TORONTO -- When Patrick Marleau decided to leave the San Jose Sharks after 19 seasons to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 2, it caught many people unaware, including former teammates.
"Definitely pretty surprised," Sharks forward Joel Ward said at BioSteel Camp on Tuesday. "I was hoping he would stay, for sure. He was a big help for us, on and off the ice. It's definitely going to be a big blow for us."
Marleau, who turns 38 on Sept. 15, signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract (average annual value $6.25 million) with the Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent after having spent his entire NHL career with the Sharks.
Florida Panthers defenseman Jason Demers, who was Marleau's teammate from 2009-14, said he was nearly speechless when he found out the veteran forward was leaving San Jose.
"That was crazy," Demers said. "For him to make that decision, I know him well personally and I know that was probably the biggest decision of his career. I don't think anybody understands on the outside how big of a decision that was for him. … In my head, after talking to him a little bit, I thought he was going to stay, but I think him and his family discussed it and I think it's going to be a great thing for him."
On July 27, Marleau's wife, Christina, tweeted a picture of Patrick and their four sons, aged 2-10, in Maple Leafs jerseys.
Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock each has mentioned Marleau's exceptional speed as a primary reason they feel he will be a valuable addition to a lineup filled with fast players.
"Playing alongside those guys in Toronto, they're going to be real fast," Demers said. "It's going to be fun seeing him more than twice a year (now that he's in the Eastern Conference), but it's going to [stink] because now I've got to try to defend him more than twice a year."
Ward, who was Marleau's teammate the past two seasons, said he has yet to see Marleau lose a step, despite having played 1,493 NHL games.
Video: F Patrick Marleau signs 3-year deal with Maple Leafs
"Yeah, he is (that fast)," Ward said. "I've seen it firsthand, so for the fans in Toronto, you can expect a guy who can really move but even a better guy off the ice. His work ethic is tremendous. In the gym, he is one of the strongest, and on the ice, he is one of the fastest guys leading the drills."
Marleau had 46 points (27 goals, 19 assists) in 82 games last season.
Early in his NHL career, Demers said Marleau often would give him advice.
"We just had a great group of veterans who'd take me aside when things were going bad," Demers said. "The coaches never had to say anything because guys like Marleau was the first one to give me praise or to tell me to pick it up and get moving. When a guy who is a future Hall of Famer is telling you that, it holds a little more weight than if a coach is saying it to you. It was just great playing with him."
Demers expects Marleau to have a similar impact in Toronto, where he will support its young core, including centers Auston Matthews, who turns 20 on Sept. 17, Mitchell Marner, 20, and William Nylander, 21.
"He's a great teammate. He's always happy when he comes into the room and a really great mentor to young guys," Demers said. "He took me under his wing. They're going to be happy with him."