TORONTO — A joyous, singular “Whooooop!” erupted from the north end of the Toronto Maple Leafs practice pad.
A smattering of local reporters and members of the franchise’s brass — arms hanging over the upper-deck guardrail, eyes affixed on the blue-versus-white scrimmage — were the only ones around to hear the first of many (it better be) goal celebrations for Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs left wing.
The greatest shooter in San Jose Sharks history and the NHL’s freshest inductee into the 500-goal club had taken a feed from pivot Nazem Kadri off the rush and beat his new No. 1 goalie and former California rival Frederik Andersen high and clean.
“Being the first time, it was a little jittery, but it was fun. It was good to get out there and skate with the guys and finally put some names to some faces. A great bunch of guys,” Marleau said Wednesday after his maiden tour with the team that pried him from the only NHL city he’d ever known. “They’re going at a good clip already.”
The guarantee of a buyout-proof $18.75 million — including a whoop!-worthy $7-million Year 1 signing bonus — for playing hockey at ages 38, 39 and 40 helped sway Marleau to move after 1,493 games in teal, but his reasons for joining Toronto aren’t strictly financial.
(Although that third year of security, a potential cap-cruncher that Sharks GM Doug Wilson was hesitant to offer, was critical to the player. “That was extremely important. I was looking for it right from the start,” Marleau said.)
Marleau’s relationship with head coach Mike Babcock (a fellow Saskatchewanian who also made his “informal” skate debut Wednesday, from the stands) stretches all the way back to an all-star game in junior and sparkles with gold-tinged Olympic memories. And the call for Canadians to represent a native city is so real, Marleau couldn’t erase the smile off his face when he pulled a Maple Leafs road sweater over his head for the first time this summer.
“It was a combination of a lot of things: the way I look at this team, the way management sees this team going, an opportunity to play with some highly skilled players,” said Marleau.
“I haven’t won a Cup, so I’m still looking for it — and I’d love to do it with these guys right here.”
But which guys exactly?
That’s the good problem facing high-flying, winger-flush Toronto as training camp officially opens in a little more than a week’s time.
Unlike Todd McLellan and Peter DeBoer, Marleau’s most recent bench bosses in San Jose, Babcock seldom juggled his top nine through an abnormally healthy 2016-17 campaign.
There’s no reason to forecast a JVR-Bozak-Marner breakup, so it’s likely we’ll see the Leafs’ highest-paid forward tried out on the left side of Auston Matthews and William Nylander, Zach Hyman’s former spot.
Matthews, who pulled out of an NHL-NHLPA media appearance in New York City with the flu, was absent from Wednesday’s scrimmage, and Marleau saw his most ice flanking Kadri and Leo Komarov.
Babcock has ideas but is keeping mum for now. Marleau says he doesn’t have a clue who his linemates will be. Seeing as how all three of the Leafs’ top centres can make plays and are coming off career years, production-wise, the skill will be difficult to avoid.
“I’m going in blind. I don’t know what to expect. I’m going to go in, do my job, work hard, and whatever happens, happens,” Marleau said. “When you have the puck and [are] not chasing it, that’s when hockey’s fun.
“Obviously with Auston, he can score goals. So if you give him the puck, there’s a good chance it ends up in the back of the net.”
And vice versa.
Despite Marleau’s advanced age — the starting and finishing point of all criticisms levied at the UFA signing — he hasn’t missed a game in nine seasons and his goal total has climbed in each of the past two.
With a Matthews and/or Kadri feeding him the biscuit (plus time on the NHL’s second-best power play), the 30-goal mark he’s hit seven times, most recently in 2013-14, hardly seems out of reach.
Off the ice, Marleau’s life has been hectic since he wore out a carpet on July 1 and, ultimately, bet on blue, on Lou, on Babcock, on Matthews, on Morgan Rielly — the first Leafs player to call him up and welcome him aboard — and the other names he was matching to faces Wednesday.
His wife, Christina, “bawled like a baby” when she saw her husband in what was supposed to remain an enemy jersey. Three of his four sons started at new school in a new country yesterday, and he’s still finding his bearings around his North York home.
“It’s all new and exciting and a little stressful,” Marleau said, “not knowing where to go or where to get things.”
On Etobicoke ice Wednesday, surrounded by and chatting with welcoming teammates, the air felt new and exciting. But stressful?