Every year in July, there are NHL teams that hand out huge contracts they later regret. This year, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed lifelong San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $20 million deal (including a full no-movement clause), which drew mixed reactions. Is it one of those contracts the Leafs will regret signing? If not, why did the Sharks let him go? And what's in it for Marleau?
Let's start with the most obvious one: Marleau himself.
Set to turn 38 before the season starts, the forward was looking for that last big contract. According to TSN's Darren Dreger, the Sharks had a two-year deal in place for Marleau, but it wasn't enough. Perhaps the Leafs were the only club willing to offer three years, and there is nothing wrong with chasing the term (and money) at this stage in his career.
However, in a Sportsnet interview, Marleau brought up additional points that led to his decision: “[Leafs executives] just kept talking to me about the excitement in and around the team,” he said. “They eat sleep and breathe hockey. That sold me, I want to be a part of that.”
This may sound like something any free-agent signing would say about his new team, but Marleau's words actually sound convincing. The Leafs are one of the most exciting teams in the league, having formed a young, talented group capable of playing a modern style based on speed and skill. That is something not only fans notice. If Toronto adds the right pieces—one of them being Marleau—they will soon enjoy greater successes than a first-round playoff appearance.
Lastly, Marleau won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, in 2010 and 2014 respectively, led by Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. The two know each other well enough for Marleau to know what Babcock can do.
The Maple Leafs
If Toronto really was the only team willing to offer Marleau this term and money, one would assume it's a bad deal for the club. In fact, that's what many if not most fans thought and probably still think. By the end of his contract, Marleau will be almost 41 years old. And we all know Jaromir Jagr is an exception when it comes to the career length and performance of older players. Marleau is still a good player, but not elite offensively and especially not defensively.
But don't be fooled—this deal doesn't have to be bad. For it to look good, however, we might have to approach it from a different angle. Instead of judging the contract in a vacuum, we should ask ourselves: why not?
As general manager Lou Lamoriello explained, “With the plan that has been put together, [the Leafs] are able to do something like this (...) and not interrupt the process that [they] have in place.” As of today, only seven forwards on the NHL roster are signed for the 2018-19 season (eight if we include restricted free agent Connor Brown). Seven of the remaining nine will be unrestricted free agents next year, and that number includes players like Eric Fehr and Ben Smith, who are rather unlikely to be re-signed.
With that in mind, Marleau brings plenty of valuable attributes to the team. Although his point production has been declining over the past three seasons, he still has high scoring upside. In 2016-17, Marleau tallied 27 goals. With Auston Matthews as his centre, which would be an excellent combination, the sky is the limit.
Furthermore, Marleau is an extremely versatile player. The veteran can play at centre or on either wing while being an asset on both special teams. If Babcock wants him to boost the first line, Marleau can do it. If Babcock wants him to support Brown and Nazem Kadri in a third-line role, he can do that as well. At 37 years old, Marleau still combines skill, smarts and two-way ability to be nothing less than a coach's dream.
That versatility also gives the Leafs more freedom on the trade market (James van Riemsdyk, anyone?). Though Marleau might not be a perfect replacement for a player like van Riemsdyk, adding him allows Toronto to trade a forward for help on defence—which is a great option to have.
Lastly, the Leafs are lacking a veteran presence that's 'done it all.' Sure, Marleau has never won a Stanley Cup, but he spent 20 (!) loyal years with the Sharks, racking up more than 1,000 career points and proving great character throughout. As Lamoriello put it: “Patrick (…) complements what we are trying to get our players to be.”
It's not like the Leafs are in now-or-never mode. It's not like Marleau is the kind of elite player that will put a team over the top either. But Toronto might as well add veteran NHL players as their young stars enter their primes, and see where it takes them. The salary cap room and contract flexibility are there.
If Marleau is such a good hockey player and an even better person, why would the Sharks just give him away? When an organisation is willing to move on from a franchise legend like Marleau, doesn't that scream 'stay away from him'?
No, it doesn't.
San Jose fell just two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup in 2016, but regressed the following year. Their star players—Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic—are all 30 or older. So, in order to stay competitive, they need some cap space and flexibility to react to future developments.
Thornton was signed to a one-year, $8 million deal for that very reason. If Marleau wasn't willing to do the same, parting ways was probably the best option for the Sharks. While Toronto's top players are all young, San Jose has to battle an ageing core. As a result, the Leafs can afford to sign a 37-year-old player for three years while the Sharks cannot.
All things considered, signing Marleau to the contract he was seeking made little sense for San Jose. Toronto added the player they wanted, and Marleau will get a chance at hockey glory with an up-and-coming Maple Leafs squad. Everybody wins.