TORONTO – Look only at Patrick Marleau’s right-now numbers and, yeah, you might have a case.
The seemingly indestructible hockey player who still uses a two-piece stick and slides his 39-year-old feet into a pair of discontinued skates every night ranks second on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ salary chart but only seventh in team scoring.
The first man at the rink and last out of the dressing room has five goals and nine assists. Respectable, no doubt, but the forward’s current 0.56 points-per-game pace puts him on track for his least productive season in 17 years.
He’s since found more of a groove down the lineup on Nazem Kadri’s wing, contributing an assist and nearly converting on a breakaway attempt in Toronto’s 4-2 victory over Boston Monday night.
But the segment of fans who scream that Marleau is overpaid and that, particularly, the third year of his deal — when he’ll be 40 and hard to buy out and climbing higher still up the NHL games-played record book — could hinder the club’s cap picture, should realize why he’s getting paid in the first place.
Mike Babcock, probably the only recruiter who could’ve pried Marleau away from San Jose in his free agency summer of 2017, was asked Monday how Marleau has aided in the development of Matthews and Leafs leading scorer Mitch Marner. He cut his questioner off.
“You mean like [Kasperi Kapanen] and everyone you’re not hearing about?” Babcock corrected. “Like, everybody. Or any trainer or any coach or anybody who would look like they might be tired that day. Or, I mean, just anybody. He makes you a flat-out better human being just by walking by you.
“You can’t replace that stuff, especially with a young group. If you want to win, you’ve got to have people that do it right every day. It’s hard to do it right every day. Imagine doing it right every day, 82 times, where everyone is watching you every time you make a sound, any time you do anything there’s a microscope all over you? He’s that good.”
When Marleau skated (well, we might add) in his 1,600th game Monday and his wife, Christina, recorded his lengthy standing ovation with her smartphone, and the Bruins all banged their sticks, and the club surprised the player by honouring the moment on the Jumbotron, he joined an elite group that contains Gordie Howe, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Mark Recchi, Chris Chelios, Dave Andreychuk, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, Ray Bourque, and that’s it.
“What 10 or 11 all-time? To do it for that long and be as consistent and as productive as he has been, it truly is remarkable,” John Tavares said. “How he carries himself, how he prepares, how he plays the game—it sets a great example for everyone. It really sets a tone in the locker room. You hope some of that rubs on you, so you try to rub shoulders with him as much as you can and pick his brain and get to know him.
“Even though he’s played that long, he’s just one of the guys.”
Frederik Andersen calls Marleau the most humble man he’s met. Marner calls him the GOAT. Matthews calls him into his hotel room to watch movies and hang out.
On the first road trip of this season, when a bunch of kids roughly the age of his career all hopped on scooters and ripped around the streets of D.C., Marleau was buzzing right there with them.
“The energy they have every day rubs off on you, so I’m going to harness that as much as I can,” Marleau said. “Everybody’s still trying to get better, and that’s what I’m trying to do myself, so it’s fun.”
San Jose’s Logan Couture still keeps in touch with Marleau. They’d talk last season, and Marleau would tell Couture how different things were in Toronto. Couture is not surprised by his full tank or his success in Toronto, but the way he’s become the quiet mentor in Toronto is a shift from his role in teal.
“We’re a more veteran team than they are. There weren’t as many opportunities to take younger guys like that and kinda show ’em the way, but he enjoyed doing that,” Couture explains.
“A guy that sticks around the league for 19 years, he’s doing a lot of things right. If you can pick up a couple things from them, it’s going to benefit you in the long run.
“He’s still a very good player and he’s going to be a good player for a couple more years, for sure.”
The ironman has now skated in 733 consecutive games. He needs a second to think about the last serious injury he dealt with. His idea of serious might not be mine or yours. A broken hand in the playoffs. A torn meniscus that required surgery in ’01. But he laced up through those because of course he did. Because extra stretching and a cold tub cures all.
“I mean, genetics,” Babcock said. “He’s worked very, very hard, unbelievable skater, loves the monotony of the game. Great, great human being. You could go on and on: lucky with injuries, the whole thing. Hard worker, great pro, great person. So important for this team, it’s not even funny and I’m not even talking about what he does on the ice. He’s fantastic.”
If those old Reebok 9Ks can pump through the 57 games left in this season and the 82 remaining on his contract for 2019-20, that’ll give Marleau 1,739 games played, placing him third overall and just 29 shy of taking Gordie’s record.
Imagine the ovation, because the humility, you don’t have to.
“Those milestone nights,” Marleau said after Monday’s big one, “are a lot more enjoyable when you get the two points.”