By James Mirtle
Oct 25, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
“The guy moved his family from San Jose out here to hang out with us for a couple of years,” Mike Babcock said Friday, hours before the Maple Leafs finished off the Sharks with Patrick Marleau, an old friend, back for a visit.
“So, you know, we enjoyed him while he was here. We knew right when we signed him (this might happen). We couldn’t get him (signed) for two years. We tried, we just. … We knew the math didn’t work (on a three-year deal) when he signed. That’s just the reality of the situation. So, I mean, it’s all part of the business.
“He was elated to sign in San Jose to take his family home. His wife and kids were pumped. … He’s going to retire one day and be a Hall of Famer, and he’ll be wearing San Jose’s jersey. So, I think things have a way of working out for a reason.”
I suppose, in a way, Babcock is right. Things did work out pretty well for Patrick Marleau in the end.
He got to try something new and play two seasons in Toronto for $18.3 million. He made “lifelong” friendships with some of the brightest young stars in the game, clowning around with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner like an overgrown kid, as if he were in his first few years in the league.
Then he returned home, back with the Sharks, where he can now make hockey history by breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time games played record. After Friday, it’s only 104 games to go to pass another Saskatchewan legend.
Given his commitment and his almost-unparalleled ability to stay healthy, I don’t doubt for a second he’ll get there. And good for him.
But did it all work out for the Leafs? The contract, the player, the consequences?
Well, that’s a different story. A more complicated story.
The bottom line for the franchise, however, is it lost a first-round pick because “the math didn’t work.” It didn’t work in 2017, when then-GM Lou Lamoriello signed the bloated contract. And it certainly won’t work in the years to come, when the Leafs will have a weaker prospect pool after two consecutive years without a top-40 pick at the draft.
What seems to happen with the Marleau situation here in Toronto is it doesn’t get the necessary criticism because of who Marleau is. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Marleau is a great person. He is, as Babcock said, a future Hall of Famer. And he made a positive impact in the Leafs dressing room in his time in Toronto. (Not positive enough to keep the Leafs’ young stars entirely out of the headlines for negative reasons but positive nonetheless.)
All of those things can be true and his tenure with the Leafs can still be an organizational failure. It can still be a black mark on the organization — and the way the previous management made decisions that offseason — and not be a black mark on the player.
Marleau, for his part, has looked somewhat rejuvenated in San Jose. He, incredibly, played 17 minutes in Friday’s 4-1 loss, skating on a top line with captain Logan Couture and Timo Meier.
I’ll confess that I didn’t notice him much in the game, but he has been productive otherwise this season, with six points in his first six games, most coming at even strength.
Still, there have been red flags. Marleau is at 45 percent possession early this season, and the other underlying metrics, such as scoring chances and expected goals, are equally ugly.
The Sharks were badly outshot and outpossessed when he was on the ice against the Leafs on Friday. Perhaps he shouldn’t have played so much on the second night of a back-to-back set.(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
Marleau no longer seems to have the legs and strength to play in a top-six role; in fact, on many nights last season in Toronto, he was better suited for fourth line and PP2 duty only.
Instead, Babcock rolled him out for 16.5 minutes a game even as his goal and point production hit its lowest point since he was a teenage rookie, right out of junior, a lifetime ago. Marleau drained production from his other, more talented teammates. And his huge contract potentially cost the Leafs opportunities to add elsewhere, including on defence, where there’s been a need for years.
Then in the 2019 playoffs against Boston, Marleau was effectively a ghost, without a goal and only eight shots on net in the seven-game series, despite plenty of ice time and even 10 power-play minutes.
He was on the ice late in Game 7, too, when the season was on the line.
None of it made much sense, starting way back in July 2017.
You wonder if the Leafs resorted to some Kawhi-like load management from the beginning if those results could have been a little different. The then-39-year-old might have had more in the tank in April if he played less in so many meaningless midseason games in 2018-19.
Maybe. And maybe that’s what will end up happening in San Jose, and he’ll thrive as a league-minimum-contract player on a veteran team that plays a style more befitting the 40-year-old’s abilities.
If so, that’s certainly a contract that will work out for the player and team.
To try and say that’s what happened in Toronto, though, is revisionist history. It’s sports myth-making at a high level, coming from one of the folks responsible for the bloated deal getting done in the first place.
That doesn’t taint Marleau’s legacy.
Only that of those trying to sell his time here as something more than it was.