Marchand at a Crossroads
Brad Marchand may not know it but ask many around the NHL and the general consensus is that the Bruins forward is at a crossroads in his career. According to many players, executives and NHL insiders, the time has come for Marchand to decide what type of player he wants to be and remembered as. At 27 years old and in the prime of his career, can he finally walk that proverbial line between an agitator that can contribute 25-30 goals per season or is he just an agitator that repeatedly crosses the thin line and let’s his emotions get the best of him hurting his and his team’s chances at success?
That was a frequent topic of conversation in the press box and around the Winter Classic last week, as Marchand served the first of a three-game suspension for clipping and a low hit on Ottawa Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki in the Bruins 7-3 win at TD Garden December 29.
The hit was similar to a hit Marchand laid on Canucks defenseman Sami Salo back in 2012. That hit earned Marchand a five-game suspension.
Marchand has also been suspended two games for slew-footing Rangers forward Derek Brassard last season and for elbowing then Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger in 2011. He’s also been fined two times. Marchand is on the repeat offender list for the NHL Department Of Player Safety and according to a high-ranking NHL source who was at the Winter Classic, prior to his latest suspension, Marchand had already been warned five times this season for similar plays like the one with Borowiecki.
“Trust me, the Department Of Player Safety did not want to suspend Brad Marchand for this game,” the source told Bruinsdaily.com. “He is a budding superstar if he wants to be and we were already down some stars in [David] Krejci and Carey Price. We wanted him in this game for his skill and star power.”
The Bruins surely could’ve used Marchand for his star power and skill against the Canadiens in the Winter Classic, as well as his ability to be an agitator. Boston came out flat on the big stage and was embarrassed in a 5-1 loss to their rivals. While the Bruins were without their “little ball of hate” — as President Obama called him in 2012 when the Bruins brought the Stanley Cup to the White House — the Habs got their spark plug and version of Marchand back in the lineup. Brendan Gallagher made a grand return with a goal and an assist and drove the Bruins — specifically captain Zdeno Chara– crazy.
“He’s a spark plug for this team; he’s one of the leaders and he obviously helps us tremendously,” Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said of Marchand. “You saw what Gallagher did tonight [Friday] for them; I thought he was a very good player for his team and it’s kind of what ‘Marshy’ [Marchand] brings to the table for us and he’s huge for us because he plays in all situations.”
In the Winter Classic, the Bruins found themselves in exactly the situation that Marchand would’ve been perfect for. They were out-shot 14-3 in the opening frame and found themselves down 1-0 as they headed to their Gillette Stadium dressing room. Marchand is the type of player that could’ve either scored a game-changing goal or swayed the momentum with his overall play as Gallagher did for the Canadiens.
“If you look at Gallagher and Marchand, they’re very similar players,” ESPN and NHL Network analyst Barry Melrose told Bruinsdaily.com. “Both are very skilled; both are agitators and instigators; they get under your skin but they’re both very important people on their team. You saw the difference that Gallagher made [Friday], the Habs were lifeless up to this game and he comes in and gets a goal and an assist, he’s under Chara’s skin, he’s making plays behind the net and in front of the net all night long and Boston wasn’t doing that early in the game because Marchand wasn’t there. That’s Marchand’s job too.”
While Marchand has frequently found himself in trouble with the NHL Department Of Player Safety, he has also developed into a consistent scoring threat and two-way player. After becoming the second-highest scoring rookie in playoff history with 11 goals and 19 points in the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup run, Marchand had a career-best 28 goals and 55 points the following season. He lit the lamp 25 times in 2013-14 and last season he led the team with 24 goals. This season he has a team-leading 15 goals to go along with 11 helpers. By all accounts he has been starting to walk on the right side of the law and is becoming a leader both on and off the ice, facing the music with the media win or lose.
In fact, in the December 26 edition of ‘Coaches Corner’ on Hockey Night In Canada, legendary analyst Don Cherry praised Marchand to the point where he considered Marchand the MVP of the Bruins.
