If you’re lucky enough to have a 30-goal scorer under contract for $750,000, you don’t just let him walk away … do you?
Yet that is precisely what the Florida Panthers did when they left found-money Jonathan Marchessault — Exhibit A in the club’s shortlist of money-puck victories and arguably the entire league’s best bargain in 2016-17 — exposed to Vegas in June’s expansion draft.
Drafting Marchessault was the equivalent of doubling down on 11, a no-brainer for Golden Knights general manager George McPhee. A chunk of Panthers fans, understandably, were angered and shocked.
The player himself — an undrafted, undersized, undeterred inspiration tale wrapped in a Quebecois accent — doesn’t quite get it, either. But he caught no feelings and holds no grudges with the club that gave him a shot to break out.
“I don’t know [why I wasn’t protected]. I was surprised also,” Marchessault said at the NHLPA’s charity golf tournament in Oakville, Ont., Wednesday.
“I tried to give everything I had last year. Everyone was asking me if I’m going to get protected or not. My answer was, ‘I gave everything I had. I have no regrets.’ ”
Soon after Florida’s exposed list was revealed, Marchessault gained assurance from his agent that Vegas would likely scoop him up. Once McPhee called the forward a day prior to the draft, a relieved Marchessault told his wife and planned a little viewing party.
“I had a lot of friends over to watch the draft, but I knew already. I tried to keep it low-key for my friends to have a surprise, but my wife and family knew,” he said.
“I want to have a bigger role, and I think they’re ready to give me that kind of role, but I just have to respond.”
Twisting opportunity into prosperity is embedded in the 26-year-old’s DNA. Forever told he was too small to move up, the five-foot-nine playmaker was hoping for any pro gig and exploring options in Europe when, in 2011, he got a look in the AHL and eventually impressed enough to rise to the big leagues, albeit as a fringe player on a contending team.
Already blessed with plenty of young forwards, the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t renew Marchessault’s contract last summer. He’d performed OK but only squeezed into 45 games and was a frequent healthy scratch.
The Panthers pounced.
Stars aligned when a star fell. Stud winger Jonathan Huberdeau suffered a serious leg injury and Marchessault began 2016-17 on Florida’s top line.
“He was huge. I got hurt, and he took my spot on the line with [Aleksander] Barkov and [Jaromir] Jagr. Soon as he came, he was unbelievable,” Huberdeau says.
“Thirty goals—nobody expected that. He did. He was confident, and he’s a good guy. I was really happy for him that he took advantage of the injuries and had more ice time.”
So, why did Florida deem Marchessault expendable?
Number crunchers can point to his abnormally high shooting percentage (15.54), which topped all Cats and would be nearly impossible to sustain.
Or perhaps GM Dale Tallon & Co. recognized the flaws in Marchessault’s defensive game. Curiously, he led the team in goals and registered the worst plus/minus among its forwards (-21).
Most likely, however, is Tallon’s preference to protect his young D core for the future. Florida was in the minority in that it protect four defencemen: Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic, Mark Pysyk and Keith Yandle.
A restricted free agent, Pysyk was promptly re-signed to a three-year, $8.2-million contract. Petrovic (RFA 2018) should cash in next summer.
“If you look at the guys who were protected, they’re all great hockey players. It was a hard decision, I’m sure, for them,” Marchessault said.
“You can’t take it personally. It’s a business. The Panthers are trying to be the best team possible.”
Florida’s value pickup becomes Vegas’s, and Marchessault — who’s been to his new home twice before, on vacation of course — will enter another contract year assured of top-six opportunity.
The lottery-bound McPhee can either enjoy his low-cost scoring punch or rent him at the trade deadline to a banged-up contender already tight to the salary cap.
In Vegas this fall, Marchessault will meet up with familiar Florida men in traded forward Reilly Smith and fired coach Gerard Gallant. He says he improves every year and that his Knighthood should be no different.
“A great city. It is buzzing, I would say,” Marchessault beamed.
“Hopefully we can bring our A-game right off the bat and surprise the hockey world.”
Wouldn’t be the first time.