By Ben Browne
Patrick Marleau is the newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 37-year-old forward, who will be 38 when the season begins, inked a three year, $18.75M deal with the buds early Sunday evening. Toronto is the first NHL team Marleau has played on not named the San Jose Sharks, for whom he played his first 19 NHL seasons.
Toronto was one of a number of suitors for Marleau, including the Rangers, Stars, Ducks, Kings, and his now-former team, the Sharks.
After his longtime teammate and friend Joe Thornton unofficially re-upped in San Jose on Saturday in a deal that has now become official, speculation was that Marleau would eventually do the same. Instead, he chose to relocate from his home of nearly two decades to the hockey hotbed of Toronto. At his age, it may seem like a curious decision to some, especially given his longevity with one organization. But what the move really symbolizes is the true change in culture under the Brendan Shanahan-Lou Lamoriello regime.
Not that long ago, it was nearly impossible to get marquee free agents to come here. The team wasn’t good, there was no clear direction, and they had little continuity behind the bench. Now, they have multiple bright young stars like Matthews, Marner, and Nylander; a strong supporting cast like Bozak, Kadri, and — at least for the moment — Van Riemsdyk; the window to win is now (likely sooner than had initially been anticipated); and Mike Babcock, someone with whom Marleau has a strong familiarity, will be a mainstay as bench boss for the foreseeable future.
What’s not to like for a near-38-year-old who wants to have a chance at winning one more Stanley Cup?
Well, there’s plenty to like, but when you consider all the factors, it definitely was not an easy decision. When you’ve been somewhere for 19 years, raised a family there, and become familiar with the community, you become vulnerable to complacency, and who could blame anyone that would? It’s not easy to uproot your life and family, leaving your home, friends and teammates. Athletes are people, too, which is something people often forget. But Marleau, in consultation with those closest to him, chose to do just that, leaving behind something and somewhere he knows, and heading into something and somewhere he doesn’t.
He chose Toronto.
“This decision took me quite a while to come to but I’ve made it, I’m happy with it and I can’t wait to get started,” Marleau told media members Sunday after signing the deal. “It was the team, the excitement around it, the youth, the coach, management, the way they see the game going, the players they have on their roster.
“It’s extremely exciting to be a part of that.”
All those factors that were instrumental in Marleau’s decision to come to Toronto are excellent examples of how the ‘Shana-plan’ has taken effect. Most folks — probably even Lamoriello and Shanahan themselves — would admit they didn’t expect things to turn around as quickly as they have. Last season’s team shattered expectations, making this coming season’s expectations even higher than they would have been had last season not gone as well as it did. Now, Marleau gets to be a part of the plan for the next little while. It’s very likely that the expedition of the rebuilding process was also very appealing to the 19-year NHL vet.
And let’s not forget something: Marleau can still contribute on the ice. This isn’t simply a ‘veteran leadership for the young kids’ signing. The Leafs expect Marleau to be an impact player for them this season and beyond. While the leadership skills he brings were just another string that drew the Leafs’ brass to him, the main reason for his addition is to be a valuable top-six forward who can more-than chip in offensively. His 46 points registered last year was his lowest output in a full campaign since 2001–02 when he scored 44, but he still scored 27 goals, which is his highest total since 2011–12, is still among the best skaters in the NHL, can win you a draw when asked to, and is extremely, extremely durable. Marleau has not missed a game since 2008–09, has only missed 31 games over his 19-year career, and has never played fewer than 74 games in a single full-season.
Where exactly he will fit into the Leafs’ lineup remains unclear. One option is on the Matthews line with Marner, where he would essentially act as a replacement for JVR if he gets traded. But even if he doesn’t, that would still be a logical fit. Another conceivable option would be on the Kadri/Bozak line (those two centres are interchangeable) with Nylander. A lot of where he ends up will depend on two things: the status of Van Riemesdyk heading into training camp, and what line they feel Zach Hyman is the best fit on. If Van Riemsdyk leaves, Matt Martin will enter the lineup, meaning everyone else moves up one line. Hyman served a strong purpose on the top line last year despite his bottom-six offensive skill set, and will likely do the same on one of the two lines this year, especially is JVR departs this summer.
It will be interesting to see where Marleau slots in, to be sure. But either way, his arrival is yet another indication that the tide has turned, and that Toronto is once again a place where top free agents want to play.
Ben Browne also writes at Canada Football Chat. Find his Twitter here.