Mar­leau’s a risk worth tak­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - KEVIN ALLEN

When Toronto Maple Leafs gen­eral man­ager Lou Lamor­iello was asked dur­ing this past sea­son whether his team’s re­build­ing was ahead of sched­ule, he art­fully dodged the ques­tion by say­ing he never had a sched­ule.

But the Maple Leafs’ de­ci­sion to sign Pa­trick Mar­leau to a three­year, $18.75-mil­lion deal Sun­day gives us his an­swer.

Lamor­iello would not have given a 37-year-old player a mul­ti­year deal un­less he be­lieved the Maple Leafs had a chance to make an ex­tended run. Lamor­iello is al­ways ag­gres­sive and cal­cu­lat­ing, never im­pul­sive or fool­ish.

Lamor­iello and coach Mike Bab­cock at­tended a Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal game in Nashville last month, and you won­der if what they saw there per­suaded them that they are closer than they thought they were. They fin­ished with 95 points last sea­son, los­ing in the first round of the play­offs.

The Mar­leau sign­ing doesn’t in­stantly trans­form the Maple Leafs into an Eastern Con­fer­ence favourite. Far from it.

While the sign­ing of the steady Ron Hain­sey bol­sters the Maple Leafs’ de­fence, the blue line still needs work. Goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen needs to dis­cover a higher level of con­sis­tency. They ranked 22nd in goals-against av­er­age, giv­ing up 2.85 goals per game.

But Mar­leau has scored 104 goals over the past four sea­sons and he is join­ing an of­fence that was al­ready go­ing to be one of the league’s most dan­ger­ous.

In Aus­ton Matthews, Wil­liam Ny­lan­der, Nazem Kadri, Mitch Marner, James van Riems­dyk and Mar­leau, the Maple Leafs now boast six play­ers ca­pa­ble of scor­ing 25 or more goals.

The Maple Leafs were fifth in the NHL in scor­ing last sea­son, and with the continued im­prove­ment of the young stars and the ad­di­tion of Mar­leau, they could eas­ily be No. 1 in of­fence.

Risk comes with this deal. Be­cause Mar­leau is in the 35-an­dover cat­e­gory, the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment would of­fer no cap re­lief if he has to be bought out at any point.

But Lamor­iello clearly doesn’t be­lieve that will hap­pen. Mar­leau’s skating is still im­pres­sive, and he is com­ing off an ex­cep­tional sea­son in which he had 27 goals and 46 points. He looks like an op­tion to play with Matthews.

Also note­wor­thy is that Matthews and Marner have two sea­sons left on their en­try level deals. When Matthews starts his next deal, likely to place him among the high­est-paid play­ers, Mar­leau’s $6.25-mil­lion cap hit will just have one sea­son re­main­ing.

If the Maple Leafs raise their scor­ing rate from 3.05 to 3.20, they could win 45-plus games next sea­son. It’s easy to project them adding a de­fence­man, maybe a rental, at the next trade dead­line.

The back-to-back Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Pitts­burgh Pen­guins were with­out pre­mium de­fence­man Kris Le­tang dur­ing their most re­cent Cup. The Pen­guins didn’t win with a blue rib­bon de­fence. They won with savvy de­fend­ers who played well at the right times. Don’t think for a minute that Lamor­iello and Bab­cock didn’t take note of that.

The Mar­leau sign­ing is a risk worth tak­ing.

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