Jonathan Marchessault and teams that prioritize talent over tradition

Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad tells HC at Noon that management made a great decision appointing Derek MacKenzie as captain, because when he talks in the dressing room, everyone listens.

A trendy early-season story that’s been grabbing a lot of ledes in the first month of the season has been Jonathan Marchessault’s offensive explosion for the Florida Panthers. Stepping into the void left by Jonathan Huberdeau’s gruesome pre-season injury, Marchessault has done his part to make sure the team’s top line hasn’t missed a beat.

The trio has been dominant. They’ve been responsible for nearly 54 per cent of all shot attempts and 63 per cent of all goals scored whenever they’ve been on the ice during five-on-five play. While playing with a living legend and one of the league’s brightest young stars has surely helped make the transition seamless, Marchessault is currently in a dead heat for third in league scoring with a group of far more predictable names. Taking it a step further, he’s done most of that heavy lifting at even strength, where only Brad Marchand has more primary points.

PLAYER TEAM GOALS PRIMARY ASSISTS PRIMARY POINTS
Brad Marchand BOS 3 4 7
Auston Matthews TOR 5 1 6
Gustav Nyquist DET 3 3 6
Jonathan Marchessault FLA 4 2 6
Matt Duchene COL 5 1 6
Steven Stamkos TB 3 3 6
Alex Killorn TB 5 0 5
Brendan Gallagher MTL 3 2 5
Brent Burns SJ 3 2 5
Connor McDavid EDM 3 2 5
Evgeni Malkin PIT 5 0 5
James van Riemsdyk TOR 4 1 5
Joe Pavelski SJ 2 3 5
Max Pacioretty MTL 2 3 5
Ryan Getzlaf ANA 0 5 5

Odds are that, as is the case with most numbers this time of year, a portion of his surprise output is due to the usual early-season hijinks. Once the Panthers get healthy and things normalize, Marchessault’s production should come back down some.

None of which should distract from the reality that Florida pulled a fast one on the rest of the league this summer by making some shrewd low-risk, high-upside gambles on players like Marchessault and Colton Sceviour. While the rest of the competition was preoccupied with bigger names – more than $400 million were spent on 48 players switching teams on July 1 alone – the Panthers scooped up the pair for peanuts in comparison and now they’re reaping the rewards.

For the purposes of learning from past mistakes and growing, the questions the other 29 teams should be asking themselves are: a) “how come we weren’t in on him?” and b) “what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

A lot has been made of how the game has transitioned towards younger, faster and more skilled players. And that point is hammered home every night, by a more aesthetically pleasing product gracing the ice.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The trend has been slower to permeate through to the edges of lineups across the league. While face-punchers have been the primary casualties of the evolution of the sport, glorified “grinders” continue to hang on to roster spots.

NHL teams tend to be far too conservative with their approach from the top down. Whether it’s because they’re incentivized to do so or not, coaches seem intent on trying not to lose rather than trying to win — and that means trying to prevent goals against rather than actually trying to score them themselves.

It often shows in how they utilize the bottom end of the roster, where players who are deemed to be low-risk, low-event types will often undeservingly be fed playing time over better alternatives. A player who throws hits, blocks shots, and is physically “tough to play against” gets bottom-six opportunities because he fits the idea of what a bottom-six player should look like.

Or more aptly, used to look like.

It’s because of this typecasting that skill players who have some sort of deficiency in their game or appearance (read: a diminutive stature) have a tough time locking down regular playing time in the NHL. Unless their skill is undeniably great and they’re granted a top scoring role in the pecking order, it’ll be difficult for them to succeed because they’re not given the endless supply of chances that guys who look the part of hockey players are.

I’d imagine that’s in large part why it took until now for someone like Marchessault to finally get a full-time gig at this level, despite years of dominating the QMJHL and AHL. Despite his 5-foot-8 frame and limited NHL exposure, the reason he was a savvy acquisition for the Panthers is because he’s produced at a high level at every single stop. While it’s easy to become enamored with individual skills and physical traits, at the end of the day it’s important to remember that they’re all a means to an end. If the way a player looks or the compartmentalized things he can do aren’t translating into overall results, then does it even matter?

That’s also presumably why you see someone like Jeff Blashill, who by all accounts is an astute hockey mind, unable to trust a player like Andreas Athanasiou despite mounds of evidence that he’s one of his best available options. Athanasiou’s “risky” playing style keeps him buried on the depth chart (not only was he relegated to a fourth line role, but he actually sat in favour of Steve Ott a couple of times to start the year).

This presents a competitive advantage for teams that have been paying attention and are willing to break away from the mold of hockey conventions. The San Jose Sharks, for example, have shown no signs of slipping following their extended playoff run last Spring due in no small part to their ability to optimize their assets. By replacing noted defensive anchor Roman Polak with smooth-skating David Schlemko this summer, the Sharks don’t really appear to have a glaring weakness anywhere on their roster. Factor in that their fourth line is composed of Tommy Wingels, Melker Karlsson, and Matt Nieto, and they’re officially a nightmare for opponents to match up with because they don’t let up for the full 60 minutes.

The Panthers, likewise, look like they’ll be a problem for the rest of the Eastern Conference once they get healthy. If key contributors Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau, and Jussi Jokinen re-enter the mix, the Panthers will be rolling four lines that can all score and keep opponents on their heels.

Whether it comes in a leading role or more of a complementary one, Marchessault figures to be a big part of this team. Regardless of who he plays with or where in the lineup he fits, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to continue succeeding and put up numbers.

He’s a good example that unless something fundamentally changes the best predictor of future NHL success will always be past success at the lower levels. Teams will eventually start wising up to the fact that it’s foolish to expect players who haven’t produced against weaker competition to suddenly start doing so when going up against the best players in the world.

Even before this season Marchessault hadn’t given us any reason to believe he wouldn’t thrive in the NHL. This is just the next logical step.