The start of free agency meant washing away remnants of a rebuild for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, after doing some upkeep to start the process, the club officially began aiming to optimize its roster one day later.
Lou Lamoriello struck a whopping three-year, $18.75-million contract with Patrick Marleau, a decorated winger who’s been scoring in the NHL (or more specifically with the San Jose Sharks) with a level of consistency throughout Auston Matthews’ 19 years on this planet.
It’s a fascinating deal, and one loaded with risk. Let’s assess the good and the bad with a contract that leaves no room for interpretation: the Maple Leafs are through with waiting.
Window won’t go to waste
Matthews may promise the Maple Leafs a level of competitiveness for the next decade. But it’s the first few seasons of a superstar’s career that sometimes presents teams the best opportunity to win.
It’s far easier said than done. However, unlike most flat-lining franchises injected with life, the Maple Leafs initiated their upswing before winning the rights to draft first overall a little over one year ago. They’re poised to take advantage of the small window in which their best players substantially out-perform their contracts, like the Chicago Blackhawks did in 2010.
Marleau comes as a luxury for the Leafs. Failing to recognize this grace period – the opportunity at hand before Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner command in excess of $20 million annually – would have been a greater error than any short-term deal they could have brokered.
Matthews has a proper left winger
During Matthews’ remarkable 40-goal debut season, he carried a rookie unit that featured a rotation of talent on the right side and a workman devoid of legitimate top-six skill on the opposite wing from pretty well start to finish.
Now we should find out what he can accomplish with weapons at either flank.
Marleau is, if anything, an enormous upgrade over Zach Hyman. He can finish, can still really burn, has been incredibly durable, possesses a strong two-way game and will lend support to his pivot with his versatility and positioning.
Trade won’t shift dynamics
Toronto will return essentially the same team that finished as one of five to score 250 goals last season. That is, in addition to Marleau. But while poised to provide balance to a top nine which had its talent tilted to the right side, Marleau’s acquisition could assist in spreading it to other areas on the roster.
The fear in trading James van Riemsdyk was the Leafs would revert back to a two-line team, and therefore become far easier to match up against. With Marleau, dealing the pending unrestricted free agent – or perhaps an asset from the right side – in exchange for a top-four defenseman wouldn’t disrupt last season’s dynamics up front.
He’s free – aside from the $18.75 million
The Leafs probably wouldn’t hesitate to trade a second-round pick for Brian Boyle again, but siphoning off assets for rental properties is not going to be a successful strategy for this team at this stage in its development.
Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov are entering the final seasons on their current contracts along with van Riemsdyk. That’s one-third of their top nine potentially out the door next summer. The flow of incoming talent cannot be shut off, and Marleau offers no disruption.
Okay, we’re wading into the wishful thinking portion of the program. But, Marleau’s point share will ultimately take from another’s. That player, unlike Marleau, will see his production determine the number on his next contract, which the Maple Leafs will work to keep under control.
That third year
The hang-up with the Marleau deal is unquestionably its term. More specifically, it’s how the third year overlaps with the next progression in the Maple Leafs’ inexact rise: negotiating and housing the second contracts of Matthews, Nylander and Marner.
On the flip side, the third year was without a doubt the sticking point for Marleau, who had all the leverage as a coveted asset entertaining the idea of uprooting his family after two decades in the sunshine of San Jose.
Just how Marleau’s term will impact the Leafs is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard to imagine that this rigid deal (one retirement-proof and complete with a no-move) won’t cost them dearly.
Toronto had a fixed period to spend, and stepped outside of it. It’s legitimately problematic. And that’s before considering the uncertainty of what Marleau will actually be when that third year rolls around.
Almost 38 and well into the back nine for is career, Marleau is beyond his prime. That said, he’s still scoring goals at a consistently solid rate, having maintained an average of 26 goals over the last four years and a 27-goal effort in 2016-17.
Other evaluations, though, indicate that his overall effectiveness as an attacking player is diminishing, and at a relatively steep rate. His 94 points in 164 games over the last two seasons works out to 0.57 points per game, a rate that barely sneaks inside the top 150 in the NHL. (His career mark is 0.72.)
And declining quicker than his overall production is the amount of shots he’s placing on target from season to season. His 190 shots last year were his lowest in a decade, and 95 fewer than what he registered in the seventh 30-goal season of his career four years ago.
Basically every offensive measure suggests that Marleau’s impact is fading, and should continue to subside. Regrettably, this won’t be reflected in an annual wage fixed into his 40s.
More NHL Free Agency coverage on Yahoo Sports: