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When asked about the advancing age of new signing Patrick Marleau and whether it was a concern, Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock, widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, merely laughed:
“Have you seen him skate?”
It was the same question every single scout asked his peers when talking about the shy kid from Saskatchewan. The one who impressed you at the 1995 Canada Games and then blew you away when you found out he was actually 14, which was two years younger than everyone else. The one who could be mistaken for the most meek and deferential man in the world unless you saw him tear up the WHL with the Thunderbirds, after which he could be labeled as a trailblazing force of nature. The one who was younger than anyone else in his draft class and yet arguably the most mature.
That was Patrick Marleau. He had deft handles, amazing hockey IQ, and an instinctual knack for goal-scoring. But most of all, he had that unbelievable speed. The type where he would be at your blue line while you would be at center ice, despite starting from the same place. That type.
“Have you seen him skate?”
There wasn’t exactly much to inspire hope in the Sharks. Their draft history was littered with busts like Pat Falloon and Teemu Riihijarvi, and their future didn’t seem too promising either. Until Marleau got drafted. The fresh-faced rookie actually outpaced Joe Thornton in their rookie season and helped his team to the playoffs for five consecutive years, turning into a reliable 20-goal scorer and hinting at flashes of much more, even if he was held back by the clutch-and-grab culture of the NHL. But it didn’t take long for everyone to see how good he could be.
Perhaps no player save for Teemu Selanne (who might have had cyborg surgery in Finland during that lost year) benefited from the post-lockout change in the game more than Marleau did. Free of the shackles of the dead-puck-era’s clutch-and-grab systems and benefiting greatly from the addition of Joe Thornton, Marleau began to truly shine in 2005-06, using his speed and skill to maximum extent and putting up 34 goals and 86 points on the second line. Yet in the playoffs, San Jose fell short after future Shark Raffi Torres took out Milan Michalek in the second round. Marleau scored nine goals in 11 games, but it didn’t stop people from pointing fingers at him, blaming him for the blown 2-0 series lead against Edmonton. It would be indicative of a familiar refrain that would haunt him for much of his career.
Postseason disappointments aside, Marleau kept blazing through regular seasons like a bull in a china shop, making the red lamp light up at a stunningly consistent rate. Save for a bizarre dip in 2007-08, caused by a relatively low shooting percentage of 10.3, Marleau’s scoring output read 32, 38, 44, 37, and 30 goals. He formed one of the most formidable units in the NHL with Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton, one so powerful and dominant that they were kept together as Team Canada’s second line in the gold-medal squad at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He and Thornton formed the dynamic duo that came to define the Sharks over the last decade, serving as half of arguably the most deadly playmaker-sniper duo aside from Ovechkin and Backstrom. And yet all this only served to make the criticism louder due to their failed postseason runs.
“He’s not tough enough!” argued the media, while dismissing his ability to grit his teeth and play through any and every injury; as of 2017, no active player save for Joe Thornton (937) had played in more regular season games in the post-lockout era than Marleau’s 935.
“He’s not truly elite!” cried the hockey masses, ignoring that only four players had scored more goals than the sniper since 2005.
“He’s not clutch enough!” said everyone (including Jeremy Roenick in a bizarre Thanksgiving Day house visit), overlooking the fact that Marleau’s postseason Goals/Game (0.38) was actually higher than his regular season Goals/Game (0.34). Gutless. Weak. Choker. Those words were flung freely at the Sharks and especially at Marleau, who could never seem to avoid being the fall guy. Whether internally, when stripped of the captaincy in 2008, or externally, such as Jeremy Roenick’s foolish rants against him on national television, everyone seemed convinced that there was something wrong with this man, something that prevented him from leading the team to the Holy Grail, and something that he was doing wrong. And in doing so, they forgot what he was doing right.
It wasn’t Marleau’s fault that Raffi Torres took out the team’s second-line winger and that Roloson turned into Jacques Plante overnight. It wasn’t his fault that his nine(!) goals in 11 playoff games weren’t enough for a team to make it out of the second round. It wasn’t his fault that there was shaky goaltending and poor defense (or just a better opposition team) in many of the playoff runs that the Sharks bottled. And it wasn’t Marleau’s fault that Vlasic was concussed and that Joe Pavelski failed to shoot six inches higher to beat the glove of a red-hot Jonathan Quick.
Like all players, he probably could have done more, but most years, blaming Marleau for the team’s struggles was like blaming California for the election of Donald Trump. Yet there was always the vocal segment of the crowd that felt he was shirking from the big stage. And so the familiar cry rang out.
“He’s special! He could be so much more! He’s got the handles, the intelligence, and the goal-scoring knack! Have you seen him skate?”
Unjust narratives seemed to always cloud him and his time here in San Jose, but it should never take away from what he accomplished as a player. He leaves, in the words of Joe Thornton, as the Greatest Shark Ever, and is undoubtedly one of the best snipers in modern NHL history. He came to embody a city and franchise, never shrinking from criticism and always soldiering on, playing his heart out even when it seemed like the entire world was against him. He was, along with Joe Thornton, arguably the biggest on-ice reason the Sharks were such a force over the last decade. And for that, he deserves our eternal thanks.
No player embodied the Sharks as much as Patrick Marleau did. There was no one that grew with the franchise and saw it rise, fall, and rise again. No one came to act as the symbol of the organization more than Marleau did.
“Have you seen him skate?”
We have, here in San Jose. We’ve seen his skill, his speed, his hands, and his scoring knack. And we’ve seen a person who was stunningly humble and soft-spoken. And we should forever be thankful that such a talent graced the city for the last 20 years.
Farewell, Patrick Marleau.