Bittersweet Marleau trade clears millions for Leafs to sign Marner

NHL-Leafs-Marleau-celebrates-with-Marner

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Patrick Marleau (12) celebrates his game-winning goal. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Cap space and friendship, they both come with their price, don’t they?

On that day, two summers ago, when Patrick Marleau — the indestructible ironman with the soft heart, the presumed San Jose lifer — was pried away from California with the promise of millions, an elusive Stanley Cup shot, and the chance to mentor two of the most exhilarating young stars in the game, everyone with their Grade 10 math credit circled his third year under contract with the Maple Leafs as the tricky one.

The one where he’s 40 years old and the sport is speeding faster than his Reebok Pumps can keep up.

The one where his dearest teammates, Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, would fulfill their entry-level contracts and demand hungry bites out of a future Hall of Famer’s $6.25-million average annual salary.

That extra season, paradoxically, is both the one that lured the Marleaus to Toronto and squeezed them out.

During Round 2 of the NHL Draft Saturday in Vancouver, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas — who had inherited Marleau’s paperwork from predecessor Lou Lamoriello — traded the most beloved member of his dressing room to the Carolina Hurricanes, who weaponized their abundant cap space and sapped Dubas of his 2020 first-round pick (if the pick falls into the top 10, it gets delayed until 2021).

“You start to have to pay a hefty price, and that’s what we’ve done today,” Dubas told reporters after trying to work with Marleau and agent Pat Brisson on a path back to Silicon Valley.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell will speak to Marleau about adding to his 1,166 career point total in Carolina (the resurgent Canes are at risk of losing UFA captain Justin Williams to retirement), but the Marleau family’s preference would be to get bought out and sign a modest, one-year deal back in San Jose.

“They’ve got to put some work in on that,” Dubas said. “We were trying to do all that we could to help him.”

The Leafs also tossed in a seventh-round pick in 2020 and received Carolina’s sixth-rounder in the same draft. But please don’t get distracted by the details.

This exchange — cold but amicable, uncomfortable but essential — is all about clearing room on the deck so Dubas can reel in his big fish and assemble the best roster to contend next winter.

Marleau’s departure does not assure another potential trade chip like Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev or Nazem Kadri won’t follow him out the door, but it does increase Dubas’s cap space to roughly $14 million, saves $4.25 million in cash, and allows the young executive to exhale a little on his return flight east.

Kasperi Kapanen will reportedly snatch about $3.3 million of that space on his forthcoming three-year bridge deal. Expect fellow RFA Andreas Johnsson’s AAV to land in the same ballpark on a reported four-year term.

That only leaves a hair over $7 million for top scorer Marner and whoever Dubas can find to play defence in 2019-20, as UFAs Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey prepare to field pitches from opposing teams Sunday.

There is more work to be done here, and it’ll be done without the solace that comes with first-round blue-chippers in the queue.

Remember, Dubas traded his 2019 first-rounder to L.A. for Jake Muzzin, and now Muzzin — Toronto’s best stay-at-home defender under contract — is entering his walk year.

It’s interesting to note that in both the Muzzin and Marleau deals, Dubas held tight to the exciting young talent already in the system (Kapanen, Johnsson, Rasmus Sandin, Jeremy Bracco, et al.), opting instead to deal away faceless picks and push any issue he might have with bare cupboards down the road.

As early as Wednesday, Marner and agent Darren Ferris can make good on their threats and elevate this game of contractual chicken by meeting with opposing teams.

No progress toward an agreement was made in Vancouver, and Dubas vowed to keep plugging away.

Will Marner seek and secure an offer sheet from another low-salaried club like Carolina to maximize his leverage and back Dubas into a corner?

We’re not banking on it, but can’t ruling it out entirely.

By not putting up his own fight, by quietly waiving his no-trade clause and typing out an all-class message of thanks, however, Marleau has armed Dubas with a workable sum so the Leafs can pay Marner.

“I’ll miss seeing you at the rink every day,” Marleau wrote to Matthews and Marner, through his wife Christina’s Twitter account. “Never forget how good you guys are.”

Marner responded with a heart emoji.

“When it comes to what [Marleau] has done off the ice, that’s really hard to quantify and really hard to do justice to. He was incredible for our young guys,” Dubas said. “The impact he’s had on the group will be felt for a long time.”

This past season, the young Leafs stars had taken to calling Marleau “The GOAT.”

Of his time in Toronto, Marleau’s last greatest act was letting go so, hopefully, they can take off.

“He just made life very easy for a lot people around the team,” Dubas said.

The GM was referring to the past two years, but the sentiment applies just as well to 2019-20.

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