Marleau’s Time to Shine

By Mike Delfino
He’s one of the youngest players in the league. He was 5th on his team
in scoring. He just became eligible to drink liquor in the United
States less than a month ago. At 21 years old, he’s already earned more
money than most people will see in a lifetime.

For most people his age, their biggest worries are cramming for the
college exam they didn’t study for, and which party they’ll be going to
the next night. For Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks, his worries
far exceed the average 21 year old student.

After a disappointing junior year, the Sharks young center may already
be facing a make or break year. If he struggles this year, there will
undoubtedly be comparisons to former Shark poster-boy, Pat Falloon. If
he does in fact struggle, those comparisons very well be justified.
However, if he rebounds, last year will be remembered as nothing more
than a bump along the road.

Entering the league in his rookie year at just 18 years old, Marleau had
what can be best described as an “expected” season. No one expected him
to jump out and score 30 goals. The Sharks simply hoped he would chime
in about a dozen goals and show signs of the brilliance he showed in
junior hockey and that’s exactly what he did. He scored 13 goals and 19
assists, and showed signs of the brilliance that he showed in Seattle of
the WHL.

For his second year, the Sharks hoped he would continue to build on his
rookie year, and more importantly, avoid the sophomore slump that many
players experience. Once again, he performed much as the Sharks would
have hoped. He improved his goal total to 21, while still showing much
of the previous brilliance. He also improved his assist total to 24,
showing more ability to use his teammates and an improved defensive
game.

In the 99/00 season, many expected Marleau to show the rest of the world
that he was the next dominant center in the NHL. When people saw his
total of 45 points from the previous year, it was not inconceivable that
he could reach 55-60 points, while scoring around 25-30 goals.

However, this simply was not to be. The plain and simple truth of the
matter is that Marleau struggled more than any other Shark at times last
year. Not only did he struggle scoring; he often looked lost, which
would have been expected during his rookie year, but not from a 3rd year
pro. He struggled finishing, didn’t manage the puck well, struggled
defensively, and rarely showed the natural ability and brilliance that
he showed in his previous two years with the Sharks and with Seattle.
He finished the season with a disappointing 17 goals, 23 assists, and
watched much of the playoffs from the press box.

Many of his struggles last year are typical of struggles experienced by
good players suffering through the infamous sophomore slump. A
sophomore slump is often described as a player being lost in a sea of
players far too advanced for that player. It’s often a result of a
player enjoying success in his first year, but then in that second year,
his opponents have figured out how to beat him, and are beginning to
target that player. The player then struggles with the extra
responsibility and has trouble adjusting.

Good players rebound in their third year, and figure out new methods to
get around these obstacles. An example of such a player would be the
Sharks’ very own Vincent Damphousse who struggled in his second year,
only to come back and have a very successful career as one of the top
centers in the game. Bad players never get over their sophomore slump,
and remain in that rut their entire career. The best example would be
Alexandre Daigle who had an impressive rookie campaign, but was unable
to improve upon a weak sophomore season.

What there is no doubt about is that Patrick Marleau has the ability to
be one of the elite players in the NHL. He has the speed, the hands,
and the willingness to use his body. Quite simply, he has all the tools
to be a very good hockey player. Last year, however, he simply did not
use those natural abilities.

Last year I told San Jose fans to not jump off the Patrick Marleau Band
Wagon, theorizing that he may simply be suffering his sophomore slump a
year late. It is very easy to forget that Patrick Marleau was, and is
still, one of the youngest 5% of players in the league. If this were a
22 or 23 year old going through this slump, then I would be more
worried. However, when taking into account that most players are just
leaving the CHL at this point in their hockey career, it is not
inconceivable that a player would struggle at such an early point in his
career.

There is no doubt that Marleau has a lot to prove this year.
Unfortunately, he did himself no favor for his hockey development by
sitting out the first two weeks of training camp. He’ll have to step
into a situation where his teammates have already been playing for a
couple weeks, while he jumps into situation with perhaps a little bit of
rust built up after a few months off.

Once the dust from contract dispute settled, Marleau signed for
basically what the Sharks originally offered. Marleau received the
mandatory 10% raise for a qualifying offer, but more importantly, he
signed only a one-year deal. The importance of the one-year deal is
simple.

If he proves that last year was only a bump in the road, at the end of
the season he will have earned the right to begin making the millions
that dreams are made of. The Sharks have shown that they are willing to
pay for past performance, but that they will not pay for potential of
performance. This was the exact case with Marleau this year.
On the other side, if Patrick Marleau proves that last year was the
start of a pattern, there is an excellent chance that you may see
Patrick Marleau wearing a different sweater by the end of the year.
When the Sharks traded Pat Falloon, the trade paid off. They received a
very serviceable defenseman in Doug Bodger, and as things turned out,
Falloon never developed into the superstar he was once expected to
become. However, there are plenty of examples of players who flourished
once traded such as Chris Pronger and John LeClair.

So now the bottom line question is simple. Which is it going to be for
Patrick Marleau? Will he be the next example of Vincent Damphousse,
Chris Pronger or John LeClair? Or will he become the next example of
Jimmy Carson, Pat Falloon or Alexandre Daigle?