The end of an era

FILE - In this March 21, 2017, file photo, San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau (12) gains control of the puck against Minnesota Wild's Jared Spurgeon (46) in the second period of an NHL hockey game in St. Paul, Minn. Marleau has left the Sharks and signed an $18.75 million, three-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.(AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

The last time the San Jose Sharks played a game without forward Patrick Marleau on the roster, the year was 1997. They went 27-47-8, which was good for dead last in a Pacific Division that featured an extremely strong Colorado Avalanche, who racked up 49 wins en route to a President’s Trophy, the Anaheim Ducks were called the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Edmonton Oilers made the playoffs, and I was graduating from high school.

Al Sims was the head coach. If you don’t recognize that name, that is okay, because I did not either. Turns out that was his one and only season at the helm.

The Sharks scored just 211 goals as a team that season. It was clear that they desperately needed offense along with a better message in the locker room.

Enter the 1997 draft.

The Sharks were awarded the second overall pick in the first round, one spot behind the Boston Bruins. The Sharks’ scouting team had identified two young men as having the potential to make an immediate impact offensively, Joe Thornton and Marleau. Both were equally attractive to the Sharks, so they felt good no matter who the Bruins chose with the No. 1 pick.

Thornton went first to the Bruins, and carried the weight of high expectations into his career with the Bruins. The Bruins, of course, had traded former captain Ray Bourque during the season to the Avalanche, giving him one last chance to win the Stanley Cup, which he did. Thornton was going to have huge skates to fill, despite not playing the same position as Bourque.

Marleau went to the Sharks, of course, at No. 2. He was coming off a second season with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds, where he scored 51 goals and 125 points in 71 games and served as the team captain.

He was in the lineup for opening night of the 1997-98 season. He scored just 13 goals and 32 points as a rookie.

Marleau was not the only new face in town. Former Detroit Red Wings star goaltender Mike Vernon was brought in to fill the gap left by the departure of folk hero Arturs Irbe, and Darryl Sutter was brought to lead the way behind the bench.

While Marleau’s early years saw him never saw him cross the 50-point plateau, the talent around him was not very strong. That changed in 1999 when the Sharks acquired former Montreal Canadiens star Vincent Damphousse. The 1999-2000 season saw the Sharks finish with a winning record of 35-30-10 under Sutter. Despite the 87 points they earned, they were still fourth in the Pacific and eighth in the Western Conference.

Marleau passed the 50-point plateau the next season (2000-01), when he scored 25 goals and 52 points. Two years, later, under the tutelage of Ron Wilson, who was brought in to help push the Sharks beyond complacency, Marleau set a new career highs in goals (28), assists (29), and points (57).

During the 2005-06 season, Marleau exploded for 34 goals and 86 points. The Sharks improved to second in the Pacific with a record of 44-27-11, good for 99 points and a second-place finish. Of course, much of that was due to the fact that the Sharks traded three players on Dec. 1 to the Bruins for Thornton, who joined Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo on the top line, giving the Sharks their first truly dangerous line every time they touched the ice.

The Sharks defeated the Nashville Predators in the first round after an incredible run from Dec. 1 on, but had tired themselves out by essentially playing playoff hockey from the turn of the New Year and fell in the second round to the Edmonton Oilers, who had beaten the Red Wings in the opening round.

Marleau and Thornton became synonymous with the Sharks over the next decade as the duo made up two thirds of the Sharks’ top line throughout. The Sharks won numerous Pacific titles, made it to three Western Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16.

The franchise’s all-time leader in goals (508), even strength goals (331), power play goals (160), shorthanded goals (17), game-winning goals (98), points (1,082), shots (3,798), games played (1,493), and consecutive games played (624), Marleau has left his mark on the Bay Area.

On Sunday, he agreed to a three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Such is the nature of free agency. After 19 seasons with the Sharks, he will ply his trade elsewhere in the twilight of his career.

It will be surreal on Wednesday, Oct. 4, when the Sharks host the Philadelphia Flyers when the reality hits that the Sharks are taking the ice without Marleau in the lineup. There will be a night of respite and celebration on Monday, Oct. 30, when the Maple Leafs come to town, then things will go back to the new normal without the franchise’s top skater for the remainder of the season.

As a lifelong Sharks’ fan and a Marleau supporter the entire way, I will admit this will be a very different Sharks team. It truly is the end of an era.