Damien Cox: Patrick Marleau’s contract will be a problem for the Maple Leafs this off-season.
|Toronto Star 22 Mar 2019 at 15:58|
The Leafs’ Patrick Marleau, now 39, is a classy veteran player in his 21st season in the NHL. In the old days, pre-salary cap and pre-analytics, veteran players could age gracefully, be recognized for “intangibles” they brought to the game, things that couldn’t be quantified or challenged.
As long as their goals and assists were decent and their plus-minus wasn’t embarrassing, veterans could be shielded from more intense scrutiny. Pre-1993, media and fans didn’t even know what an individual player was earning. Team executives could simply say they were “good in the room” and there wasn’t much you could say to challenge that.
Well, those days are gone. There’s nowhere to hide in the NHL anymore. If you can’t produce at a rate commensurate with your salary cap number, you’re mercilessly reported far and wide as a liability.
Intangibles, meanwhile, just don’t mean very much in an NHL world in which virtually everything a hockey player does can be measured and compared to other players. For Marleau, the numbers, particularly those that detail his effectiveness at even strength and his ability to play a strong possession game, aren’t flattering.
He is playing about the same minutes (16:59 last season with the Leafs, 16:31 this year), but his points are down (47 in 82 games last season, 36 through 74 games this year), his plus-minus is worse than every Leaf save Justin Holl — though few care about plus-minus any more — and those who take deep dives into analytics would argue he’s actually even worse than he appears.
Still, the team hasn’t regressed this season and is headed for a second straight 100-point campaign. That’s never happened before in Leafs history. Marleau, beloved by his teammates and heralded as an important father figure on a young team, deserves a share of the credit for being part of that success.
His salary isn’t blocking anything that could be done. And if his game craters, he could still be moved down the lineup by head coach Mike Babcock. So Marleau’s presence isn’t a problem right now.
But no matter what, it’s going to become a major problem as soon as this Leafs season is over.
Then, we’re going to see whether general manager Kyle Dubas, seemingly a nice guy who kindly promised William Nylander he would never be traded when the young Swede re-signed with the team in December, has the ability to be a mean guy if necessary. Maybe even a heartless guy.
If he’s going to put the needs of the team first, Dubas will need to get Marleau off his payroll. There are just too many other players to sign. Better players. Younger players. Even if Marleau were to suddenly play like he was 25 again in the post-season, it wouldn’t be enough.
That doesn’t mean signing Marleau was a bad decision. He clearly did help the club last year with 27 goals, and he was viewed as a necessary addition to a very young Leaf team with few accomplished veterans. It was the massive contract awarded to John Tavares last summer, followed up by the big deals signed by Nylander and Auston Matthews, that turned Marleau from an expensive $6.25-million luxury item into a problematic salary-cap headache.
Dubas has a little personal wiggle room here. He didn’t sign Marleau. Lou Lamoriello did. Contractually, however, the Leafs have a complex problem. Marleau has a total no-movement clause, and even if he retired, the cap hit remains for the final year of his contract in 2019-20. Ditto if the Leafs buy him out. Giving him that third year was how the Leafs convinced him to sign, so we can assume it is of substantial value to him.
So this is going to be an impossible problem to solve without Marleau’s co-operation, and even with it, not easy. We remember the pressure that was exerted on the Muskoka Five when Mats Sundin and four teammates declined to wave their no-trade clauses. They were criticized by some for not being willing to help the team.
Marleau could find himself in a similarly awkward situation next fall if he is determined to play out the final year of his contract as a Leaf, particularly if it forces the Leafs to move another player to create cap space or to loses a player to free agency they might otherwise have been able to keep.
Lamoriello had the ability and willingness to make players like Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas vanish off the roster. The veteran GM didn’t much care whether the players liked his decisions and didn’t feel the need to explain them. He was solely focused on team improvement and willing to do whatever was necessary.
Dubas, a rookie GM, has yet to face one of these uncomfortable decisions. He succeeded in getting Tavares and Nylander signed, and in pulling off a trade to add Jake Muzzin. But dealing with the Marleau conundrum is an entirely different type of challenge.
Right now, it’s difficult to envision an ending that’s a happy one for both Marleau and the Leafs.