When the Toronto Maple Leafs began pursuing Patrick Marleau in free agency, coach Mike Babcock didn't write the veteran forward into the lineup with young talents Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander just yet.
"You're hoping like crazy," Babcock said. "But you don't think you've got a sniff, right?"
Marleau had been with the San Jose Sharks for two decades, since they took him No. 2 in the 1997 NHL Draft. He is their leader in games played (1,493), goals (508) and points (1,082). He and his wife had four sons 11 and under.
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Was Marleau really going to leave the only team he had ever known? Was he really going to move his family from home?
But Babcock had coached Marleau with Canada in two Olympics, winning gold in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. He, general manager Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan recruited Marleau hard.
And Sunday they got him. Marleau signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract.
"I think I've worn out a few carpets pacing around the house and trying to make this decision over the last couple days," Marleau said. "But I'm extremely excited and happy to be part of the Maple Leafs organization. It's definitely an honor to be able to call myself a Maple Leaf, obviously being a Canadian-born player.
"This decision took me quite a while to come to. But I've made it and I'm happy with it, and I can't wait to get started."
Video: F Patrick Marleau signs 3-year deal with Maple Leafs
This makes the Maple Leafs better in the short term and signals Toronto has become a premier destination again in the big picture, after Matthews, Marner and company made the Stanley Cup Playoffs and put a scare in the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference First Round.
"We think Toronto's a spectacular city," Babcock said. "We think it's an unbelievable situation because of the skill level we have already and the youth we have. I think it's going to be the fountain of youth for him. He's going to arrive here and be energized by all these kids. He won't even believe how young they are, for crying out loud.
"And I think it'll be exciting for his family. There's great minor-hockey programs in Toronto that he can get his kids involved with and enjoy that process too. So we're excited to have him to say the least."
Marleau turns 38 on Sept. 15, so the obvious concern is the money and term. Nylander, 21, the eighth pick in 2014, will start his second contract in the second year of Marleau's deal. Matthews, 19, the first pick in 2016 and reigning winner of the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and Marner, 20, the fourth pick in 2015, will start their second contracts in the third year of Marleau's deal. Defenseman Jake Gardiner, 26, the 17th pick in 2008, is set to be an unrestricted free agent before that season too.
But the Maple Leafs had to outbid other suitors, including the Sharks, and now was the time.
"We won't be able to do this in a year or so, but we have the room and flexibility to do it and not interrupt the process that we have in place, understanding where our young players are and where they will be," Lamoriello said. "You only have one chance to do something like this, and we would not have done it if it was not the right player. The timing is perfect."
Marleau seems a relatively safe bet. He has not missed a game in each of the past eight seasons and only 31 regular-season games during his 19 NHL seasons. Although his points per game has declined in the past three seasons from 0.70 to 0.59 to 0.56, his goals per game has climbed from 0.23 to 0.30 to 0.33. He's coming off a 27-goal season.
"Have you seen him skate?" Babcock asked.
He can still fly. He can play in all situations. Remember that Babcock used him as a checker on his stacked Olympic teams, so he would trust him in a defensive role.
"Even if he doesn't score the goals, he can skate," Babcock said. "He can play against the best people and do it right every night. So there's lots of things [Marleau] can do, but this is what I can tell you: When he walks in the rink each and every day, he's going to do it right. He's not going to say nothing."
Don't discount the quiet leadership. When Babcock took over as coach of the Detroit Red Wings in 2005, they had veterans like Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom to mentor the next generation of Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg. When Babcock took over the Maple Leafs in 2015, they didn't have anyone like that to mentor their young players.
On Saturday they signed two veteran free agents: defenseman Ron Hainsey to a two-year, $6 million contract, and center Dominic Moore to a one-year, $1 million contract. And now they have Marleau.
"Come on," Babcock said. "It's fantastic. He's just a good, good hockey player who does it right. I mean, I don't know. I can't even believe it, to be honest with you. I'm thrilled for us."