What if … the Sharks traded Thornton and Marleau in 2014? (NHL Alternate History)

(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? We promised Puck Daddy’s own Ryan Lambert that he’d get a crack at one. That one is the San Jose Sharks. Enjoy!)

By Ryan Lambert

“I want players that want to play here not just live here.”

That was Sharks GM Doug Wilson in June 2014, giving voice to one of those things that seemed to be lingering forever. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton were the backbone of the Sharks teams over the previous several years, and if there was any term that best described how the hockey world saw those San Jose clubs, it was, “Perennial bridesmaids.”

There was always a reason the Sharks did big numbers in the regular season — thanks to the talent not only Thornton and Marleau brought to the table, but also a great supporting cast. You could explain away just about any postseason collapse by attributing it to any number of factors. It was, of course, wise to look at season after season of 100-point performances as being a better indicator of team quality than a few bad games in any given playoff round.

But after the Sharks got reverse-swept by the Kings, blowing a 3-0 series lead as Los Angeles rolled to its second Stanley Cup in three years, it seemed Wilson ran out of patience. Justified or not, you can see where any GM might.

In conducting the infamous interview, Wilson was careful not to name names, but Thornton and Marleau had become famous for being the kinds of guys who really liked playing in San Jose in addition to routinely turning in phenomenal (regular) seasons. Maybe all the winning in the postseason and having nothing to show for it grates on you, but this was clearly a shot across the bow of the franchise’s two best forwards.

Immediately, rumors started to swirl that Thornton and Marleau — who just the previous summer had signed twin sweetheart AAV deals of three years apiece, though both also had no-move clauses — would likely be traded as the Sharks tried to revamp their “culture.” And about a week after those Wilson quotes came out, Thornton added more fuel to the fire by saying, essentially, he would be fine with leaving if the fans didn’t want him there.

Of course, the Sharks went on to make the Stanley Cup Final two seasons later, in large part because the 2014 trades didn’t happen.

But what this column presupposes is… what if they had?

It wouldn’t have been a good idea.

The obvious thing to say here is that both Thornton and Marleau — coming off seasons of 76 and 70 points, respectively — would have been highly desirable to just about any NHL team. And because Wilson’s comments were in early June, there would have been plenty of wiggle room to get something done before or at the draft, or even just before July 1. It was an advantageous time for Wilson to play his hand, if nothing else, because maybe you see what you can shake out over the course of three weeks or so.

But with that having been said, you also have to recognize that in most cases, trading stars isn’t likely to net you star players in return. Someone is always going to come out on the losing end of any given deal, and that’s something Wilson should know all too well given what little he had to give away to pull a future Hall of Famer like Thornton in the first place.

Moreover, despite their continued proficiency, Thornton and Marleau were also both 34, which isn’t exactly young, so the return probably would have been a bit limited. The nice folks at Fear the Fin were kind enough at the time — through their tears — to look at reasonable returns the Sharks might have pulled based on trades of other relatively high-performing players after their 30th birthdays. Have a look at the returns FTF put together: They’re not great.

Generally speaking, if you traded a good or even great player over the age of 30, you could expect to get back some combination of an okay prospect, an NHL roster player, a pick or two.

There was certainly a line of suitors around the block, for Thornton especially, not that this should be any sort of surprise, and Wilson would have been able to pit those teams against each other to sweeten the pot. But the fact remains, the return here would have almost certainly diminished the quality of the Sharks’ roster significantly.

The biggest caveat to that is, of course, that a lot of the trades listed on the FTF list were made mid-season, when cap flexibility is limited. But trades in June tend to get better returns because teams know what they have to work with for an entire offseason. But even still, all involved would acknowledge you’re not getting back equal value — not in a one-for-one and certainly not collectively across a few players — for players of this caliber, even if they come with a very obvious amount of cost certainty.

Another caveat: If you only trade one of those two guys, the impact is obviously diminished. Thornton was still a top-five center in the league at that point, so if you’re only looking to make one trade, that’s not the guy you move, right?

But since we’re imagining a world in which the Sharks trade both those guys, what it really means is Wilson is committing to a rebuild. You’re not getting fair value or anything close to it for a top-five center, and trading a very good winger like Marleau gets you a paler shade of that same color.

So that means Wilson was probably looking for something like a roster player, a good prospect and a first-round pick. They’d already traded Dan Boyle, still a solid defender, for just a conditional fifth-round pick in early June, so that might have honestly been the mindset.

And if the Sharks start to rebuild in 2014, they certainly don’t make a Cup Final. They probably trade one or two other “core” guys like perhaps Joe Pavelski or even Brent Burns — and certainly don’t trade FOR Martin Jones the next summer. They don’t become such a nice, fun team that we all like so much, and the entire Western Conference is rewritten for the past two or three seasons, as well as a few in the future.

It’s tough to guess what a full-on tear-down in San Jose looks like; they can’t possibly go all the way in the tank, right? Probably not in that market. But without Thornton and Marleau, they’re guaranteed to go from a strong team to, perhaps, a borderline playoff team more or less overnight. And at that point, why not sell off the other assets because of how old this core generally was anyway? Even “younger” guys like Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns were 29 and 28, respectively, in 2014. Only Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Matt Nieto were regular players under the age of 25 at that point.

To some extent, the Sharks are already different, thanks to Marleau jumping to Toronto as a free agent. So if those trades happen in 2014, the Sharks as we’ve known them for about a decade are gone three years ago. They’re probably still in the middle of that rebuild today. And maybe, just maybe, Wilson doesn’t have his job any more.

Fortunately, Wilson wised up and avoided this self-inflicted pitfall. Keeping this in the realm of what-if was a very good decision, probably for all involved.

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