Earlier this month, San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau celebrated his 37th birthday.
Few hockey players in history have performed better at 37 than they did at 36.
However, few hockey players have ever scored 500 NHL goals, either.
At this moment, only 43 players in history have reached the 500 milestone.
With 481 career goals, Marleau is just 19 short of that milestone.
1. Chasing 500
Drafted second overall back in 1997, Marleau has been a San Jose Shark his entire career. The Aneroid, Saskatchewan native is the face of an early 90s expansion franchise that turned a warm-weather climate into a hockey hotbed. He means more to San Jose than any other player in terms of emotional ties to the city.
The 2016-17 season will be Marleau's 19th season as a Shark. If not for the missed season of 2004-05 due to the lockout, it would be his 20th. He is the biggest home-grown star the Sharks have ever produced. Barring injury, something he has avoided his entire career (missed only 31 regular season games over 18 seasons), Marleau will likely score his 500th goal this season. No. 12 hasn't scored fewer than 19 goals since his third year in the league back in 1999-2000.
That said, Marleau has scored exactly 19 goals twice over the last nine seasons (2007-08 and 2014-15). Scoring No.500 this season isn't a guarantee, but he will certainly get very, very close at some point this season. When that time comes you know he will be eager and motivated to reach the milestone and move on from all the media questions about it. He is going to be hungry for that historic goal. The first Shark to ever score the majority of (and in this case, all) his 500 goals in a Shark sweater.
2. Contract Year
Marleau's days as a Shark may be coming to an end. This is the final year of a three-year contract signed prior to 2014-15. That offseason Marleau was coming off a 33-goal, 70-point contract year. In his previous contract year in 2009-10, he scored a career-high 44 goals.
Both seasons were signfiicantly better than the two years before them. In 2011-12 Marleau tallied 64 points and he finished on pace for just 53 points during the lockout shortened 2013 season. Then boom contract year back up to 70 points. After a miserable year in 2007-08, (Marleau finished with just 48 points) in which tensions were high with then coach Ron Wilson, Marleau bounced back in 2008-09 with 38 goals and 71 points. The following season in a contract year, he deposited a career-high 44-goals and his second-best point total (83).
Certainly Marleau has disappointed these last two seasons. Only 48 points last year and 57 points the year before with plus/minus ratings of minus-17 and minus-22 simply doesn't cut it. Marleau has mostly been an even player over his career when it comes to the much maligned plus/minus statistic. The good news is he can certainly be that player again. Bouncing back is in Marleau's DNA.
While he is obviously older than he ever has been before, there were extenuating circumstances these last two seasons. The 2014-15 Sharks were a fundamentally flawed team. Their defense core was incredibly thin, Brent Burns was miserable defensively and Antti Niemi was average between the pipes. Meanwhile last season Marleau had to take over the second-line center role for the majority of the first half due to the injury to Logan Couture. This is something he hadn't done full time in years. That was a tough task for Marleau, as he clearly isn't the player he used to be.
3. Better Linemates & Easier Minutes
When Couture did return to the lineup last season, Marleau ended up playing the majority of the rest of the season as the third-line center. His most frequent linemates were Matt Nieto and Joel Ward. While Marleau's possession numbers were solid while playing with Nieto, the fact of the matter is the combination couldn't score. Marleau spent 329:44 five-on-five minutes next to Nieto, his second-highest total among all his linemates. In those minutes, the team GF/60 was just 1.09. In the rest of Marleau's even-strength minutes, the Sharks' GF/60 was a full goal higher at 2.21.
Considering San Jose's increased scoring depth this year, Marleau will probably be a mainstay on the third line. He likely won't have to play with Nieto, who projects as more of a fourth-line forward this season. If Head Coach Pete DeBoer is wise, Marleau will start the year as a third-line winger alongside Tomas Hertl in the middle and top prospect Timo Meier on the opposite wing. Even if Hertl starts on the top line, Marleau will likely center a third line featuring Meier and free-agent addition Mikkel Boedker. Either way, Marleau will be playing alongside two tremendously skilled linemates against opposing team's third-pair defensemen. This is a recipe for major even-strength improvement.
Taking all this into consideration, my projection for Marleau is 30 goals, 34 assists for 64 points and an even-zero rating.