent season, another player entered the picture.
The number one overall pick from the 1997 draft, Joe Thornton, while not having the immediate impact that Marleau made in San Jose, proved to be the more talented player, going off raw numbers. Starting in the 1999-’00 season, Thornton went on a streak of surpassing 60 points, or goals plus assists, in every full season that would continue through the 2015-’16 season. But, somehow, this production was not satisfying to the decision-makers in Boston following a 73 point season in 2003-’04, Thornton was shipped off to the West Coast in exchange for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart and Marco Strum. The three players would combine for zero individual accolades following the trade, with Stuart being the only player to achieve anything notable, being a part of the 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Redwings. Thornton alone would play in five All-Star Games, be named to four NHL All-Star Teams, win both the Art Ross Trophy, which is awarded to the player who scores the most points in a given season, and the Hart Memorial Trophy, the NHL’s MVP, in 2006. While there are many mental gymnastics that Bruins GM Mike O’Connell has conducted to try to justify this trade, from its impact on the Bruins’ salary cap at the time to the team not being a contender and needing to rebuild, this trade was one of the many factors that led to him losing his job. The Sharks, on the other hand, became genuine contenders.
Though both Marleau and Thornton played center, the presence of two elite players in the same position did not come at the expense of either’s performance. Where Marleau was more of a shot-taker, Thornton contributed a playmaking edge. His ingenuity with the puck helped linemates of his reach new heights. For example, upon his arrival in 2005-’06, Thornton’s play contributed to Jonathan Cheecho’s league leading 56 goals, twice as many as he had scored in 2004-’05. Joe Thornton seemed to be the missing piece that would get the Sharks finally over the hump. But that was not the case.
Despite featuring a dangerous team featuring players who had accumulated numerous accolades, the Sharks failed to make it past the Edmonton Oilers in the second round of the playoffs. This pattern of high expectations being foiled come playoff time would continue over the next nine seasons. Each year, they made the playoffs, but the playoffs are just a lottery ticket. Any team can get hot come the playoffs and make a run at the cup, that is the nature of the game. As Marleau and Thornton grew old, and the Sharks’ championship window began to slowly close, they set off to seek cups of their own. Marleau left to join the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2017-’18 season, having set every franchise record a skater can set for the Sharks. If he continues to play regularly this season, he will probably set the record for most games played in the NHL. Thornton left in 2020 for the Leafs as well. Chances are that neither will win a Stanley Cup.