Person of Interest: Who is Maple Leafs defenceman Alexey Marchenko?

Head coach Mike Babcock talks about Alexey Marchenko’s game and giant opportunity, as the defenceman is set to make his Maple Leafs debut.

In early February, the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed 25-year-old Russian defenceman Alexey Marchenko off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings.

Leafs fans had become very familiar with Corrado, either because of the running storyline around how little he actually played for the team or because of how vocal the analytically-inclined crowd was in support for him. But Marchenko is the new guy in town and with his debut set for Thursday night against the New York Rangers, who is he and what will he bring to the team?

Here’s a look at Alexey Marchenko:

WHY DID THE RED WINGS WAIVE HIM?
With Brendan Smith returning from injury, there was a log jam on Detroit’s blue line and something had to give. Marchenko hadn’t been in the lineup since Jan. 20. At that point, he became the odd man out as Niklas Kronwall came back from an injury of his own.

Meanwhile, the play of 23-year-old Xavier Ouellet and 26-year-old Nick Jensen left Marchenko on the outside looking in and the No. 1 option to waive with the hopes he’d be passed over and end up in the AHL.

WHERE DID HE COME FROM?
Marchenko was actually passed over the first year he was draft eligible, but was a seventh-round draft pick of Detroit’s (205th overall) in 2011. However, he didn’t come to North America for another two seasons. In the year he was drafted, Marchenko was playing with Krasnaya Armiya Moskva of Russia’s MHL, which is a junior league to the KHL. He wore an ‘A’ for that team, posted 38 points in 36 games and was named the league’s best defenceman as his squad won the league’s championship.

Marchenko missed almost all of the following season, including the WJC, with a knee injury but returned for the MHL playoffs where he led his team’s blue-liners in scoring as they reached the final again, but lost to Omskie Yastrebi.

In 2012-13, Marchenko played his first full season in the KHL with CSKA Moscow and scored nine points in 44 games. Here’s his first goal in the top Russian league:

Finally coming to the AHL in 2013-14, Marchenko was named part of the All-Star Game and scored 18 points in 49 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins. A high ankle sprain kept him from playing the full season again, but he earned a few games with the Detroit Red Wings over the next two seasons, finally sticking with the team in 2015-16 when he played 66 games and averaged 16:49 of ice time.

Marchenko was named to Team Russia at the World Cup in September and had a good showing playing alongside Dmitry Kulikov, although he didn’t record a point in the tournament.

“It is a good way to start out for this season,” Marchenko told the Detroit Free Press. “You play good competition right away. So I hope, like, I kind of improve everything, move quicker, think quicker. Overall, we’ll see on the ice how I do.

“I hope I can improve my role on the team. Play more minutes. Try to help win as much games as we can. Limit turnovers. Play better.”

This season, Marchenko was averaging 17:58 of ice time for the Wings and had six points (all assists) in 30 games.

WHAT KIND OF PLAYER IS HE?
At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Marchenko brings good size to the Maple Leafs blue line and is also noted as a mobile skater.

In a 2014 video, Red Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer said Marchenko’s career had been “very much underrated” coming out of Russia.

A Russian scout for the Red Wings who worked for CSKA Moscow recommended Detroit take Marchenko in the seventh round of 2011, one year after he had already gone undrafted in the NHL.

“He’s smart, he wants to get better, he can skate, he can make good outlet passes and decisions with the puck. He’s committed, he’s got some leadership in him, let’s give him a chance,” Fischer said.

Marchenko doesn’t project as a big scorer at all and he recognizes offence is not his best strength. His top job — which his next head coach Mike Babcock will love — is to get the puck to the forwards.

“I try to be smart on the ice, be in the right position, be smart defensively and make a good first pass to the forwards,” Marchenko once said about his game. “Give the puck to the best players on the ice and they’ll do their job. In the NHL all the forwards are great so I don’t think that I’m better than them offensively, so just give them the puck.”

The Wings had projected Marchenko to start out his NHL career as a third-pair defenceman, but eventually make it as a second-pair guy. Said Wings assistant GM Ryan Martin: “I like to compare him to a Brad Stuart type of defenceman. Just kind of a meat and potatoes guy you can count on every night, you know: block shots, play hard, make simple passes. And he’s hard to play against.”

HE LIKES TENNIS AND SOCCER
Marchenko said he enjoys playing tennis with his wife, who played for many years and still schools him in the sport now.

“It’s great to play against her. It’s good practice but I never beat her.”

He also said he enjoys fishing, but not that he’s “really into it” — he likes the calming atmosphere around it.

HE’S PLAYED WITH NIKITA ZAITSEV BEFORE
Although the two are the same age and both, at one point in their careers, played for CSKA Moscow, they never played on the KHL team at the same time. Zaitsev joined the team in the same year Marchenko came to play in the AHL.

They both also played for Russia in the World Cup, but weren’t on the same pair. However, at the 2016 World Championship, they were paired together, so there is some familiarity there.

MARCHENKO LIKELY MAKES POLAK EXPENDABLE
With the Leafs not expected to make any massive trades at the deadline (although it is possible they’ll surprise) the one player everyone expects to be shopped is Roman Polak, who suddenly becomes even more likely to move with the acquisition of Marchenko.

The other thing to consider is the expansion draft. One of the requirements there is each team must expose at least two forwards and one defenceman who have played 40 games the previous season, or 70 combined over the previous two seasons. It’s being called the 40/70 rule, and Marchenko would apply, so he gives the Leafs a qualified option to expose to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Marchenko comes with a cap hit of $1.45 million and is signed for another season beyond this one, after which he’ll become an RFA.

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