The mixed Marleau effect
Coach feels positives are sure to outweigh negatives over time
SAN JOSE— When the Maple Leafs lured Patrick Marleau away from San Jose this past summer, they were making a statement about the state of their team.
Fresh off adding fourth-line centre Brian Boyle at the trade deadline — a move coach Mike Babcock lauded as an expression of management’s faith in his team’s playoff worthiness — suddenly they were adding a future hall-of-famer on a three-year contract worth $18.75 million. Marleau’s signing suggest- ed management believed the Leafs to be deadly serious contenders.
But if the move served to underline the justifiable optimism around the club, Marleau’s insertion into the mix made it a certainty that someone on the existing roster was going to suffer from a loss of opportunity. Certainly more than one Leaf can make the case that he’s been the chief victim of the veteran addition.
Such was the less sentimental side of Marleau’s Monday-night homecoming at SAP Center, where the 38-year-old forward who spent 19 seasons as a Shark was expected to be feted with a pre-game video tribute and a warm welcome from an adoring crowd.
It was a worthy occasion, to be sure. Before Monday there’d only been one NHLer who’d played more games for a single franchise and returned to his former home rink in an enemy uniform. That’d be Ray Bourque, who played 1,518 games for the Bruins before he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche and returned to Boston in what turned out to be his final season. Marleau, who played 1,493 regular-season games for the Sharks, could only hope his historic return would go as well as Bourque’s. On the night in question in 2001, the then-40-year-old ex-Bruin played 30plus minutes, chipped in two assists and was lavished with a post-game standing ovation even after the hometown Bruins lost 4-2 to Bourque’s Avalanche.
“I’m going to try my best having a good poker face out there,” Marleau said after Monday’s morning skate. “But yeah, there’s going to be a lot of emotions, that’s for sure.”
The team hopes the value of Marleau’s veteran presence turns out to be more than ceremonial, or even statistical. It’s far too early to make definitive statements about what his insertion into the lineup has meant to the Leafs. Heading into Monday’s game, he sat fifth on the team in scoring with seven points in 11 games, a 52-point pace. Still, 71 games remained.
In the short run, though, we’ve seen some possible early outlines of what could turn out to be the Marleau effect.
Maybe it’s been most pronounced on Mitch Marner, who has seen his ice time reduced by an average of 1:48 a game this season. Marner was back skating with his season-opening linemates Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk on Monday morning after some recent adventures with the fourth line.
The Bozak-centred line has seen a reduction in prominence this season. Marleau’s addition to a line that also includes centreman Nazem Kadri and winger Leo Komarov has established the Kadri line as Babcock’s go-to No. 2 behind Auston Matthews’ well-established No. 1 unit. So van Riemsdyk and Bozak could make the case they’ve been marginalized, too.
And ditto Connor Brown, who was back to his fourth-line role at Monday’s morning skate.
Komarov, mind you, could make the case that he’s also worse off thanks to Marleau’s arrival. A year ago Komarov was one of seven Leafs who averaged more than two minutes a game in power-play time on ice. This year Marleau has replaced Komarov on that list, with Marleau averaging 2:36 with the man advantage and Komarov averaging 46 seconds heading into Monday. Both, mind you, had two power-play points apiece. And few would make an argument that Komarov was an essential power-play performer.
So maybe the Marleau effect has been most pronounced on Josh Leivo, who was back as a healthy scratch on Monday after contributing an assist and directing four shots on goal in Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Flyers, Leivo’s only appearance in the lineup this year. Both Leivo and forward Kasperi Kapanen, who also played his first game of the season on Saturday and was also slated to sit in the press box as a healthy scratch on Monday, have suffered amid the personnel logjam at forward that was exacerbated by Marleau’s signing. At age 24 and 21, respectively, Leivo and Kapanen are both NHL-quality players who can make the case their development is being compromised in part to make room for the 38-year-old veteran.
Is Marleau’s veteran presence worth that price? Maybe only if he proves himself to be an effective influencer of his younger peers. Babcock said Monday that’ll be a matter that’s “measured over time.”
“I think Patty’s one of these guys, he’s a smart guy. He’s got kids of his own. We’ve got a lot of kids. So we’re hoping he’s taking some of them under his wing. I know he is,” Babcock said. “And I don’t think the measure’s in 10 games. I think the measure’s over time. So we’ll see that.”
If that sounded like a coach subtly asking for more — well, maybe that’s reading too much into it. Monday’s was a celebratory occasion. Babcock said Marleau “earned the right to this tribute.” Still, Marleau’s big night was also a reminder that he hasn’t always been synonymous with consummate leadership. He was infamously stripped of his captaincy in San Jose back in 2009, after the Sharks lost in the first round of the playoffs as a No. 1 seed. That was nearly a decade ago, to be sure. Maybe, all these years later, he’s more than capable of providing the kind of “internal accountability” that Babcock spoke of as a necessity the other day. On Monday Marleau suggested there was scarce work to be done in the way of mentoring Toronto’s youngsters.
“I think the group of guys we have in here — especially the younger guys — they’re very professional already. They’re already well ahead of schedule with that part of it, the way they approach the game. It’s good to see,” Marleau said. “It’s more about just trying to do the things that I do on the ice consistently, and hopefully that rubs off.”
The Maple Leafs certainly hope it does. If Marleau’s hall-of-famebound wisdom isn’t a commodity that proves transferable to teammates, surely there were more than enough in-house options to fill the role he’s expensively occupying.