Leafs’ Marleau might be on track to play most games in NHL history

Maple Leafs' Patrick Marleau never expected to play 1500 games in the NHL, but will become only the 18th player in history to reach that milestone Wednesday vs. the Red Wings.

TORONTO – When Patrick Marleau signed a front-loaded, three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the summer, most assumed it would be the last deal of his NHL career.

Given the structure of the contract – with a $3-million bonus payment due on July 1, 2019 – there was speculation he’d probably only play two of those seasons before hanging up his skates for good.

But that’s not remotely close to how Marleau views his future. In the hours before playing his 1,500th regular season game on Wednesday night, the 38-year-old expressed a desire to continue beyond this current deal.

“I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” he said. “I don’t know if my wife’s ready to have me at home full-time yet. If I feel good and still think I can contribute then I’ll keep it going.”

Even for a guy comfortable in exclusive company – he’s just the 18th man in NHL history to reach 1,500 games – it would be a remarkable achievement.

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Consider: Marleau was the youngest player in the league when he cracked the San Jose Sharks lineup a couple weeks after his 18th birthday in October 1997. He’s currently the sixth-oldest and would almost certainly climb to No. 1 if he were to play during the 2020-21 season.

“We’ll see how I feel,” he said.

The secret to his longevity can be chalked up to genetics, work ethic and a little luck. The only game he’s missed since turning 30 came during the 2010 playoffs because of the flu – “I was not functioning very well,” he recalled – which explains, in part, why Toronto was willing to offer a three-year contract this summer while San Jose only ever tabled a two-year deal.

Beyond joining an organization on the rise, Marleau was drawn to the big investment the Leafs have made in sports science. The team employs a 12-person medical staff and tailors a program for each player with the help of data from Catapult Sports GPS monitors.

“I think they’ve got a good handle on (injury) prevention,” said Marleau. “They’ve seen the patterns on how people get hurt and get worn down over time, so they try and stay on top of it. I think they’re in touch with the coaches, as well, as far as when to practise hard and when to maybe ease back a little bit.

“It’s evolved quite a bit since I started.”

He is no stranger to playing through pain after soldiering through a torn meniscus and separated shoulder while compiling his current ironman streak.

If Marleau remains healthy, he’ll reach 11th on the NHL’s all-time games list by the end of the season. The native of Aneroid, Sask., even has a chance to take over top spot by surpassing Gordie Howe (1,767 games) – his province’s favourite son – if he plays two-plus years beyond it.

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You can never predict with certainty how well an athlete will age in his late 30s or early 40s, but the biggest reason why Marleau has a chance to defy time is because he’s such a strong skater. It’s been a staple in his game since his father, Denis, coached him as a boy.

“I think growing up everybody thinks their dad is the best and I was no different,” he said.

The Leafs made a calculated gamble in signing Marleau to a 35-and-over contract that includes no convenient outs under NHL rules. In these early days, there is no hint of buyer’s remorse after seeing how seamlessly he’s clicked on a line with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov.

“He’s a fit guy, he’s genetically blessed, he works at it hard and he’s a great skater,” said coach Mike Babcock. “It’s one thing to get 1,500 (games) and it’s another thing to be as good as he is. To play with the pace he does, and the kind of person he is.

“Pretty special. Pretty special for our team, actually.”

It’s only fitting that he’ll reach the milestone on the second half of a back-to-back.

Marleau was greeted by well wishes on the board inside the Maple Leafs dressing room when he showed up for work on Wednesday morning – mere hours after the team charter returned from Washington. His teammates were abuzz.

“We were talking today, and we asked if his kids were coming tonight,” said Morgan Rielly. “He wasn’t sure. The joke was, ‘That’s OK. They’ll come to 2,000.’ He’s got lots of time.”

Many of the Leafs haven’t yet hit 100 career NHL games. They have difficulty even comprehending what it would be like to play 15 times that number.

“That’s a long haul,” said Connor Brown. “It’s quite a feat. This league’s a grind and to do it year-in, year-out and to have success every year, it takes a real special person to do that.”

Even though Marleau is still getting comfortable in his new surroundings, he’s already made a strong impression here. There’s a hint of reverence in the way teammates discuss what kind of example he sets on a daily basis.

“The way he plays, he’s got a lot of hockey left,” said Rielly.

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