TORONTO – Yes, there is significant risk here for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They’ve just made a soon-to-be 38-year-old winger the highest paid player on the team. They gave him a three-year contract and a full no-movement clause, to boot.
But consider this while pondering what Patrick Marleau’s arrival means in Toronto: He’s gone eight full seasons without missing a game and has suited up in 1,493 of a possible 1,524 during his time as an NHLer overall.
Dig a little deeper and it isn’t hard to see what the Leafs were thinking with Sunday’s $18.75-million gamble. They’ve added a durable player who can skate like a millennial and score like an all-star. He’s a favourite of coach Mike Babcock and gives the organization high-end depth at a position where they need options with both James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov one year away from free agency.
This is the clearest sign yet that Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello believe they have a burgeoning Stanley Cup contender.
They were extremely aggressive in their pursuit of Marleau after the free-agent negotiating window opened last weekend. Against the odds – and the expectations of those close to the Swift Current, Sask., native – they managed to convince him to take a giant leap of faith after 20 years with the San Jose Sharks.
"I think I’ve worn out a few carpets pacing around the house and trying to make this decision over the last couple days," said Marleau. "Having my wife and four boys, it was extremely tough to finally pull the trigger and have them move to a new country, from one coast to the other. But everybody here in our house is extremely excited to be part of the Maple Leafs and where they’re going.
"I’m ecstatic to be part of that."
Beyond the money, the Leafs offered unmatched promise. The chance to play with budding stars like Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner, but also the opportunity to be part of a group chasing the organization’s first championship in more than 50 years.
He could have stayed with the Sharks or at least stuck closer to home by joining Anaheim or Dallas, but there’s suddenly an allure to Toronto that hasn’t been there since Pat Quinn was patrolling the bench.
"It was the team, I think, the excitement that’s around it," said Marleau. "The youth, the coaching staff, the coach, the management, the way they see the game going. The players that they have on their roster."
When Leafs management looked at the horizon, it saw an opportunity to be bold. Nylander’s second contract won’t kick in until next summer while those for Matthews and Marner arrive a year after that.
In the meantime, there’s money to be spent.
"You only have one chance to do something like this and we would not have done it if it was not the right player," said Lamoriello. "The timing is perfect."
Just like Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore, who were signed on Saturday, Marleau brings experience to what had been a young Leafs dressing room. He’s won two Olympic gold medals playing under Babcock for Team Canada and made his NHL debut a couple weeks after Matthews was born.
His addition also gives Lamoriello some badly needed roster flexibility before ever playing a game.
For example, using van Riemsdyk as a trade chip to fill a need on the blue-line seems like even more of a possibility – especially since JVR was already offered up to the New York Islanders in a failed bid to land Travis Hamonic last weekend.
Even if van Riemsdyk stays, the Leafs are protected in the event he walks away for nothing next July 1. They certainly won’t have as much money to spend under the salary cap then.
"This is where we want to make sure we don’t go off-course," said Lamoriello. "I can see how people would look at it differently, but we have not given up any assets (to bring in Marleau), we have added support. We have the room and flexibility within the salary cap system to do this now."
All of which brings us back to the "risk" part of this risk/reward move: There aren’t many trap doors to escape from if Marleau doesn’t pan out in Toronto.
He’s over 35 so his contract can’t be buried in the minors or wiped away if he retires. The deal is structured in a way that basically guarantees it won’t be bought out – with all but $4.25 million due in signing bonuses, including $7 million up front immediately.
However, here we have two parties with a fair understanding of each other. They are entering this union with eyes wide open.
The Leafs are adding a still-productive 500-goal scorer who has been remarkably healthy and should be able to keep pace with one of the best forward groups in the league.
For Marleau, this is about financial security and a great fit hockey-wise. He has a strong relationship with Babcock and will be leaned on heavily by a coach trying to push his team to the next level.
"The work he’s done over his career speaks for itself," said Marleau. "Knowing what he’s doing there with the team he has and knowing what I can contribute is extremely exciting for me."
Exciting enough to make it a risk worth taking.