TORONTO – To try and understand what this must have felt like for Patrick Marleau, take a quick look at his hockeydb page.
It reads: Seattle Thunderbirds, Seattle Thunderbirds and San Jose Sharks. Nineteen times.
Oh sure, there have been a few memorable sojourns with Team Canada over the years, but for all intents and purposes he’s worn nothing but teal since 1997. Do you even remember what you were doing in 1997?
I was in grade 10.
Marleau was 18. He’s a 38-year-old father of four now.
And on Tuesday he made the drive from his new home to his new home – Air Canada Centre – pulled on a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and scored on his sixth shift. He beat Mike Condon with the team’s 12th shot. Not bad if you believe in signs.
“I think any time you come to a new environment you like to get off to a good start,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I think it’s natural for all of us and we feel that way. He’ll be energized and excited because he’s in a new environment, just because it’s different for you and it’s a change.
“I think that will help him.”
There’s no reason to put too much stock in a pre-season game. A 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators at that. But it was yet one more baby step in a new direction for Marleau, who played more than 1,700 games for the Sharks when you add up exhibition, regular season and playoffs.
Perhaps that helps explain the extra jump in the step of his veteran legs.
He swooped across the ice from the left wing to collect a long pass from linemate Leo Komarov and beat Condon high with a perfectly placed shot. It was a goal-scorer’s goal.
“I was into it,” Marleau said of his unofficial Leafs debut. “Just trying to figure everything out system-wise. Penalty kill, power play, those different things. Definitely I was into the game.”
That’s a good sign for the Leafs.
They made a calculated gamble in extending an $18.75-million, three-year contract to Marleau on the second day of free agency. They’re betting he still has gas in the tank. They instantly made him the highest-paid member of the team.
Marleau scored 27 goals for San Jose last season – with the help of an elevated shooting percentage – and Babcock opened training camp predicting he’d score at least 20 for Toronto.
Despite his consistent production and remarkable durability, this is a step into the unknown for everyone involved. He’s still adjusting to life alongside Komarov and Nazem Kadri – “The more you get to play with them the better it’s going to get” – and finding his way in new surroundings.
“He’s a good player, he’s a pro,” said Komarov. “It’s nice to be around him.”
“He scored a goal,” added Babcock. “He made a real nice play – he backchecked all the way, he slowed the guy down, he gave our D time, he pushed the pace, he wired it under the bar – I mean Patty was fine.
“So I’m not very concerned about Patty.”
The Leafs coach intends to blend the groups that played the opening two pre-season games so that Marleau can get some power-play time with Auston Matthews and William Nylander in his next outing. We should see more of that when the games start counting in the standings next month.
“That’s where he’s supposed to play,” said Babcock.
It’s clear the organization has formulated a specific plan to maximize his impact on the lineup. The biggest thing Marleau is trying to avoid during training camp is thinking too much about it.
This may be a different coast and a different conference, but it’s still hockey.
While very few truly understand what it’s like to embark on a completely new journey at this late stage of a pro career – think Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Brodeur, Ray Bourque – it often takes time for the rest of us to adjust to the idea as well.
On Tuesday, we recognized Marleau streaking down the wing and burying a shot. Those Leafs colours, though…
“It was good to get out there and get used to your surroundings and linemates and systems and all that,” said Marleau “It’s good. Something to build off of.”
You need to start somewhere.