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TRAIKOS: What can the Maple Leafs do with Marleau?

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Patrick Marleau and Boston Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy on the boards as the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Boston Bruins in Game 3 in Toronto on Monday April 15, 2019.
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Patrick Marleau and Boston Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy on the boards as the Toronto Maple Leafs take on the Boston Bruins in Game 3 in Toronto on Monday April 15, 2019.

BOSTON, Mass. — What do the Toronto Maple Leafs do with Patrick Marleau?

For several months, this was a question for another day, another season. With one more year remaining on a three-year contract that carries a $6.25-million cap hit, the thinking was that the Leafs would potentially have to buy out the 39-year-old in the off-season after a year in which his speed, skills and scoring were all in decline.

But with the first-round series against the Boston Bruins tied 2-2, can you even wait until then?

Heading into a pivotal Game 5, what do you do now with an aging forward who is no longer helping you in a top-nine role? Do you demote him to the fourth line and bump up Trevor Moore? Do you (gulp!) scratch him?

Whatever you do, you can’t keep putting him out there on the ice, especially not in the final minute of a game in which the Leafs were down a goal. That was the situation that Marleau found himself in on Wednesday night in a 6-4 loss to the Bruins in Game 4.

With Toronto’s net empty, the best scorers were supposedly on the ice trying to send the game to overtime. For reasons that are unclear to anyone not named Mike Babcock, Marleau was included in that six-man group. The puck went to him at one point. And just like that, the threat of tying the game was over, as Boston eventually scored an empty-netter.

This isn’t meant to blame Marleau for the loss. Or to suggest that had he not been on the ice, the Leafs would have tied the game. But with the series now down to a best-of-three, it’s time for Babcock to stop basing decisions on experience and reputation.

Instead, it’s time to give valuable ice time to the best players on the team. And right now, that isn’t Marleau, regardless of his Hall of Fame credentials.

The last time Marleau scored was nearly a month ago. Based on what we’ve seen out of him, don’t expect that drought to end anytime soon. He looks gassed, like the game is too quick, too physical and too intense for him to make a difference. This isn’t anything new. This year, Marleau had 16 goals and 37 points.

Babcock has said that it’s only a matter of time before Marleau finds the fountain of youth. But if he couldn’t find it in the regular season, where he had his worst offensive season, what are the chances he finds it in a pivotal Game 5 of a tied series on Friday?

In four games, Marleau has no goals. His only point so far was a secondary assist, which came on a defensive play in Game 1 where he shovelled the puck along the boards and then watched as Nazem Kadri made a gorgeous breakaway pass to William Nylander.

Since then, he’s been varying levels of ineffective. With a plus-1 rating, he isn’t necessarily hurting the Leafs. But he’s not helping them either. And in his role, the Leafs need him to.

If the Leafs are going to get past the Bruins, they will need their third line to provide secondary scoring. Before Kadri’s suspension, you could maybe live with the fact that Marleau was out there. But now that it’s Nylander, Marleau and Connor Brown, Toronto’s third line doesn’t match up against Boston’s.

The question is whether Babcock, who loves his veterans and values experience more than young legs, would make the unpopular decision and bench the popular forward.

Based on history, don’t rule it out.

Babcock faced a similar dilemma with Mike Modano in 2011. Like Marleau and the Leafs, Modano had arrived to the Detroit Red Wings with Hall of Fame credentials and a career’s worth of playoff experience. But he was also 40 years old and coming off a season where he scored just four goals and 15 points in 40 games.

So Babcock made Modano a healthy scratch for nine of 11 playoff games, while also sitting Kris Draper for three games.

“Playoff time, you’re doing whatever you think as a coach is the right thing for your organization to win,” Babcock said at the time. “That’s how simple it is. Does it make the conversation any easier? No. But I think the decision part is actually easier.”

Right now, it’s time for Babcock to do what’s right for the Leafs.

It’s time for Marleau to sit, or at the very least to play limited minutes. Put him on the fourth line and bring up Moore, whose speed, tenacity and goal in Game 3 deserves to be rewarded.

If not, well, the only positive the Leafs might get out of Marleau is his experience. And if they’re not careful, it could be the unfortunate experience of being knocked out early.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

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Patrick Marleau is not the only veteran who has been placed in an impact role during these playoffs. Here are:

Zdeno Chara, 42
The Bruins captain scored the game-winner in Game 4 on a blast from the point. But the 42-year-old has also been a frequent physical target for Leafs forwards, who have surprisingly been taking turns knocking him to the ice.

Brooks Orpik, 38
The Capitals bought-out Orpik’s contract after winning the Stanley Cup last year. But having scored the overtime winner in Game 2, there was a reason why they eventually brought him back.

Ron Hainsey, 38
The Leafs defenceman benefits from playing alongside Morgan Rielly. But Hainsey, who is logging big-time minutes, is holding his own with an assist and a plus-4 in that role.

Justin Williams, 37
The 37-year-old has no goals and one assist in three games. Perhaps, Mr. Game 7 might be saving up his production for another winner-takes-all elimination game. That is if the Hurricanes get that far.

Pekka Rinne, 36
Though he is coming off another stellar regular season, the playoffs are another story. The Predators goalie was pulled in Game 4 on Wednesday night after allowing four goals on just eight shots

— Michael Traikos

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