After spending two months in the woods, I’m climbing out from the rock that I’ve been under to evaluate the Leafs’ biggest acquisition this summer: Patrick Marleau. In my attempt to analyze things objectively, I’m going to make a case both for and against the signing (similar to how Acting The Fulemin does in his great Optimist vs. Pessimist series). My goal is to provide a balanced perspective on this controversial contract, similar to what Sean Tierney did at The Athletic back in July (which I highly recommend reading if you haven’t already). I also suggest that you check out this Kevin Papetti article. Both pieces do a great job using video and statistics to break down how Marleau fits into Toronto’s lineup moving forward.
Today’s piece is going to outline the case in favour of the signing in, while tomorrow’s piece is going to take the other side of the argument. So without further ado, let’s dive into this controversial topic.
Firstly, I think it’s important that we accept the Marleau contract for what it is: a two-year contract.
Marleau: year 1) $8.5M 2) $6 mil. 3) $4.25
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) July 2, 2017
This is the distribution of salary throughout the deal (which has an annual cap hit of $6.25 million). Even though Marleau will “officially” earn $4.25 million in the third year, he’s going to receive a $3 million bonus the summer before that season. This means that he’d actually only make $1.25 million if he chose to play the final year of his contract at age 40. Much like other contracts we’ve seen handed out to aging veterans in recent years, there appears to be an unspoken agreement in place that Marleau will retire after receiving his signing bonus (or suffer from a sudden Hossa-esque career ending allergic reaction to his equipment).
Since this is an age 35+ contract, the Leafs will be on the hook for his entire $6.25 million cap hit in 2019-2020 if (and when) Marleau does retire. As we saw with the Pavel Datsyuk contract, though, there are often teams looking to reach the cap ceiling that will be willing to take on a larger cap hit without paying actual dollars. It’s also worth noting that a No Movement Clause cannot be invoked after a player retires, so Toronto will be free to move Marleau in the summer of 2019 following his retirement, which is the likeliest scenario.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about this 2-year contract. With Toronto’s best young forwards still on their ELCs, you could make the argument that the next two seasons are going to be the Leafs’ best window to win a Stanley Cup considering how severely underpaid their best players are. This unusual amount of cap flexibility over the next couple seasons allows them to spend more on a supporting cast than the typical NHL team. With no major player seemingly available on the trade market, it then makes sense to dip into free agency to pick up a difference maker on a short-term contract. Unfortunately for the Leafs, all of the other big name UFAs chose to either re-sign with their current team (Joe Thornton), return to a team they’d previously played for (Justin Williams), or sign with their hometown team (Kevin Shattenkirk). With these players off of the table, Marleau was the best available option on the open market. The Leafs had the cap space, and they went for it.
Is the contract a bit of an overpay? Yes, but that’s the nature of unrestricted free agency. The most important thing to remember is that the Leafs didn’t have to give up any assets other than cap space, which they have plenty of until the Big 3 get paid (Nylander next season, Matthews & Marner the year after). By spending a premium to land the top available talent, they were able to bring in a player who can provide value at even strength, on the PP, and possibly even on the PK. His shot differential numbers don’t look too great, but I would argue that his relative numbers are hurt by playing on the same team as a Corsi god for the last decade. We could go back and forth for hours about his impact on driving play independent of Thornton, but one thing’s for certain: he’s still one of the best goal scorers in the game.
(Photo credit to @Ziggy_14, who's a fantastic follow on twitter)
Another underrated aspect of this signing is that Marleau can occasionally slot in at centre if needed, which will be extremely valuable when the Leafs inevitably run into injury troubles – does anyone else remember the time that Ben Smith centred Marner’s line? The difference between him and Marleau is…quite substantial.
Now, I think we need to address the elephant in the room: Marleau is going to be 38 years old in September, but he also hasn’t missed a game since the 2008-2009 season. This signals to me that he’s a player capable of outperforming the typical age curve. As Mike Babcock said after being asked about his age, “Have you seen him skate?”
He has a knack for doing this:
This isn’t just blind optimism; he’s still fantastic at zone entries, indicating that his foot speed is still in great form. In fact, he’s entering the zone with control of the puck as often as Matthews and Nylander (62% of the time), which is pretty elite company.
In Marleau, you’re getting a versatile player who gives you everything you’d want from a forward, including an attribute that I rarely talk about because of how difficult it is to quantify: intangibles. It’s easy to say “just play the best lineup available”, but when your 3 franchise players aren’t able to legally drink on road trips, I’m more than willing to listen to the argument that veteran leadership is an important aspect in developing off-ice habits that we’ll never see, but absolutely do matter. The conversation with intangibles is often centred around players who don’t provide on-ice value to their team (ie. Tanner Glass & Chris Neil during this year’s playoffs). The difference with Marleau is that he’s still a very productive player on the ice who can also provide off-ice benefits.
It’s definitely not a steal like the Connor Brown contract, but signing Marleau provides the Leafs with yet another 20-goal scorer in what’s likely to be the league’s most potent offense next season. I know this isn’t the major acquisition on defence everyone was hoping for, but at the end of the day, goal differential is what matters. If a high-end shot suppressing defencemen wasn’t available (which appears to be the case this summer), then I have no issue with the Leafs adding to their biggest strength. They won’t lead the league in fewest Goals Against, but with some added firepower up front, they have a legitimate chance of leading the league in Goals For. There’s an age-old saying that defence wins championships, but if you’re looking for a team that’s been able to sustain success by outscoring their problems, look no further than last season:
Let the goals begin.