Peter DeBoer should have known better.
He heard the stories of how Patrick Marleau and longtime Sharks teammate Joe Thornton trained in the off-season well before he got to San Jose. Still, he was amazed at how the 40-year-old Marleau jumped back on to the ice after no training camp and scored twice in his first game.
"I know what an athlete he is and how great of shape he keeps himself in," DeBoer said. "It still is an amazing feat."
Marleau is one of a handful of NHL players who missed camp and exhibition games but haven't missed a beat early in the season. Winnipeg's Patrik Laine, Tampa Bay's Brayden Point and Colorado's Mikko Rantanen were restricted free agents who didn't sign until late September and they are also off to hot starts.
Laine has 12 points in 10 games for the Jets, and Point is a point-a-game guy in his first five games this season with the Lightning. Rantanen was tied with Avalanche linemate Nathan MacKinnon for the team lead with 12 points in nine games, a big reason Colorado won seven of its first nine. Rantanen left Monday's game against St. Louis with a lower-body injury.
Rantanen practiced with a team in his native Finland in the weeks before signing a $55.5 million, six-year contract with Colorado. That intensity of training gave coach Jared Bednar confidence to hand Rantanen big minutes right away.
"(Getting) a couple weeks with a team and skating and do practices drills and 5-on-5 drills, I think that kept him sharp and he was able to come back in and pick up right where he left off," Bednar said.
Laine followed a similar path, skating with a Swiss team to stay in shape before negotiations culminated with a $13.5 million, two-year contract. The Finn has nine assists to go along with three goals as he rounds out his offensive game.
Rantanen has five goals and seven assists and looked like his old self before the scary injury in St. Louis.
Things clicked right away for Marleau, who after two seasons in Toronto returned to the place he played his first 19 years in the NHL. He has three points in four games, and the Sharks are 3-1 since Marleau came back.
"I'm focusing on trying to get up to speed and help my teammates out, help my linemates out as much as possible," Marleau said. "I got off to a good start, got a good couple wins. There's still a lot of room for improvement."
The Sharks needed a boost after a handful of injuries compounded the problem of rushing young players into big roles. Marleau isn't in his prime, but he is a familiar face and a skilled forward who knows DeBoer's system.
"It allowed you to plug a guy in in your top six that the players in your top six are happy to play with," DeBoer said. "Good players want to play with good players, and good players want to play with guys that they know they can rely on and trust and understand where they're supposed to be on the ice at what time of the game. It's made a big difference."
Marleau still isn't sure he's in a regular-season rhythm yet, but it's no accident he was able to make a difference right away. Despite not having a contract after being traded from Toronto to Carolina and bought out, Marleau skated at the Sharks' practice facility and a rink in San Mateo, California, and worked with Sharks strength coach Mike Potenza in case a team came calling for his services.
If Marleau plays in 77 games this season, he will pass Jaromir Jagr for the most in league history.
Unlike Laine, Point and Rantanen, who were going to sign eventually, Marleau had no way of knowing if his career was over, making the strong start to his 22nd season all the more impressive.
"It was a battle, for sure," Marleau said. "I haven't missed a training camp in I don't know how long. It was uncharted territory for myself, so I have to thank my family, my wife and kids for putting up with me. There's a lot of highs and lows. Going through that, you're just trying to focus on what I can control and one of the things I could do was work out and stay in shape and just mentally try and be ready for when that call does come."
As the Sharks try again for their first Stanley Cup championship, DeBoer isn't easing Marleau in and expects the veteran forward to be a substantial piece for San Jose yet again.
"He's got a great brain for the game, he's right on top of things," DeBoer said. "I think the expectation is he comes in and what he told me is he's going to give us whatever he's got in whatever role we give him. Early that's been a pretty big role. I don't see that probably changing."
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