Jonathan Marchessault rubs his chin and ponders the number of times he’s been told he would never make it to the NHL. He figures it started when he was about 12 and has been pretty much a relentless barrage ever since.
“Every year they didn’t see me there,” Marchessault said. “They never thought I would have such production. They never thought I would make the team at the next level. I like it. I’m used to it.”
Perhaps it will stop now, 13 years later, because the 25-year-old Marchessault is not only proving he belongs in the NHL, but that he can thrive when given an opportunity to succeed. A two-goal performance for the Florida Panthers in a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night gave him five on the year and 10 points in seven games and put him, at least for the time being, in a three-way tie for second place in the NHL scoring race, just one point behind Connor McDavid. Not bad for a guy who was brought in for the paltry sum of $750,000 to play the third line and provide some secondary offense.
Now before we get ahead of ourselves here, nobody is expecting that trend to sustain itself over an 82-game season. But then again, Marchessault is used to people telling him what he can’t do. Part of the reason for his success is he’s being put in a position to succeed and getting quality ice time, something he was never able to get in three years with the Tampa Bay Lightning. An torn Achilles to Jonathan Huberdeau that has put him out of the lineup for at least three months placed Marchessault on the left side of a Huberdeau’s unit with Aleksander Barkov at center and Jaromir Jagr on the right side and he has made the most of the opportunity. That line was an extremely successful one for the Panthers last season and Panthers coach Gerard Gallant made it clear that Marchessault is keeping Huberdeau’s place on that line warm until he gets back.
“I wish (Huberdeau) was back and I wish I had the problem,” Gallant said when asked what Marchessault’s fate would be when Huberdeau returns. “He’s not Huberdeau yet.”
And he probably never will be Huberdeau, but he’s clearly a fit on this Panther team and deserves huge kudos for not frittering away what is a wonderful opportunity. He never seemed to be a permanent fit with the Lightning, not for a lack of trying, but simply because the Lightning are loaded up front. So when Marchessault became a Group VI free agent this summer – being a 25-year-old with three years of pro experience and fewer than 80 NHL games – it was nothing personal. Marchessault could have stayed in Tampa and taken a one-way deal and continued to try to find his place there. But he essentially bet on himself and took a contract with a team that would offer him a chance to play on the top three lines.
“I did that. I always bet on myself,” Marchessault said. “And I always knew I could do the job. It was just a matter of time.”
It’s not as though Marchessault is uncomfortable playing an offensive role. He was a 12th-round pick of the Quebec Remparts, then went on to score 98 goals and 239 points in 254 career games with the Quebec League team. Only seven players in that draft were picked after Marchessault, but he’s only one of 12 from that draft class to have played NHL games so far. And it would not be a stretch to predict that when all is said and done, he might be the most offensively productive one from that draft at the NHL level. As far as being drafted to the NHL, forget it. Not much interest in 5-foot-9 guys, so Marchessault had to take the route less travelled, signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who seemed to have little use for them beyond being a minor leaguer, which says more about the Blue Jackets than it does Marchessault.
“When you get a chance to play with the guys he’s playing with, you get a lot of offensive opportunities,” Gallant said. “He was a scorer in junior, he was a scorer in the American League and he’s getting the chance to play and he’s earned that chance. We brought him in to basically be a third-line player to add some depth.”
Marchessault will ride this wave while it lasts, but you get the sense that he has finally found his place at the NHL level. He holds no ill will toward the Lightning and understands the situation. Even playing so close to the Lightning now he feels no need to prove to them that they might have erred in not keeping him, although they tried. Tampa Bay wanted him back, but could not provide him with the opportunity he wanted and needed.
“In life you make your chances,” Marchessault said. “If you work hard, good things will happen to you. It’s a process. I’m just trying to bring my highest level every night and be able to help our team to win.