1,000 games. In NHL terms, that's just a little over 12 82-game seasons. How many people do you know that have been at the same employer for more than 12 years -- successfully and fairly happily to boot?
With all due respect to Jamie Langenbrunner, who hit the 1,000 game mark yesterday as well, it's a bit shocking to think a guy like Patrick Marleau played in his 1,000th game, all as a San Jose Shark. The 1997 #2 draft pick, Marleau's career arc seems to have defined the Sharks, even when he hasn't. Consider when he first broke in as a gawky 18-year-old, the team itself was devoid of talent and desperately needed goals from anyone not named Owen Nolan. With ball-busting new coach Darryl Sutter in town to try and whip this meandering bunch of wet-behind-the-ears kids and not-so-wily veterans into shape, the Sharks were past the "We're just happy to be here" phase and needed an identity.
Over those first few seasons, Marleau -- like the Sharks -- flashed occasional moments of greatness, his share of face-palming groans, and plenty of growing pains on his way to becoming a respectable NHL player. The team itself became known more for Owen Nolan's gritty play and Darryl Sutter's even grittier scowl. And when enough talent finally filled out the roster in the early 2000s with an emerging Marleau and Marco Sturm flanking Nolan, Vincent Damphousse, and Teemu Selanne, the Sharks once again followed Marleau's career path -- good, but not great, and never seemingly able to tap consistently into all that skill to get to the promised land.
During the Ron Wilson era, Marleau was once again just a bit left of the spotlight. In 03-04, he captained a fairly no-name team (Nils Ekman? Alyn McCauley? Wayne Primeau?) to the Western Conference Final, and following the NHL lockout, media focus spent much more time on Joe Thornton (and for some time, Jonathan Cheechoo). Even after All-Star nominations and stints for Team Canada, Marleau just quietly did his job, and only a few people really seemed to notice.
Was this because of the west-coast coverage that was inherent with being a career Shark? Or just part of the quiet, controlled personality he presented to the media? In a parallel universe, Marleau played 1,000 games in the Eastern Conference, perhaps even for a media-hungry Canadian team; I'd love to jump through a wormhole and see if that Marleau reacted to the spotlight under different circumstances or if he maintained the same even-keeled persona that San Jose has seen for more than a decade.
In some ways, Marleau's style of game is similar to this person. Blessed with immense speed, a hard shot, and better playmaking skills than most people give him credit for, Marleau's highlight reel doesn't include gaudy Alex Ovechkin-esque moves. And he certainly can't match the thread-the-needle passes of teammate Joe Thornton, nor does he create check-your-skates dekes that someone like Pavel Datsyuk can do. No, most of Marleau's goals are sharp but not stunning, a combination of the tools he brings but never oozing with did-you-see-that? talent. They're consistent, effective, with just a touch of flash -- kind of like Marleau himself. That's not to mention how he's gradually rounded out his game, transforming from a soft one-dimensional speedster to someone who has become one of San Jose's go-to penalty killers over the past few years, along with being strong at face-offs.
Patrick Marleau's 1,000 career games come with some fairly gaudy numbers despite the slow start to his career, including 338 goals. Should he have a strong finish to this season and play to expectations next season, there's a slight chance he may hit 400 goals in the 2011-12 campaign; if not then, he'll certainly achieve that milestone the year after. In fact, if the durable, speedy forward plays long enough, 500 goals is a possibility. Had the NHL lockout not occurred, this achievement would be inevitable.
That nugget in itself is enough to make many NHL pundits take a step back. Patrick Marleau and 500 goals? And yet, that seems to be the way his entire career has gone -- it's been stellar, but always in the shadow of someone else, be it Owen Nolan or Joe Thornton. Never exactly the most vocal person, Marleau's under-the-radar career has hampered his reputation at times, most notably during his stint as Sharks captain, but his quiet consistency just kept plugging away, a slow career ramp-up to cruising speed that potted 25+ goals season after season. Even in this year's sub-par campaign, Marleau should still eclipse the 30-goal mark, and depending on how things go, approach 35-40 if he gets on a hot streak.
Now 31, Marleau should still have a few seasons of strong productivity left, followed by the inevitable tailing off that so many aging star players go through. At best, he'll probably finish up with around 500 goals and 600 assists over 1,500 games. Those are some pretty hefty numbers for a career, and yet when it's all said and done, I'm guessing there will be plenty of people who won't realize quite how many accomplishments Marleau's put up. That's what happens when you have a great stats and great skill but are always just in the shadow of someone or something else, be it a teammate or the team itself. And yet, given what we know of Marleau's quiet, guarded persona, I'm guessing he's ok with that.