The Maple Leafs Marleau Mistake

It’s exciting to have Patrick Marleau. Over 1000 points in nearly 1500 games, Marleau’s blend of speed, shooting ability, have always been a nice mix. He’s had a great career and his Hall of Fame candidacy will no doubt be dissected after his retirement. He and Jumbo Joe were always two players I enjoyed watching. The Maple Leafs big free agent splash was a mistake however, and will likely be a net negative contract.

Marleau is a good fit for the Maple Leafs. Despite being 38 in a couple of months, Marleau has good speed to keep up with the Leafs. Furthermore, the left wing position is noticeably weaker than the right wing. After JVR (who might be on his way out), Leo Komarov (might not be back), Josh Leivo, Zack Hyman, and Matt Martin round out the individuals who can play in that position. Faceoffs are an added bonus which he’s fine at on his strong side. The problem with Marleau is the cap hit compared to what he provides.

There is plenty of data to suggest Marleau is a middle six winger as opposed to a top line winger. Guess which one he gets paid like? Marleau certainly had a good 2016-2017 season with 27 goals and 46 points. Those 27 goals, however, came with a shooting percentage of 14.2%, a mark he hasn’t reached since 2009-2010. Given his age, this is something that will be lower this season. Players lose accuracy and strength in their shot as they age.

marleau skater card
Patrick Marleau Skater Card

The picture above, courtesy of HockeyViz, shows Marleau produces at a third line rate while given top line minutes. Over the past three years, Marleau has a decent 50.69 CF% but a -1.03 relative CF%. He hasn’t been a play driver nor does he score at rates like he is being paid.

Consider Justin Williams, a winger, signed with the Carolina Hurricanes for $4.5M for 2 years. Wiliams, 36 this October, produced 141 points over the past three years, 10 fewer than Marleau over the same period.  Younger, similar production, veteran presence, plays both ends of the ice yet makes $1.75M less per year with a limited NTC (15 teams) and for only 2 years (granted the third year of Marleau’s contract might not exist).

Radim Vrbata signed a 1 year deal where he can make a maximum of $3.75M. Vrbata has averaged 21 goals and 48 points over the past three seasons. Thomas Vanek signed for 1 year at $2.6M last year so I doubt he’d be expensive. Has averaged around 18 goals and 47 points over the past three seasons. Players with similar production to Marleau received considerably less money.

Jussi Jokinen was recently bought out. Were his 28 points the start of a nose diving trend? Doubtful he costs much considering age, subpar season based on production. However based on shot differentials, he did well. Furthermore Jokinen put up 44 and 60 points in his preceding two seasons.

The trade market is always murky being on the outside. Marcus Johansson cost a second and a third round pick. Makes about $1.75M less per year in terms of cap hit. Averaged 20 goals in past three years with roughly 50 points. Costs you a couple picks however you save some money and get similar production, younger, and has less risk.

Internal options for the Maple Leafs did exist. Josh Leivo has impressed when given a chance. 15 points in 25 games over the past two years, Leivo should be given a chance to show he can perform consistently at the NHL level. Andreas Johnsson had a good first season with the Marlies. If he builds on it, then he’s another winger who could be used within the top 9. Given Babcock’s desire for the fourth line to be made of checkers, it is unlikely we see Leivo or Johnsson, players with skill, getting the necessary ice time to continue developing at a higher level unless a hole in the top 9 opens up.

Mike Cammalleri was also an interesting options.

Marleau Cammaleri
Cammalerri vs Marleau HERO Chart

The veteran plays the left wing and had 11 goals in a year where his shooting percentage was below his career average by 5 percentage points. He made for a good bounce-back candidate. While Cammalleri does not generate as many shots, his defensive game is superior, an area where the Maple Leafs struggled mightily last season.

The pattern across the players listed shows similar production to Marleau all coming in at cheaper prices.  Even if they have a bunch of cap space, it’s best to use it efficiently. The Maple Leafs did not do that. Moreover, that cap space might come in handy within the next couple of years. Or it could be used for an area of need. Furthermore, putting him on a line with Matthews and Nylander will make him look great. At the same time, Matthews and Nylander can make the vast majority of players look great. There’s no need to pay a premium on a player who won’t move the needle and is a support piece.

It’s good to see the Leafs go for it while the Big 3 are on entry level contracts. It’s a critical window. You have to be smart about it and the Leafs have not shown to be. The Maple Leafs overpaid for a middle six winger. There’s no way around it. Marleau’s contract is a net negative.

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