And then there were two. The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks will battle it out in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. And I’m picking the San Jose Sharks to win it all.
Sure, I can make offer up deep analysis explaining why Los Tiburones will win Lord Stanley’s mug. I can cite how Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns led the way throughout the playoffs, single out the Sharks’ strong power-play, point out how the defense pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun nullified scorers such as the LA Kings’ Tyler Toffoli, the Nashville Predators’ Filip Forsberg and the St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko, indicate their roster health and the solid performances from depth players such as Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Paul Martin and Joel Ward.
But the real reason I’m picking the Sharks to win it all is because I want to see Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally win a championship.
Admittedly, it would be great to see the Penguins win the Cup so that all of Phil Kessel’s critics (especially those in the Toronto media) can die a little inside seeing him skate around with the Cup. Watching Penguins captain Sidney Crosby stick it to his haters by leading his club to another championship would also be enjoyable.
But it was only seven years ago when the Pens won their last championship. Over the next several years, they still have a decent shot of returning to the Final. Kessel, Crosby and company should still be among the Cup favorites next season.
For Thornton and Marleau, however, they’re approaching the end of their playing careers. Now in the late-30s, they have only a year remaining on their respective contracts and might not be back with the Sharks after that.
Thornton and Marleau entered the NHL in 1997-98. Thornton was the golden child, the first-overall pick of the Boston Bruins in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Marleau was selected second overall in that draft by the Sharks.
Over their 18 NHL seasons, they’ve had many accomplishments. Of their draft class, Thornton sits first in career points (1,341), with Marleau third (1,036) to Chicago’s Marian Hossa’s 1,086.
Thornton, who came to San Jose in a 2005-06 midseason trade that has to rank among the worst deals in Bruins history, is the Sharks all-time assist leader with 679. He also won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies in 2005-06. Marleau doesn’t have individual hardware, but he’s the Sharks’ all-time leader in games played (1,411), goals (481) and points (1,036).
Thornton is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Marleau could take a little longer but should also get the nod for the Hall one day.
The crowning achievement that’s eluded them, however, is a Stanley Cup championship.
From 2005-06 to 2013-14, the Sharks were Thornton and Marleau. Players came and went, but they were the constants, the twin leaders expected to carry the Sharks to championship glory.
During that period, they led the Sharks to four consecutive Pacific Division titles (2007-08 to 2010-11), the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team in 2008-09 and consecutive trips to the Western Conference Final in 2010 and 2011.
However, the Sharks garnered a reputation as a strong regular-season club that came up short in the playoffs. Much of the blame was regularly tossed at Thornton and Marleau. Despite everything they’ve done for the Sharks, Thornton and Marleau were considered choke artists. Deep down, it has to grate.
With their careers winding down (Marleau’s more so than Thornton, who was among this season’s NHL assist leaders and sits fifth among playoff scorers entering the Final), both know this could be their one and only shot at the Cup.
Should the Sharks go all the way, critics of Thornton and Marleau will attempt to diminish the duo by claiming they rode on the coattails of their younger teammates toward a championship. While the pair no longer have to carry the Sharks as they once did, they certainly haven’t been passengers during the Sharks journey to the Final.
Nobody downplayed Ray Bourque’s contributions to the Colorado Avalanche’s 2001 Stanley Cup title. Lanny McDonald was a fading player when the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989, but the hockey world was overwhelmingly happy that he finally won a title before his retirement.
If the Sharks win it, here’s hoping Thornton and Marleau receive their just due.