“He leads the Bruins with 15 goals; he leads them in plus/minus; he leads them in penalties; he’s got two winning goals and now get this, he also leads them in short-handed goals with three,” Cherry said. “I’ll tell you this, he scored those two goals like I said and he’s their most valuable player as far as I’m concerned. It’s tough playing the way he plays; everybody is after him as we saw in Vancouver, everybody’s after him but that’s the way he’s gotta play.”
Melrose concurred, but as many tend to mention when discussing Marchand, Melrose cited Marchand’s tendency to cross the line as the difference between him and Gallagher who is also approaching star status in Montreal.
“Marchand’s been off to a great start,” Melrose said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen him play better for a long period of time than he has this year. But the thing with him is he just goes over the line. So far Gallagher’s been the type of guy that he doesn’t go over the line. He approaches the line but he doesn’t go over it. Unfortunately for Marchand, he’s gone over the line a number of times and he’s in trouble now with the law. But both are excellent players; both are the type of guy that you need on your team if you’re going to go a long way in the playoffs and you saw the difference Gallagher made for the Montreal Canadiens and you saw the loss of Marchand and what that meant for the Boston Bruins.”
Melrose went on to say that he believes it’s now or never for Marchand to become the star so many believe he can be. But doing that doesn’t mean he has to abandon the agitator role that has gotten him to this point in his career because without that, Melrose doesn’t see an effective player.
“The crossroads is that he’s gotta realize and the people around Boston have to realize is that he has to play like this or he’s not effective,” Melrose pointed out. “He can’t be stupid but he can be that agitator that makes him effective. He gets in people’s way; he scores goals in front of the net; he draws penalties; he changes the emotion of a game and that’s how he’s gotta play. If he doesn’t do that, then he’s not an NHL player. We’ve seen before that if he goes passive at certain times he’s not effective.
So what he has to do, and the people around him have to do, is teach him the line that he can’t cross and he’s gotta play to that line. When he does, he’s one of the most effective players in the NHL. The guy is a really good hockey player, but when you go over, all of a sudden you’re sitting three [games] and you’re sitting six and you’re sitting 12 and then you’re looked upon that way for a long, long time and it will affect your career.”
To his credit, Marchand was front and center after the NHL announced this current suspension and seemed to understand how selfish his actions were.
“I just want to acknowledge the situation that I’ve put my team in for being undisciplined and affecting the game for them; taking away from the excitement to the fans being a part of this rivalry and taking that away from them and then also for affecting this game for myself and putting myself in a situation to not be part of this,” Marchand said last Thursday. “I understand that I’ve put our team down when we already have some injuries, and again, I’ve put them at a disadvantage.”
With no Krejci as well, he certainly did put them at a disadvantage in the Winter Classic and they’ll once again be at one against the best team in the Eastern Conference when the Bruins host the Capitals Tuesday night and then face the upstart Devils in New Jersey Friday.
By all accounts Marchand has the full support of his teammates still and has become a steady and constant voice within the ever-changing and young Bruins dressing room. To this point, his suspensions haven’t caused any resentment towards Marchand. But if the Bruins end up 0-3-0 during this suspension, the other leaders on the team will surely ask him to keep that edge to his game in check. On the ice, Marchand has become consistently better and is viewed in the same light as Gallagher but the dark shadow of his suspensions and tendency for crossing the line are holding him back from being the MVP type player Cherry spoke of in the eyes of his peers, fans and the league.
So now the question is what Marchand will the Bruins welcome back when they play the Senators in Ottawa Saturday? Will this latest suspension help Marchand realize just how valuable he is to his teammates and the game? Or does he want to continue on the same path a once budding agitator and goal scorer like Raffi Torres took? Torres recently found himself banned from the game for a record 41 games after this cheap shot on Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa in the preseason.
Marchand will be 29 years old when his current contract ($4.5 cap hit) expires and if he plays the way Cherry and Melrose pointed out, he will hit pay-dirt in what likely will be his final long-term contract. Marchand must decide now for his teammates and himself which road he will take. If he chooses the right one, those around the NHL won’t be saying Marchand should play more like Gallagher, they will be urging other up and coming agitators to play more like Marchand.