The Toronto Maple Leafs Need Patrick Marleau

Recently, some young and inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs commentators have suggested that the Maple Leafs should act quickly to discard 39-year-old Patrick Marleau, dumping his years of experience and depth of leadership, before the final year of his contract begins. Simply stated, this position is incredibly short-sighted and is a narrow-minded approach to team building and organizational leadership.

It is wrong for two reasons. First, it ignores the realities of how successful Stanley Cup winning teams are built. Second, it ignores a host of fallout consequences that would likely arise if Maple Leafs management actually took such a short-term, pragmatic approach and somehow psychologically influenced Marleau to waive his no-movement clause or, if he did not, embarrass him by sitting him in the press box for the 2019-20 NHL season.

Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Need for Veteran Leadership

It’s often said that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in sports. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a grind, both physically and mentally. Many of the world’s greatest hockey players never won the Stanley Cup, and several only did so during the twilights of their careers. For example, Boston Bruins great Ray Bourque waited until 2001 and moved to the Colorado Avalanche before he was part of a winning team.

This season, of the three teams remaining, there is a definite influence of the depth of veteran leadership on those teams.

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The Bruins have a strong core of veterans, including Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask. As well, Maple Leafs fans won’t soon forget the difference David Backes made in Game 2 of the Maple Leafs-Bruins Round 1 series. The 34-year-old Backes assumed the role his team needed at exactly the time his team needed it. He carried the Bruins to their first victory and helped stop the Maple Leafs from advancing.

The San Jose Sharks are led by 39-year-old Joe Thornton. Thornton has been a fixture on a Sharks roster that also includes Joe Pavelski (34 years old), Brent Burns (34 years old), Justin Braun (32 years old), and Logan Couture (30 years old). And, by the way, Erik Karlsson will be 29 years old next week and this is his 10th NHL season. If there’s any confusion about how veteran leadership shapes a team, look no further than how playing with the Sharks has helped mega-talented, former bad-boy Evander Kane.

San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton
San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

The St. Louis Blues have a number of veterans, including 35-year-old Jay Bouwmeester who’s played 1200 NHL games. But the team also has Alexander Steen (34 years old), Tyler Bozak (32 years old), and David Perron (only 30 years old, but who’s remarkably played 12 NHL seasons).

Veteran leadership is a huge factor in playoff success in the NHL. The 2017-18 Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals average age was 28.4. The 2016-17 Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins average age was 28.7, and in 2015-16 was 29.0. The 2014-15 Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks average age was 29.3. These ages also suggest why Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock treasures veteran players like 38-year-old Ron Hainsey and Marleau. When he coached the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, that team’s average age was 32.1.

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During the 2018-19 NHL regular season, the Maple Leafs only skaters over 30 years of age were Hainsey and Marleau. Given Stanley Cup history, one might suggest that the Maple Leafs were too young this season with an average age of 26.8. Furthermore, is it too simple to suggest that a difference between the 2017-18 and the 2018-19 Winnipeg Jets was that Paul Stastny was no longer with the team?

What Does Veteran Leadership Bring to an NHL Team?

Until they ran into the Bruins, the Carolina Hurricanes were the surprise of the 2018-19 NHL Playoffs. The team’s captain is veteran Justin Williams. This was Williams’ 19th NHL season, and there might not be a finer NHL locker room or bench leader. Marleau plays a similar role for the young Maple Leafs.

Sportsnet’s Luke Fox wrote a great article about Marleau’s life as the son of a mixed-grain farmer from Aneroid, Saskatchewan, a village with a population of 50. Fox’s article outlines the kind of character person Marleau is and shows what he brings to the Maple Leafs. The article speaks to the values of sacrifice, work ethic, and solid relationships.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

As Marleau notes, when he speaks about his own young children, “That’s the tough part — trying to instil the same values I had growing up. We try to do that as best we can.” There’s no doubt he brings this same commitment to the Maple Leafs.

How can you tell? The article also speaks to the adoration his young teammates give him. Marleau is seen as a father figure on the young team. It isn’t out of the ordinary for Marleau’s biological sons Landon, Brody, Jagger, and Caleb to be joined by their “not-so-biological big brothers” Auston Matthews or Mitchell Marner for supper and karaoke.

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Why does that matter? As Matthews says, “I can’t explain how great of a guy [Marleau] is and how close we are in our relationship.” Matthews made these comments after he honored Marleau by taking off his own sweater to reveal he was wearing a No. 12 MARLEAU jersey at this season’s All-Star Weekend in San Jose.

Matthews also added, “He treats everybody so well. It doesn’t matter who you are — a random person on the street or a teammate that plays with him — he treats everybody so kindly.”

Marleau’s Impact on His Team?

Marleau impacts the Maple Leafs in ways that go far beyond analytics. I believe writers who call for the Maple Leafs to dump Marleau and his contract are ignorant of what it takes to make a successful hockey team. Analytics or highlight reel goals can never explain the impact relational leadership has on any sports team.

Patrick Marleau Maple Leafs
Patrick Marleau could potentially jump into the top 10 in games played. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I cannot imagine what would happen if Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas treated Marleau with the disrespect commentators are asking for. Marleau is too good a person in general and too good a leader in the dressing room to be treated poorly by an organization. Marleau brings exactly the kind of character that might help the Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup.

His young teammates obviously respect and love him. How would Matthews, a young superstar who thinks to focus on Marleau instead of himself at the All-Star game, react? Would he be inclined to stay long-term with such an organization? That’s rhetorical: he wouldn’t.

The Maple Leafs signed a good-faith contract with Marleau and should honor that contract. Marleau might be slowing down on the ice, but his leadership isn’t waning within the dressing room. The Maple Leafs are a better team with this soon-to-become Hall of Famer, and Maple Leaf fans should treasure Marleau’s time with the team.

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Imagine the end of the 2019-20 Maple Leafs season as a joyous time of celebration in Toronto. A Stanley Cup win partnered with Marleau’s retirement is a perfect vision.

If the Bruins actually win the Stanley Cup, I invite Maple Leaf fans to ask “What team was the Bruins biggest obstacle on their Stanley Cup run?” That’s rhetorical, too.