As the hockey world watched the Expansion Draft last June, almost everyone assumed this collection of castoffs and depth players would miss the playoffs by a considerable margin. Few of the players selected by general manager George McPhee were expected to be game-changers outside of Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal. But almost everyone recognized the mistake made by the Florida Panthers to give away Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith for a single fourth-round pick.
Less than a full season later, Marchessault is leading the Golden Knights in playoff scoring as they head into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Like many on the roster, he was not supposed to be here. Until now, he has been doubted at every step of his career. From his time in juniors to his time in Florida, NHL teams did not believe he was worth a shot on their roster.
Through Four Years, Marchessault Goes Undrafted
In 2007, Marchessault was selected in the 12th and final round of the QMJHL Entry Draft by the Quebec Remparts. While with the Remparts, Marchessault’s point totals increased every season. In his last season, he collected 95 points in 68 games, good for first on his team and top-10 in the league. He was named a First-Team All-Star and led the playoffs in scoring, but went undrafted for the fourth straight season.
Exiting juniors as an undrafted free agent, Marchessault’s first opportunity came with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL. At the age of 20 in his first professional season, Marchessault scored 64 points in 76 games, which tied him for first on the team. Despite this, the Whale’s NHL affiliate New York Rangers did not offer him a contract.
Marchessault Gets First Shot in NHL
He was able to sign his first NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He continued his success, being named to the AHL All-Star team and ending the season fifth for points in the league. He also got his first taste of the NHL with Columbus for two games before being unceremoniously traded in the middle of the next season to the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exchange of minor-league players.
The Lightning gave him his first extended look in the NHL. During the 2014-2015 season, Marchessault led the Lightning’s AHL team in points, appeared in two Stanley Cup playoff games, and received a new one-year contract. After 100 games with the Lightning’s AHL team where Marchessault posted 91 points, the team called him up for good near the beginning of the 2015-16 season. He went on to play 45 games for the Lightning, as well as five playoff games, and totaled 19 points. Then once again after a successful season, his team decided to not sign him.
Breakout Year With Florida Panthers
Although Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said later it was Marchessault’s decision to move on from the team, the Lightning were clearly not interested much in the first place. Marchessault signed across the state with the Florida Panthers for a two-year contract worth only $1.5 million in total. It was with Florida that Marchessault showed his true potential.
Playing almost 17 minutes per game, Marchessault led the team in goals and was third on the team in points. He was often called the “NHL’s best bargain,” and the Lightning were criticized for letting him go for such a cheap contract.
Then, after only one season of his two-year contract, the Panthers left him available for Vegas in the expansion draft, also trading Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights for a mid-round draft pick as part of the deal to select Marchessault.
Once again, a team took Marchessault for granted. The Rangers, Blue Jackets, Lightning, and Panthers had a future 75-point scorer in their laps, and not one team acted. Even when the contracts were cheap and even when the talent was clear, all four teams failed to take advantage. That is until the Golden Knights came along.
Marchessault and Smith had both proven their ability to produce in Florida, each having a 50-point season with the team. What compelled the Panthers to give them away is unknown, but Vegas was happy to have them then and ecstatic to have them now. The pair leads the team in scoring during the playoffs, each over a point per game. They also both netted over 20 goals during the regular season, and Marchessault ended the season second on the team in points with 75.
Marchessault Leads Team of Doubted Players
The Rangers saw a 20-year-old light up the AHL in his first season and passed on offering a contract. The Blue Jackets had a player that led his team in scoring during his first two professional seasons and traded him away for two players that have seen a collective six games in the NHL since. The Lightning had a young forward that clearly could play in the NHL and couldn’t even offer him a contract barely over league minimum. Then the Panthers, who clearly saw Marchessault’s offensive ability, just gave him away.
When people ask how the Golden Knights got this good, when they wonder how an expansion team made it to the Stanley Cup Final, just remember how many teams had the opportunity to grab a player like Marchessault, or William Karlsson, or Erik Haula. I’m sure none of them mind how many times they were passed up at this point. After all, they are only four wins away from going home with the Stanley Cup.
Mike was born and raised a big hockey fan. He is a recent Sports Management graduate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is now a writer for the Vegas Golden Knights. More of his work can be found at https://michaelmanleyahs.wixsite.com/mysite/work-samples.