ANAHEIM — Andrew Cogliano was patiently listening to the question, and he didn’t like where it was going.
It was about three years into Cogliano’s NHL career — his seasonal points totals had gone from 45 to 38, to 28 — and my colleague, Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal, was asking/telling Cogliano that perhaps his niche would not be as a Top 6 centre after all.
“Do you think that maybe you could play like Todd Marchant? You know, that speedy checking forward. Kill some penalties, maybe as a winger….?”
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Cogliano was not warming to this concept — not even a little bit — around 2011. Today? Well, let’s just say ol’ Matty knew who Andrew Cogliano was going to be long before Andrew Cogliano knew who Andrew Cogliano was going to be.
“I’d love to have a career like Todd Marchant,” Cogliano says today.
Marchant, now the razor-sharp, 41-year-old Director of Player Development for Anaheim, chuckles.
“I think when he was drafted, (then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe) actually compared (Cogliano) to me. I think his exact words were, ‘He’s like Todd Marchant, but with better hands,’” Marchant said, leaning up against a wall at the event level of the Honda Center between Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Final.
Cogliano’s line, with Nate Thompson and Kyle Palmieri, scored twice in Anaheim’s 4-1 Game 1 victory. Among a galaxy of hockey stars in this series, they were inexplicably the best line on the ice.
“There are a lot of similarities, right?” continued Marchant of he and Cogliano. “Both about 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, can skate. For me, my hands never caught up to my legs, unfortunately, but we all have some sort of deficiency. But since Cogs has come in here and moved from centre to the wing, I think he’s settled into that type of role on this club. And everybody has to have a role.
“Everybody wants to be a top-six guy. Everybody wants to be on the power play. But when you look at teams that are successful, they’ve got guys that buy into a role that’s placed there for them. The more guys buy in, the more successful the team.”
Other than an elite few whose skills keep them on the top line from junior to pro, every player is eventually confronted by their own version of Jim Matheson. Of course, usually the coach figures it out before the sports writer does.
“I remember having a meeting with (Oilers coaches Tom Renney and Ralph Krueger) in training camp,” recalled Cogliano, who turns 28 in June. “They said, ‘You can be a guy who checks really well … but you need to be more of a two-way player.’ That was the first year where I started figuring things out.”
Today Cogliano stands as one that got away for the Oilers, a team that was never good enough to be able to exploit what he brings to the table. It’s unfathomable to watch him play today, with the NHL’s top Ironman streak of 622 games intact, and understand how Edmonton of all teams could trade him away for a second round pick.
Laugh at the Oilers all you want, but in Cogliano we are still talking about a third-line player. Calgary let Martin St. Louis get away, while Toronto had Alex Steen and Montreal had Ryan McDonagh — just three examples of players whose value was not recognized early enough.
“When you come in the league, I don’t think you really understand the game as much as I do now,” Cogliano said. “I was an offensive guy in college (Michigan) when I came out, but I was never where I needed to be as a player in terms of having success the way I have my last couple of years (in Anaheim).
“Actually, (Shawn) Horcoff taught me that when I was in Edmonton. He kept telling me, ‘You have to learn the game. Learn how to play PK. Learn to play the powerplay the odd time, and learn how to check. Because that’s the one way you’re going to stay in the league and have a long career.”
Today, Marchant is in charge of all the Ducks prospects whose career epiphany awaits them. All were stars on their way up through minor hockey, but most will have to be something less than that as a pro.
Clearly, he is the perfect mentor for this job description.
“At every level I played at, I produced,” Marchant recalls. “But when I went to Edmonton, right away I was playing with Bucky (Kelly Buchberger) and Thorny (Scott Thornton). I took MacT’s (Craig MacTavish’s) spot, the guy I was traded for … so that’s where I was going to play.”
This space isn’t long enough to list for you the players we’ve come across over the years whose skills were at an NHL level, but their lack of smarts never allowed them to apply those skills in the right places, as Marchant and Cogliano figured out.
“That’s sometimes the difference between a guy playing in the NHL and a guy playing in the minors — being willing to accept a role,” said Marchant, he of 1,195 NHL games and one Stanley Cup as a Duck in 2007, when he played left wing on a line with Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald.
“Slats (Glen Sather) told me one time: he said, ‘Find one thing you’re good at and be good at it.’ For me, it was playing a checking role. I didn’t have the natural finish to be a Top 6, as you wrote,” he said, referring to my days as an Edmonton Journal beat writer.
After a series of failed breakaway attempts in the 1997 playoffs I had written in The Journal, ‘Poor Todd Marchant, he couldn’t put the puck in the ocean from the end of the pier.’
“You weren’t wrong,” he said. “I had a stretch there when I must have had 10 or 12 breakaways in a four-game stretch and didn’t score on any of them.”
Then he scored the overtime winner in Game 7, his wheels having earned him that elusive 13th chance on goal that he somehow buried behind Andy Moog.
As for Cogliano, he’s a vital “Cog” in the Anaheim machine. Just a checking cog, that’s all.
“I wish I had the finishing ability of a guy like Perry or Getzy,” he laments. “If I did maybe we’d be talking a different role.”
And that thing about playing like Todd Marchant?
“At the end of the day Todd had a great career,” says Cogliano. “If I could play 1,200 games…?”
Sign him up.