KEVIN PAUL DUPONT
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
TAMPA — He is the undersized sniper, all 5 feet 9 inches of him, wired up every night, every shift, and that is precisely what brought him back here to the bright lights this weekend.
Brad Marchand is an NHL All-Star for a second year in a row, not because of some Beliveau-like elegance and grace, or deadly Hull-ish long-range slapper, but because he’s been overcompensating and overworking on the ice from the day he first pulled on skates back home in Halifax.
His game is edge, feistiness, grit, and a whole lot of chip-on-the-shoulder, net-front cunning. In a flash last week, strands of that DNA bought Marchand another pile of trouble, a five-game suspension for smacking a running elbow into the side of New Jersey forward Marcus Johansson’s head.
“I know I stepped over the line and messed up, but . . . I feel really, really bad about it as well,” a contrite-sounding Marchand said Friday, moments after arriving for All-Star Weekend festivities. “I let my team down, and the last thing you want to do is hurt a guy, especially with having a couple of concussions myself this year . . . it’s the last thing you want to do. It makes me feel really bad.”
Johansson, according to the Devils, did suffer a concussion, and his return date remains uncertain. Marchand served Game 1 of his penance on Thursday and can circle the night of Feb. 7 (at Rangers) as the night he returns to action. Leading the Bruins in scoring (50 points) for a second season in a row, the L’il Ball o’ Hate still has an outside shot of reaching 100 points, something no Bruin has done since Joe Thornton posted 101 in 2002-03.
“I don’t expect that to happen, but it would be unbelievable if it did,” said Marchand, who piled up a career-high 85 points last season, pacing the club in goals and assists. “I would never even think it would be possible. Even to be a point-a-game guy last year, I couldn’t believe it. Never thought that was possible.”
Marchand’s evolution, from pain-in-the-neck fourth-line ferret to first-line headliner, is rare in today’s game. A third-round pick in the 2006 draft (No. 71), he made the varsity roster in 2009-10 after a season and a half in Providence, then-coach Claude Julien playing him with the likes of Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.
Marchand’s hands were busy from the start, albeit more typically found washing the faces of opponents rather that putting points on the scoresheet.
“I had to do what I had to do to make the roster,” he recalled. “I think we had 13 guys on the club with one-way contracts. I only got my chance because of injuries to Savvy [Marc Savard] and Sturmy [Marco Sturm]. Who knew if I’d make it? And if you’d asked then if I’d be happy playing 7-8 years in the league and putting up, say, 35-50 points every year, yeah, I would have been extremely happy.”
But in hindsight, said Marchand, the evolution of his game, which continues to this day, began that first season. He stepped into a culture of serious workers, surrounded by committed pros such as Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron (now his first-line partner), Andrew Ference, and later the likes of Chris Kelly and Mark Recchi.
“After games, Recchi’s on the treadmill doing sprints,” Marchand recalled. “I mean, the guy’s 40 years old. And all I was doing was stretching. So when you see that, and guys like Z and Bergy working out before every single practice . . . [Dennis] Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Thorty . . . all those guys worked so hard, every day, and not every team is like that.”
A dose of trade talk also caught Marchand’s attention, prodding him to work harder, early in his career. The rumor mill had him going to San Jose. All the more reason, thought Marchand, to button down.
“Brad Marchand, from the day he walked through the door there, was always the hardest-working player in practice,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, who was an assistant in Providence when Marchand joined the AHL club out of junior hockey. “Now Bergy or Z might be pushing him here, but for me, that is the constant with him. Every day. He is a rink rat. He’s passionate. He wants to get better.”
The big boost to Marchand’s game, in terms of offense, finally came these last two years when he finally became a power-play regular. Throughout Julien’s tenure, Marchand advanced higher into the lineup, and eventually saw time on the power play, but Cassidy, who took over the job just a year ago, fully embraced him as a key element on the man-advantage.
Ironically, the day before Marchand put the hit on Johansson, Cassidy noted that he hadn’t felt the need to caution Marchand about stepping over lines, getting caught up in the antics that can lead to trouble with the league’s Department of Player Safety.
“No, I talk to him about believing that he deserves to be considered an elite hockey player offensively,” noted Cassidy. “So don’t . . . don’t . . . don’t get distracted down, or whatever word you want to use. You’re an elite offensive player. So act like it. Play like it. Keep going back to it. We’ve given him many more power-play responsibilities, and the message there is, ‘You’re good at this, here’s where you deserve to be, things are going to go through you, we need you here and it’s going to help us.’ I think he’s grown in that area, too.”
The incident with Johansson, Marchand contending he lifted his arm as an instinctual move to protect himself, doesn’t undo all of that. Upon return, Marchand will report directly to that first-line power play, along with Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
“I think, if you look at my numbers, I’ve changed a lot the last couple of years,” Marchand said. “The way I played before, there isn’t much of that in the game. It’s faster and faster, all speed. I am a completely different player. Rarely am I in scrums anymore, or any of that mix. It’s more about just playing the game now.”
Yet, some of it is hard to let go. Strictly on skills, Marchand’s best assets are his speed and shot, the latter delivered with one of the fastest releases in the game. But what holds it all together is the same feistiness, particularly around the net, that will have him sitting in the press box the next four games.
They are old habits, honed since his youth hockey days in Nova Scotia, where his dad, Kevin, reminded him never to dial back his competitiveness. If he was going to keep advancing up the amateur ranks, he would have to do it on work ethic and chutzpah.
“My dad would always push on me. He always had it and I think I got it from him,” said Marchand. “It’s the will to want to win at any cost, and I think that is just something that I knew, growing up, if I was going to be a smaller player then I had to be aggressive and I had to continue to go in the dirty areas and play against bigger guys and still play hard. It kind of carried on, and I crossed the line, sure, I did a lot when I was younger, too. But it was never addressed when I was younger and I got away with it and it slipped into my game more than it should. But I could never sit here and say that I would change, or go back, because it allowed to get me where I am — especially my first few years in the league, I had to do something to be on a team that was so deep.”
It’s not easy letting go. Why would anyone expect differently? It is Marchand’s ninth season in the NHL. He has his name on the Stanley Cup from 2011, and there aren’t many undersized lads from Nova Scotia, or anywhere else, who will bank $6.125 million a year from now through 2024-25.
Brad Marchand, the 2018 All-Star version, has polished his game, but the rough spots remain.
Without them, he wouldn’t be here. He might not be anywhere.
“I would hope so,” he said, pondering whether the most recent suspension will be his last. “But I can’t sit here and say how I am going to react in any situation. You will never have the same situation on the ice, ever, so. I am obviously going to do my best not to be in a situation like this again, but . . . I really hope not.”
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