As a team with one of the youngest cores in the entire NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM Lou Lamoriello recognized it was important to add a productive, veteran presence in the summer, leading to the signing of Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75 million contract.
With 25 points in 51 games, the 38-year-old is scoring at a similar pace to what he did in San Jose the past two seasons, but his value to this team runs deeper than the stats. Some would point to his role in a Jan. 20, come-from-behind win against the Ottawa Senators as an example of the extracurricular influence he has in the room.
As Toronto trailed the Senators 3-1 in the second intermission, finishing the period by allowing a shorthanded goal, Marleau felt the need to give a speech to his teammates as they prepared for the third. Toronto had yet to beat Ottawa this season, but roared back in the third period and won the game 4-3 in regulation. After the victory, some Maple Leafs players, and head coach Mike Babcock, were asked about the speech and talked about the importance of having someone to take that role for the youthful squad.
Marleau, of course, played it down when he was asked about ‘The Speech’ on Hockey Central at Noon Tuesday.
“I blacked out, I don’t remember what I said,” Marleau quipped. “I didn’t say anything the guys didn’t already know. It’s nice when you say something and it actually turns out, gets some response and the guys play hard and you get the win. Everybody pulled together there and we needed that win in a big way, we were skidding there for a bit.
“It’s just one of those things sometimes. You feel the heat of the moment or things are going one way and you try to correct them going the other. It’s all feel I guess is what I’m trying to say.”
The win ended a four-game losing skid for the Leafs and started a stretch over which they won three of four to head into the all-star break. It’s that leadership and how he’s meshed with youngsters such as Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner — two players born in the same year Marleau was drafted — where Marleau’s deeper value comes through.
Marner has talked about how close the three of them are, how they sit together on plane rides or spend nights talking or watching movies. It’s almost like Marleau has adopted his two much younger teammates.
“I think my wife would like that, yeah,” he joked. “Two great guys. I’ve had a lot of fun with them hanging out at home and even on the road.”
With 16 goals in 51 games, Marleau is fourth on the Leafs in that stat with an outside chance at reaching 30 goals for the first time since 2014. Fourteen of those markers have come at even strength, so Marleau sees a path to 30 if he can find a way to convert more often in other situations. And playing with someone like Marner, a very creative player and quick skater, certainly helps an older goal scorer.
“It would be nice (to score 30),” he said. “I think having played as long as I have you gotta take it game by game and try and do it that way. Don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. I think I could probably try and get a few more on the power play, try and get that going. Playing a couple games here with Mitchy Marner and the way he sees the ice, I might get a few more looks and try and get up there and get that number again.”
But ask Marleau about any of this and, naturally, conversation turns back to the tough challenges that come over an 82-game schedule and the ultimate goal of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs. At 38, Marleau is probably facing more aching body challenges than most of the young Leafs, but he talked about the importance of using the down time afforded by a bye week or all-star weekend to rest up, and his love of ice-cold baths, stretching and massages on the road.
For the team, the focus now is keeping pace with the playoffs and fighting through bad stretches so they come out the other end stronger. Marleau says he liked the bounce back the team showed after that Ottawa win, but noted the many games left ahead before the playoffs hit.
“The last two games we played before the all-star break were pretty good,” he said. “It’s a sprint to the finish now. Thirty-one games. Things always start to tighten up in the playoff picture so you have to make sure you’re giving it every night to keep yourself in that playoff picture.”
The Maple Leafs start their post-all-star schedule Wednesday night at home to the New York Islanders and are third in the Atlantic Division with 61 points, which is 15 points clear of the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings.