The Chase: Established NHL vets trade comfort for Cup shot

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              Fans celebrate behind Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (71) and Justin Schultz (4) as they greet Patrick Marleau (12) who scored against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The evidence of Patrick Marleau’s near miss is everywhere. In the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. In the lobby on the way to the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, where a replica of the Stanley Cup the franchise won in 2016 at the expense of Marleau and the San Jose Sharks sits. In the pictures scattered throughout the 40-year-old forward’s new work home.

Yeah, it’s weird.

“It’s tough to look at but that’s in the past,” said Marleau, acquired by the Penguins at the trade deadline last month to give them a dash of speed and another experienced voice in a room searching for its third title in five years.

No player in NHL history has appeared in more games — 1,723 and counting through Tuesday — without raising the Cup than Marleau. He spent two decades trying to lead the Sharks to the promised land, coming close in 2016 when San Jose fell to Pittsburgh in six games. He returned to northern California last summer after a two-year Cup-less detour to Toronto.

The last stand wasn’t to be. With San Jose fading as the deadline neared, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson began fielding offers for the three-time All-Star before sending him to Pittsburgh in exchange for a conditional 2021 third-round draft pick.

“Doug was good about that,” Marleau said. “We talked about teams that were interested and where I was interested in going. It was good to have that dialogue with him and ultimately he had to make the deal, but he let me have my opinion known.”

Parting with a franchise icon or established veteran in order to let them make a run at an elusive championship somewhere else is a courtesy given to a select few. The Boston Bruins famously did it with star defenseman Ray Bourque when they sent him to Colorado in March, 2000 after 20-plus seasons in black-and-gold. A year later Bourque capped a Hall of Fame career by lifting the Cup overhead in bliss while wearing the Avalanche’s red, white and blue.

The Penguins are no strangers to bringing in established if playoff snake-bit veterans in hopes of providing them with their own defining moment. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Jarome Iginla arrived in 2013 after 16 years and 525 goals for Calgary. His stay lasted only through the Eastern Conference finals, where the Penguins were swept by Boston. Defenseman Ron Hainsey hadn’t even reached the postseason in 13 seasons before he came to Pittsburgh in February 2017. By June, the 36-year-old was standing on the ice in Nashville accepting the Cup from captain Sidney Crosby before going on a skate a lifetime in the making.

Crosby hopes he can make the same jubilant hand-off to Marleau.

“When you have a guy in the dressing room that’s played as long as he has … I think we’re always looking for motivation like that and he provides that,” Crosby said.

Though the Penguins have struggled of late — they’re just 3-5 since Marleau’s arrival — he showed there’s plenty of life left in legs that have slogged more than 33,000 minutes of ice time since he made his debut as a teenager in 1997. Marleau’s first goal with Pittsburgh came during a pretty sequence against Carolina on Sunday in which he hopped over the boards and split four Hurricanes as he dashed down the slot before scoring on a backhand. It was the kind of burst that offered tangible proof to Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford that he made the right call when he reached out to Wilson to see if Marleau was available.

“He’s got great character and he can still play, he can still skate,” Rutherford said. “At that point in your career, it’s one of the things you look for.”

Well that and an indescribable hunger that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. The trade marked the first time in Marleau’s two decades-plus that he’s been moved in the middle of the season. Marleau’s wife Christina remains in the San Jose area with the couple’s four sons. He’s currently staying in a Pittsburgh hotel bumming rides from new teammate Jason Zucker, who left the comfort of Minnesota behind when he joined the Penguins in early February. Marleau joked he’s just trying to “check all the boxes” he’s missed during his career.

One very large one remains. It’s the same one well-traveled forward Ilya Kovalchuk is missing. Unlike Marleau, Kovalchuk is no stranger to getting moved. The Capitals are Kovalchuk’s fifth NHL team, and that list doesn’t include a five-year detour to his native Russia in the middle of his prime. The 36-year-old watched fellow countryman Alexander Ovechkin bring the Cup home when Washington won its first title in 2018. It made an impression.

“I think he wants to be in on all those celebrations and good times and more importantly adding something to his resume that he doesn’t have right now,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said.

It’s an opportunity not every franchise icon is afforded. While Marleau was able to land in Pittsburgh, longtime Sharks teammate Joe Thornton remains in San Jose playing out the string. Like Marleau, Thorton’s name is not on the Cup. Unlike Marleau, barring some sort of miraculous sprint to the finish, Thornton won’t get a shot at finally having it etched into hockey immortality this spring.

“It’s tough situation he’s in I think,” Marleau said of Thornton. “I’m not too sure what happened there. Like I said, we don’t have another 10 years, so it’s great to have that opportunity. I’m sure he would have loved to have it obviously.”

San Jose captain Logan Couture admitted he wishes he could see Thornton in the playoffs “because he deserves it.” Instead Thornton and Couture will tune in to see if Marleau can take the one step that’s eluded him. It can be a weird paradigm shift. Marleau spent years upon years trying to bring the Cup to San Jose. In order to get a chance to chase it, he had to leave the Sharks in the rearview mirror.

It’s strange. But it beats the alternative.

“If San Jose was in a playoff position, obviously things would be different,” Marleau said. “But they weren’t and then this came along, so just try to take full advantage of it. I don’t have many more years left. I’m trying to win it now.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Flyers saw their nine-game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday in a loss to Boston. They’ll get a chance to start another one on Thursday night against Tampa Bay. While Philadelphia is flying, the Lightning are idling a bit with star Steven Stamkos sidelined thanks to core surgery.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston) 48, Alex Ovechkin (Washington) 48; Assists: Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton), 67; Points: Draisaitl, 110; Ice time: Thomas Chabot (Ottawa), 26:01; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 35; Goals-against average: Tuukka Rask (Boston), 2.12; Save percentage: Anton Khudobin (Colorado), .930, Rask .929, Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), .928.