Patrick Marleau is ice cold in 2018

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When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75 million contract, even many of the deal’s proponents admitted that the team will probably wiggle out of that last year, somehow.

(Some of the arguments made sense, although the gymnastics could get a little tricky, as you can see from this Leafs Nation write-up by Ian Tulloch detailing a hypothetical future “trade.”)

Marleau probably made those proponents feel pretty great out of the gate, scoring two goals in his Leafs debut and five points in his first five games.

Things haven’t been going so well for Marleau lately, however; in fact, you could probably split his first Toronto season between “quite good” (24 points in 40 games from October through December) and “troubling” (two goals, zero assists in 15 games in 2018).

This lack of production isn’t due to poor opportunities, either.

So far in 2018, Marleau ranks third among Maple Leafs forwards in average ice time with 17:20 per game, including a few more seconds of power-play time per game than Auston Matthews. He’s not killing a ton of penalties (about 30 seconds per game) and is skating with some nice linemates, most often Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner as of late, according to Left Wing Lock.

Marleau’s usage is far from the only thing one could question about Mike Babcock’s deployment decisions, mind you, although he might be another example of a veteran player getting too many reps:

It makes you wonder if the Maple Leafs already regret the Marleau deal.

Really, that debate isn’t as important as a different one: when the playoffs roll around, will Babcock be willing to bump Marleau down in the lineup (or even make him a healthy scratch) if he remains ineffective?

Babcock has made waves by handing similar demotions to the likes of Marner, which can understandably be seen in part as “sending a message.”

A struggling Marleau (or Komarov, or other veterans) could stand in the way of a hungry, younger player who might be able to provide more of a boost. Players like Josh Leivo and Kasperi Kapanen must be growing antsy from a lack of opportunities, especially when Marleau is providing almost as many inspirational speeches as goals so far in 2018.

It’s easy to picture Marleau snapping out of this funk, and it’s not as though he’s the only Maple Leafs player who is struggling lately. Still, at 38, there’s also the chance that his tank is already approaching empty.

That’s a sad thought for a guy who wouldn’t be out of place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, yet the Maple Leafs must prioritize the present – not to mention the future – more than the past if they want to be a real threat in the playoffs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.