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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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It was the trade Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas had to make.

Early Saturday afternoon, Toronto traded veteran winger Patrick Marleau, a conditional first-round draft pick in 2020 and a seventh-round selection in 2020 to the Carolina Hurricanes, in exchange for a 2020 sixth-round pick. 

The condition on that first-round draft selection hinges on whether it’s a top-10 choice for the Leafs in 2020, and if so, Carolina will receive Toronto’s 2021 first-round pick instead.

The move freed up $6.25 million in cap space for the Leafs this season, room they desperately need to finalize deals for restricted free agents Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, and to help bolster a lagging defence corps. While it hasn't been announced yet, the NHL salary cap is expected to be between $81.5 and $82 million next season, with Toronto now at approximately $14.04 million in space per Cap Friendly.

Marleau, 39, has been the subject of trade rumours since Toronto’s season ended in disappointing fashion in April, with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first-round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The exorbitant cap hit on the final season of his three-year, $18.75 million contract (coupled with a no movement clause) projected to tie the Leafs’ hands as they tried to improve for the coming year. 

Ultimately, Marleau had to waive his NMC in order for the trade with Carolina to go through, and all signs point towards the winger trying to reunite with the San Jose Sharks in free agency next month. Marleau played 19 seasons with the Sharks from 1997-2017, leaving as a free agent to sign for the Leafs in July 2017. TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun reports that while the Hurricanes will try to convince Marleau to play for them, the team will buy him out if necessary and Marleau can make a run at the Sharks again as a free agent.

With Marleau off the books now, Toronto does have some breathing room as negotiations continue with Marner on what could be an extension worth upwards of $10 million per season. ​And it could also allow the Leafs to address their gaping holes on the blue line, potentially with the re-signing of pending unrestricted free agent defenceman Jake Gardiner or via another trade. The Leafs had shown interest on Friday in acquiring veteran defenceman P.K. Subban from Nashville, but they couldn't afford to take on the entirety of his $9 million cap hit, and the Predators dealt Subban to New Jersey on Saturday instead. At the moment, Toronto has only Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, Nikita Zaitsev and Muzzin under contract  from amongst their top-six defencemen at the end of last season, but Zaitsev has previously requested a trade, and Dermott will be out until at least November following shoulder surgery

Still, the move came at a price. After trading away their 2019 first-round pick in last January’s trade for Jake Muzzin, the Leafs will now in all likelihood be without a first-rounder again next spring, as they got rid of a forward who can still contribute. Marleau scored 27 goals in his first season with the Leafs, and followed that up with a 37-point campaign (16 goals, 21 assists) last year. Not only that, Marleau provided incomparable leadership in the Leafs’ room, serving as an alternate captain in 2018-19 and mentoring the likes of Marner and Auston Matthews

When Matthews was asked this week about the possibility of Marleau being traded, he told TSN’s Brent Wallace, “If it happens, it will be pretty sad. He’s meant a lot to me. He’s someone I can talk to about anything, whether it’s hockey or life in general. He’s been through it all. He’s been unbelievable for myself, for Mitch.”

Marleau also released a statement via his wife Christina’s Twitter account, thanking Matthews and Marner in particular for the years they spent together. 

Ironically, the Leafs’ primary motivation in trading Marleau was to try and keep its young core intact, while Marleau had his own family to think about in this process. After last season ended, Marleau put his clan’s North Toronto estate on the market for over $11 million, a sign he had all but made his peace with what was to come, and how a trade might allow for a return to California. 

“In the end, this [trade] is one of the things he wanted for his family,” Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock told NHL Network on Saturday. “We wish him luck. He had an impact on us. I don't think we have John Tavares without Patrick Marleau, he was a big part of the recruiting process [last July].”​