Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello made his first — and quite possibly only — major splash of free agency on Sunday, inking Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75-million contract, and the deal does two things for the Maple Leafs.
Primarily, signing Marleau improves the club in the one area that clearly needed improvement. Heading into free agency, there weren’t many ways to poke holes in Toronto’s attack with the emergence of the Maple Leafs’ young trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner this past season. However, if one were to try, the best place to take aim would have been the left wing.
At the top of the depth chart is James van Riemsdyk, and there was and is nothing wrong with him taking the top spot on the left wing, but things got significantly thinner after that with Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Zach Hyman rounding out the left side. Signing Marleau, though, allows each of those three to slide down the depth chart and settle into a role that’s much more befitting the player. Komarov, for instance, can become a full-time checking line winger, while Martin and Hyman can slot in to the third or fourth lines. As for Marleau, he instantly becomes a top-six winger and one with goal-scoring upside, and that’s exactly what the Maple Leafs needed.
Marleau, 37, is as consistent a scorer as there is in the league, even at his age. He has 25-plus goals in three of his past four seasons and has only failed to reach the 20-goal plateau three times in the past 16 seasons. Marleau still has the skating ability to be an offensive threat, the two-way acumen to be effective at both ends of the ice and he’s a veteran who can help guide the Maple Leafs’ younger, still-developing players.
Maybe more significant than what Marleau brings to the lineup, though, is what the signing says about the state of things in Toronto.
Inking a veteran winger such as Marleau, not to mention signing 36-year-olds Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore, is an indication that the process has sped up for the Maple Leafs. Once content to let their young players develop and slowly build, the speed with which Matthews, Nylander and Marner have adjusted to and become successful in the big league has put Toronto in a position to win now, not later. That’s why the Maple Leafs are gambling on, and paying big to land, a veteran scorer who can improve the roster next season.
It’s a wise risk to take, too. On the heels of reports that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could combine to consume more than $20 million of the Edmonton Oilers’ cap space, the Maple Leafs are attempting to build a team around their young players that will put them in Stanley Cup contention before the entry-level contracts come up. Matthews, Nylander and Marner earn a combined $2.7 million right now, and not a single one of the three is going to be worth less than that when it comes time to sign a second contract. That changes things financially for Toronto, putting the Maple Leafs in a position where roster sacrifices will need to be made. Right now, though, Toronto can go all-in and spend to build around the youngsters.
And while there may be some concerned about the length of the deal, as it will carry Marleau through to 2019-20 when he’s 41 years old, chances are that he’s either traded or retired by the time his contract becomes an awfully big concern. The $6.25-million cap hit is palatable enough for a budget team to take on to get to the floor of the salary cap, and there’s no doubt that Lamoriello has a plan to free up whatever cap space necessary to sign Matthews and Marner when their entry-level deals are up ahead of 2019-20.
So, while signing Marleau may be a risk, it was a smart one for Toronto to take. After a post-season in which they pushed the heavily favored Washington Capitals to six games and showed all the signs of a team ready to take some major steps forward, the Maple Leafs are going for it now, and that’s absolutely the right decision.