RALEIGH, N.C. – There was no prolonged conversation after Mike Babcock decided he needed to play Patrick Marleau out of position.
He simply called his Swiss Army knife in and said: “We’ve got you in the middle. If you have any trouble with that let me know.”
Marleau hasn’t peeped up about it since. He’s played nine of the past 12 games predominantly as a centre, including Friday’s 5-4 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, and his coach expects to continue deploying him in that manner when the road matchups make it advantageous to do so.
“I don’t have to sell him on nothing,” said Babcock. “He likes hockey.”
It’s an understated quality that has already made a big impact on his new team.
There doesn’t need to be any cajoling with Marleau. He is as predictable as the beat of a metronome and owns the coach’s implicit trust while playing wing, centre, net-front on the power play and even killing the occasional penalty.
In short order, Marleau has laid waste to much of the skepticism that followed his $18.75-million, three-year signing over the summer.
He’s now on pace for 31 goals after picking up his ninth of the season in Friday’s game, camping out at the edge of Scott Darling’s crease with the man advantage and tapping home a nice feed from Auston Matthews.
“I was hoping for it,” said Marleau. “He made a great play there. I just had my stick on the ice, he used me as a backboard.”
That goal allowed the Leafs to escape with two points on a night where the ice was heavily tilted against them. They needed Frederik Andersen to be terrific early – a noteworthy trend of late, with Toronto having been outshot 65-38 in the first period of its last five games – before their offensive skill eventually shone through.
This is a team capable of outscoring its problems thanks in large part to Matthews, James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Marleau.
Against the Hurricanes, there were no shortage of defensive issues. Carolina applied significant pressure for long stretches and made it difficult for the Leafs to execute controlled zone exits.
“Once we started flipping pucks behind them – as boring as that is – we had some more success getting out,” said defenceman Ron Hainsey. “They were on top us. We were trying to make plays and it just wasn’t happening.”
Marleau’s line wasn’t immune from those issues, but it’s notable how infrequently that’s been the case.
The 38-year-old has consistently managed to come out in the black possession-wise even after being flipped back and forth between centre and right wing. He started his career with San Jose in the middle before eventually being shifted to make room for Joe Pavelski.
He played some games at centre for the Sharks in recent years when Logan Couture was out injured, but wasn’t originally viewed as a viable option there when the Leafs signed him. It was only after Babcock noticed opponents using last change to get their best players out against Tyler Bozak’s defensively challenged unit that he changed his mind on where No. 12 belongs.
“I don’t control the matchups, so I can’t get mismatched in any situation with him at centre,” Babcock explained. “He can play against anybody and then I have more balance and I don’t have to spend my whole life sitting guys on the bench [thinking] ‘Oh, did I miss that guy.’
“When their guy is waiting to hunt your guys – they always pick someone to play against, right? And when they’re waiting for that guy and they keep getting you, you never get out of your zone and it starts wearing you out. You get tired of watching that so this way I don’t have to watch it.”
The experiment should continue getting a good run with the Leafs facing 12 of their next 16 games away from Air Canada Centre. It’s arguably the toughest stretch of the season and will require Babcock to lean heavily on his most trusted options.
It says something about Marleau that the coach would rather not play him as a centre but is choosing to do so for the betterment of the lineup as a whole.
“I don’t know if he’d score as much if he played in the middle all the time,” said Babcock. “And I want him to score and be putting the heat on D’s because you’re behind the play and coming up later, he’s not as [active] on the forecheck.
“His speed is so good you’d like to use that. So that’s the negative side.”
It hasn’t negatively impacted his ability to find the back of the net so far, with Marleau now sitting at five goals in the nine games he’s played at centre.
The one he scored against the Hurricanes made it 5-2 in the third period, but wound up being the winner when Carolina’s furious comeback fell just short. That moved him into seventh on the NHL’s all-time list with 102 game-winning goals – just seven shy of Brendan Shanahan, the Hall-of-Famer turned Leafs president.
“He’s got to track Shanny down,” said Babcock. “I’m hoping he’s tracking him down before the end of the year.”