Meet Jonathan Marchessault, the NHL’s best bargain

Sidney Crosby scored in his return to the lineup and the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Florida Panthers.

Scan the list of top 10 NHL scorers and one name will have you reaching for Google: “Who is Jonathan Marchessault?”

Squished between Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko on the league’s leaderboard, the 5-foot-9 Florida Panthers centre would’ve painted you a liar if you told him he’d have three goals and five assists through six games and be on pace for a 110-point campaign in the NHL.

The early success of the undrafted, bargain-bin free agent is one of the season’s happiest shocks. Yet bucking assumptions is so habitual for Marchessault, maybe we should’ve seen this coming.

“Every year I was a surprise. I fuel off people that don’t believe,” Marchessault told Sportsnet this week. “Every year, nobody thought I was going to do good. Every year, nobody thought I was going to make that team, make junior, make pro, make AHL, make NHL. It wasn’t the easiest path I had, but it was a different one. I made it here.”

Here is flying on one of the best trios in hockey and hugging Jaromir Jagr and razzing Roberto Luongo after dekeing him in practice. Here is seeing his ice time leap from 12:05 in Tampa Bay to 17:52 in Sunrise, Fla. Here is a 12 per cent increase in offensive zone starts and power-play opportunities aplenty.

The most dangerous line the quick, undersized 25-year-old has ever skated on features Aleksander Barkov and Jagr, two 6-foot-3 monsters.

“Barkov’s probably the best guy I’ve ever played with. Jagr’s really good down low, and there’s good communication,” says Marchessault, beaming. “It’s been good, but I think we have a lot of room to improve.”

A scary thought, considering Marchessault is a substitute for his injured friend — another Quebec forward named Jonathan — whose damaged Achilles tendon may keep him off the ice until January.

“I wish he wasn’t filling in for Huberdeau, but we’ve got no choice,” says Panthers coach Gerard Gallant with a wink. “Marchessault’s one of those guys who’s given an opportunity and he’s making the most of it. He always wanted to be a top-line guy. He wanted to take advantage of it, and so far he’s done that.”

Gallant remembers coaching against “Marchy” when he was a 40-goal threat with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts — “same type of player: dangerous, skilled, talented, small but quick” — and both he and Panthers president Dale Tallon liked what they saw whenever Florida battled Tampa.

“They have the same 11 guys there now for three years,” Marchessault says of the Lightning. “They believe in them, they’ve been winning with them, so when a new guy like me comes in like last year, it’s hard to move someone from the roster. I don’t think it’s because I wasn’t playing good. I think I earned the right to be there, but it’s how things go.”

Loved in the room but unable to crack Jon Cooper’s airtight top nine, Marchessault inked a two-year deal with the state’s other club for a mere $750,000 per season.

“It’s been a wonderful find for us. A third of our top-nine guys are out, with Huberdeau and [Nick] Bjugstad and [Jussi] Jokinen. It’s difficult for us, so we need his offence,” Tallon told Sportsnet.

“He’s real tricky and good down low. Sees the ice well. He’s not the biggest guy. Some guys slip through the cracks. Some guys are late bloomers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to not get drafted.”

Born two days after Christmas in Cap-Rouge, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault — a hyphenated son of a hyphenated town — grew up emulating his dad and older brother on outdoor rinks.

“That was probably the best time of my life,” he says. “I’m from Quebec, huh? That’s pretty much all people do over there is play hockey.”

(Once he married, Marchessault dropped the “Audy” so his two-year-old son, James, and one-year-old daughter, Victoria, could take his wife’s surname. The threat of quadruple-hyphenated humans is real.)

So what if, as a 16-year-old, he didn’t get picked by the Remparts until the 12th round? Who cares if his pro career began five years ago in Connecticut and bounced through Springfield, Columbus, Syracuse and Tampa before Huberdeau’s bad luck landed him here?

Marchessault says he never once thought of giving up, pulling inspiration from small successes Martin St. Louis and David Desharnais.

When the NHL Draft rolled through Montreal in 2009, Marchessault attended knowing full well he had as good a chance of getting selected as Trump does. He went to support his best friend, Alex Chiasson, and had a blast seeing his buddy go to Dallas in the second round.

“I’m not a guy that gets jealous. I’m a guy that’s happy for other guys’ success,” Marchessault says. “Your time’s going to shine at some point.”

The Panthers’ leading scorer says he wants to be a role model for the little guys, and he already is for James. Marchessault’s son is addicted to mini sticks. He’s old enough now that he comes to the rink and sees Dad work.

“My wife doesn’t have to bring toys or nothing,” Marchessault says. “He’ll just be watching. He loves it.”

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