With the Rangers heading into the Mojave to take on the Vegas Golden Knights on their upcoming road trip, now seems like a good time to take a look at how Vegas has defied the odds to become far and away the NHL’s best expansion team in the last 50 years. The 2017 Expansion Draft was set up unlike any of the previous eleven, as Golden Knights’ general manager George McPhee had an unprecedented number of quality players to choose from to construct Vegas’ initial roster.
In spite of some highly questionable choices, McPhee managed to assemble one of the better the rosters in the league from the other team’s scraps. Part of his success stems from taking chances on some team’s under utilized players, with formerly no-name players like William Karlsson, Erik Haula and Malcolm Subban thriving in crucial roles that their former teams never could have or would have given them. Another facet of McPhee’s success was capitalizing on other team’s bad situations, which allowed him to land high-end talent like James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury. Most of Vegas’ selections and trades fell into one of those categories, but one particular transaction fell into both.
Enter the Florida Panthers and their President of Hockey Operations, Dale Tallon.
During the course of a 2016-17 season ravaged by injuries throughout the team’s roster, Tallon won a power struggle within the organization to regain his previous position as the team’s general manager, and reclaimed final say over the team’s transactions that he had lost after the 2015-16 season. Tallon, an old school hockey man credited with laying the foundation for the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty, wasn’t a fan of his predecessor’s acquisitions that appeared to be analytically inclined and made reversing those moves his top priority.
He nearly re-acquired rugged rearguard Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks after the team had traded him away 14 months earlier, but that deal fell through. Rumors swirled that Keith Yandle, Florida’s second highest paid skater, was asked to waive his no-movement clause for the expansion draft. He left Jason Demers exposed in the expansion draft, and later retained 12.5% of his contract to ship him out of town. All of those decisions pale in comparison to his handling of Jonathan Marchessault.
Marchessault arrived in the Sunshine State on July 1st, 2016 after Tallon initially lost clout within the organization and was kicked upstairs. As part of Florida’s analytically driven bargain bin shopping, they inked Marchessault to a one-way, two year, $1.5 million contract. After scoring 30 goals and 51 points and emerging as the surprise player of the 16-17 campaign, Tallon opted to leave Marchessault unprotected in exchange for trading a 4th round pick for Reilly Smith.
To recap that, Florida willingly gave away a 30 goal, 50 point player under contract for another season at six figures and a serviceable middle-six forward who’d scored in the range of 37-51 points in each of the last four seasons for a draft pick that’s going land in the area of 115th. Not exactly the type of asset management that turns perennial losers like Florida into Stanley Cup contenders.
Moving past the Panthers, the saga in Florida wasn’t the first time Marchessault had been underappreciated by NHL teams. In fact, Marchessault’s entire career up until this point has been a fight to be recognized and for someone to take a chance on his talents. After entering the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts as a 12th round selection in the 2007 draft, Marchessault went undrafted three times during his major junior career, as he heard the names of 632 of his peers called on the draft floors in Montreal, Los Angeles, and Minnesota before his NHL draft eligibility ran out. His point production would have normally warranted a late round selection, but scouts from all 30 teams weren’t willing to take a chance on the Quebec-born, 5’9” forward.
From there, Marchessault skated for the Rangers’ squad at the 2011 Traverse City tournament and signed a contract with their AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale, for the 2011-12 season. In spite of leading the team with 64 points in his lone season with the Whale, the Rangers never entered serious discussions about an NHL deal with him, and Marchessault felt the organization didn’t offer him the best chance at a future in the NHL:
After getting 24 goals and a team-high 40 assists in his rookie pro season, Audy-Marchessault said he received four offers as soon as the free-agent signing period started July 1. He said he didn’t get an immediate offer from the Rangers but had talked with them after the Whale was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals, who included one of the Whale’s new players, veteran right wing Brandon Segal.
“I didn’t leave because of the money,” said Audy-Marchessault, who high-fived and chatted with several of his former teammates. “The offers were about the same, but I thought I had a better chance to make the NHL with Columbus. I loved the Rangers organization, very classy, but I had to think of it as a business. I knew I would make my mark again with the Whale, but it’s everyone’s dream to play in the NHL, and I thought I had a better chance with the Blue Jackets.”
Those comments came in an article from a Whale pre-season game before the 12-13 season kicked off. The same 12-13 season that featured Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham, and Darroll Powe as regulars in John Tortorella’s lineup, saw the likes of Kris Newbury, Brandon Mashinter, and Michael Haley earn cups of coffee in the regular season and playoffs, and saw Glen Sather ship a bevy of draft picks and the team’s most prolific goal scorer since the days of Jaromir Jagr out of town to acquire four players at the deadline to shore up the team’s laughably bad depth.
In spite of success in major juniors and the AHL, Marchessault wasn’t given a legitimate opportunity in the NHL for another three years. After leaving the Whale and signing a two-way contract with Columbus, Marchessault scored 108 points in 130 games for their AHL affiliate while only appearing in two NHL contests before he was on the move again. During the 2014 trading deadline, Marchessault was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning (along with Dalton Smith) in exchange for Dana Tyrell and Matt Taormina, who’ve combined to play six NHL games since then and are currently plying their trade in the ECHL and AHL respectively.
After landing in the Lightning organization, Marchessault racked up another 91 points in 100 AHL games and appeared in four games with Tampa (one of which was Game 1 of the 2015 Conference Finals) before being recalled permanently on November 15th, 2015. Once he became a fixture in Tampa Bay’s lineup, Marchessault played out the rest of the season by notching 18 points in 45 contests and adding an assist in five playoff games before crossing to the other side of the state.
After years of uncertainty and doubt about his future, Marchessault has finally cashed in and secured long-term stability. George McPhee locked up his team’s leading point scorer to a six year, $30 million contract on Wednesday, which puts Marchessault under contract until the summer of 2024. The odds of him maintaining his current pace of 1.06 points per game may be slim, but all signs point to Marchessault remaining a top six-caliber talent for the duration of that contract.
Marchessault this season so far: preposterous. 3.2 primary points per hour is (as you can see from the scale) much more than any full-season from any player with non-trivial minutes in the last decade. pic.twitter.com/4x2sFSp2do— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 3, 2018
All of this leads to plenty of speculation from the other 30 teams around the league as to what could have been. What might have happened if Dale Tallon put aside his petty war against the old regime and kept Marchessault with the Panthers? What if Steve Yzerman would have been willing to hand Marchessault the one-way contract he was looking for two summers ago? What if the Blue Jackets or Rangers gave him a legitimate chance at cracking their big league lineups?
Five and a half years is an eternity in the hockey world, so the odds of Marchessault surviving all the makeovers the Blueshirts have undergone every summer are slim to none. Only five players who skated for New York during the 11-12 season are still with the team, and only three of those five had played a full season during or before that campaign. Even so, it’s fun to wonder about what might’ve been had the Rangers taken a chance on Marchessault all those years ago.