23 years ago, the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks had the first two picks in the 1997 National Hockey League Entry Draft at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. It was a draft that turned out high-end NHL talent and the success from the top-two picks is still being felt in 2020.
The Bruins used the first pick to select Joe Thornton, while the Sharks took Patrick Marleau. Four decades later, both players are still going strong and are doing so as long-time teammates in the Bay Area in California.
Boston Takes Thornton No. 1
The Bruins finished the 1996-97 season with 61 points and in the cellar of the Northeast Division standings, 14 points behind the fifth-place Hartford Whalers. Needing a franchise player to turn their fortunes around, general manager Harry Sinden selected Thornton from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League.
Things didn’t start well for Thornton in Boston as he broke his arm in a preseason game in 1997 and was out until December. After spending his rookie season bouncing between the fourth line and being a healthy scratch, his scoring totals took off over the next few years under head coach Pat Burns. He scored 22 goals in the 1998-99 season before scoring 27 and 36 goals in the following two years. His career in Boston peaked during the 2002-03 season when he scored 36 goals and dished out 65 assists for 101 points in 77 games.
Thornton was a popular figure as a power forward in Boston, but the 2003-04 season saw the beginning of the end of the former No. 1 overall pick in a Bruins’ uniform. His production dropped to 73 points in 77 games. Things didn’t get any better in the playoffs for Thornton or the team. Leading the hated rival Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in the opening round of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Boston dropped Games 5, 6, and 7 to lose the series, 4-3.
The following year, the league went through a season-long lockout. To begin the 2005-06 season, the Bruins lost several key free agents and went with a younger and inexperienced roster around Thornton. Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell decided with Boston struggling through the early part of the season to trade Thornton to San Jose on Nov. 30, 2005. Boston received Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau in return.
The trade seemed to be a carryover of frustration from the 2004 playoffs in which Thornton failed to register a point in the series against the Canadiens and finished with a minus-six rating. It also seemed at the time of the trade that the Bruins were pointing the finger at Thornton as for the reason of losing the series to the Montreal Canadiens and decided to go with a rebuild and overhaul of their roster.
The trade seemed to rejuvenate Thornton as he took his 33 points from Boston that year to San Jose and his season took off with the Sharks. He compiled 92 points with his new club the rest of the regular season and he finished with an incredible 96 assists on his way to winning the Art Ross Trophy.
Thornton is San Jose’s all-time leader in assists with 797, as well as the all-time plus/minus leader at plus-181. He has 1,043 career points that include 246 goals in the regular season for the Sharks. In the playoffs, Thornton has 25 goals, but shows he is the gifted playmaker and passer that came with his reputation with 90 assists in 144 postseason games.
The trade from Boston to San Jose changed both organizations. It gave Thornton a fresh start that he has thrived in, minus one thing: a Stanley Cup championship.
San Jose Takes Marleau No. 2
The Sharks finished with 62 points, one less than the Bruins, in the 1996-97 season to secure the second pick. Missing the playoffs four of their first six seasons in the league and finishing in the basement of the Pacific Division, San Jose was looking to make a splash in the draft.
Make a splash they did. Taking Marleau second, the Sharks organization found themselves the face of the franchise for decades to come. Marleau jumped right into the San Jose lineup and they instantly became a playoff team for years.
Marleau spent 19 years with the Sharks after being drafted. For the first time in his career in the summer of 2017, he became a free agent. He signed a three-year contract for $6.25 million annually with the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, last summer, seeking salary cap relief, the Maple Leafs traded Marleau to the Carolina Hurricanes. In June, the Hurricanes bought out his remaining year on his contract, allowing Marleau to reunite with San Jose.
Marleau has been a constant player in the lineup no matter where he plays. He owns the fifth-longest streak in NHL history for consecutive regular-season games played with 834 (which includes his two years in Toronto). The streak started on April 9, 2009 and continues to this day.
Marleau currently owns eight franchise records with San Jose. He is the leader in games played (1,538), consecutive games played (624), points (1,099), goals (516), power play goals (161), shorthanded goals (17), game-winning goals (100) and shots on net (3,874). In the postseason, he has 68 goals and 52 assists for San Jose. He has been nothing short of what the Sharks had hoped for when they selected him second. Playing with Thornton has done nothing but helped his career.
Success Together in San Jose
Since becoming teammates during the 2005-06 season, Thornton and Marleau have made the Sharks a playoff contender in just about every year together in the Western Conference.
The Sharks have made the playoffs 11 of the first 12 years the duo had been in San Jose together. Struggling to get through the Conference Semifinals, they made it to the Conference Final in 2011, only to lose to the Vancouver Canucks in five games. Five years later, they finally got over the hump in the Western Conference when they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2015-16 season. The Pittsburgh Penguins proved to be too tough for the Sharks, though, winning in six games, for the first of their two consecutive championships.
Last year in the playoffs, San Jose advanced to the Western Conference Final, only to be frustrated by the officials and the St. Louis Blues and lost the series in six games. With the Sharks currently 10 points back of the final wild-card playoff spot, the question must be asked: was last year Thornton and Marleau’s last chance at winning the Stanley Cup?
On Jan. 2, they became the 13th and 14th players in NHL history, along with Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, to play at least one game in four decades. Ironically, it just so happened that the game was in Pittsburgh, the same city where it started 23 years earlier on draft night.
What has been apparent is that both will certainly in the conversation for the Hall of Fame one day, if they’re not already locks. Both are running out of time to win that elusive first championship, but regardless if they get one or not, they will go down as two of the most instrumental Sharks players in franchise history.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma, Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.