When Patrick Marleau played his first game against the San Jose Sharks, his absence was readily apparent. He wore another uniform, for one, and San Jose entered the first reunion with the league’s seventh-fewest goals, waiting on young players like Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier to break out.
Labanc is now fourth on the team in assists, and Meier’s scored four goals in his last eight games, but the Sharks have now scored the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL, and the seventh-fewest goals per game. They’ve also scored the fewest five-on-five goals.
Marleau, meanwhile, is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in Toronto. A season after scoring 27 goals, the 38-year-old has 15 goals through 41 games, putting him on pace for exactly 30. That would tie with Logan Couture for the Sharks lead, and Marleau’s 11 five-on-five goals are four more than any San Jose player.
So yes, ahead of Thursday’s rematch with the Maple Leafs, the Sharks still miss Marleau. But would he have been able to do the same in San Jose?
Given Toronto’s reputation as a high-flying, high-scoring squad, it’s easy to attribute Marleau’s production to a ‘Babcock bump.’ After all, Marleau is generating shots in five-on-five situations at a higher rate (9.65 shots per 60 minutes, according to Corsica Hockey) than any season since 2007-08.
Yet the Maple Leafs aren’t as high-flying as you might think. They score like gangbusters, yes, but they’re only 21st in the league in shots per game across all situations (30.68), 19th in five-on-five shot rate (29.65 per 60 minutes), and 12th in five-on-five shot attempt rate (49.23 per 60).
The Sharks are 11th, 13th, and fifth in those respective categories.
It’s not like Marleau’s riding shotgun with Auston Matthews, either. His most common linemates in the Six are Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri, when he spent most of his five-on-five time alongside Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.
With all of that context in mind, it certainly seems possible Marleau could have enjoyed a similar late-career renaissance with the Sharks. It wouldn’t have necessarily had to come at the extent of San Jose’s young players, either.
Part of the reason general manager Doug Wilson felt comfortable letting Marleau walk was confidence in Labanc, Meier, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl, and Chris Tierney. All but Donskoi are averaging at least half-a-minute more in ice time, and all five have made significant progress in their development.
Marleau’s resurgence and the young players’ development aren’t mutually exclusive. One of those players would have been bumped from a power play unit, but Marleau’s presence among the top nine forwards didn’t have to mean the demotion of one to the minors or the fourth line, especially if Hertl moved to the wing.
There are also 18.75 million reasons, or 6.25 million annually over three years, why the Sharks couldn’t keep Marleau. They would not have enjoyed the salary cap space they have now.
Because of that flexibility, the Sharks are considered a potential player at the trade deadline, and were even linked to Buffalo Sabres winger Evander Kane in a report from The Athletic on Thursday. By letting a scoring winger walk this summer, the Sharks will now have enough cap space in February to acquire...another scoring winger.
There’s no guarantee Marleau would have enjoyed the same success this season in San Jose as he is in Toronto, but it certainly appears possible. The salary cap concerns may ultimately make walking away the right decision, but for this season at least, it doesn’t appear that way.