Kukla's Korner

In Defense of Patrick Marleau

Several years ago (pre-lockout), a friend and I debated what Patrick Marleau’s actual upside was. This was when he still floundered in 40-point brilliant-one-game-awful-the-next land, pre-captaincy and with the life being squeezed out of him by then-coach Darryl Sutter. We finally agreed that under the right coach and with the right circumstances, he could ultimately turn into a Mike Modano-style player: 80-90 points per season, a good penalty killer because of his speed, and a threat for 35+ goals each season.

It seems fitting, then, that like Modano a few years ago, Marleau was stripped of the captaincy. While Todd McLellan has left open the possibility of the C returning to his chest, reports out of the San Jose Mercury News make it seem like that won’t happen. McLellan hinted at a decision come training camp based on work ethic and focus, but that just seems to pave the way for Dan Boyle being named captain. He’s skilled, signed long term, honest without Roenick-style foot-in-mouth disease, and brings a genuine intensity to the team, along with Stanley Cup experience. It’s a logical choice, and as a fan of Boyle since his Tampa days, I fully support it.

(The dark horse candidate is Joe Pavelski, in a move that might mirror Dallas’ choice to make Brendan Morrow captain.)

But I continue to find fault with people who make it seem like Marleau’s head deserved to be on every possible chopping block from here to Saskatoon. It’s funny, not in a “ha ha” kind of way but in a shake-your-head-in-bemusement kind of way. It seems like everyone forgot about the year that Marleau had.

Please recall that Marleau was the unanimous Sharks team MVP, a guy who evolved from just a skilled center to San Jose’s top short-handed threat and a complete player over the course of a season. Last year, Marleau showed more grit, determination, and consistency not only in putting up numbers, but also in working in the corners and taking the body. Back in February, I had a conversation with some Sharks fans, and they talked about how they finally felt like Marleau had grown into the captain role and they were happy with him. At that point during the season, he did everything fans and the coaching staff could ask, and he did it well; in fact, the discussion seemed to be more focused on why Joe Thornton couldn’t play with the same moxy as Patrick Marleau.

Then came his knee injury. I’m of the mindset that injuries are not excuses, but explanations. You can’t fight reality, and when an injury affects your most important asset, your play will suffer. For Marleau, his entire game is built around speed, and for him to skate on one leg essentially nullifies a big part of his game.

Think of it this way: Luc Robitaille will be the first to tell you that he was never the most gifted skater, that it was all in his hands and wrist. If he got a leg injury, he should still be able to pick up the ugly goals because he still has his most valuable asset. However, if if Lucky Luc had a sprained wrist and couldn’t get his shot off, it’d be reasonable to expect his play to tail off. You can’t fight reality.

So Marleau returns with an MCL injury, earlier than he should because the Sharks forward lines are absolutely depleted due to other injuries. Rather than rest him, they put squeeze him into the tail end of the season and place him in a variety of positions as Todd McLellan plays mix-n-match with his makeshift lines. He’s obviously hampered out there and his production tails off, along with important little things like generating shorthanded chances. People seem to forget that in the playoffs, he scored the team’s only two game-winners while San Jose’s secondary scoring disappeared.

It’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation, and I think it’s a reasonable one. It’s just like saying a healthy Pavel Datsyuk could have helped the Red Wings overcome the Penguins, or that a healthy Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan could have tipped Game 7 of the Ducks/Wings series into Anaheim’s favor. Stuff happens. That’s pro sports. Everyone’s going to be banged up at one point or another, and luck will dictate whether or not the injury occurs in an area critical to someone’s playing style.

I’m guessing that the removal of the captaincy has less to do with punishing Marleau and more to do with creating a clean slate. I understand that, and I support it, simply because on paper, I can’t find any real holes in the team. It all has to do with guys fulfilling potential, and if that means shifting pieces around to establish a new identity rather than blowing it all up, I’m all for it. It shakes things up while keeping the talented core together. But to call out Marleau as a failure of a player is extremely misguided. He had a great year which was derailed when an injury took away his best weapon. There’s no reason to hang the guy for it.

All eyes will be on Marleau as training camp starts, and one hopes that he continues to play the way he did when he was healthy last season, captain or not. I’m of the belief that he will because of one specific moment during the 2007-08 season. Longtime readers have heard this story before; you’ll recall that that was a pretty miserable year for Marleau, as he’d been publicly flogged by then-coach Ron Wilson for the previous year’s playoffs. He skated in a haze for the first half of the season before he had that turn-on-the-lightbulb moment in February. He told his teammates he had to be better, and from that point on he played with a determination that carried into this last season. In that moment, he was accountable, not only to his teammates but to himself, and every dimension of his game changed from then on.

That moment tells me that he gets it—even though it took him a while to get there. And captain or no, I think he’ll prove the naysayers wrong next season.

Filed in: NHL, | Mike Chen's Hockey Blog | Permalink
  Tags: dan+boyle, patrick+marleau, san+jose+sharks

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