As you look atop the league leaderboard for points today, you'll see an interesting name at No. 1. With seven points through his first three games this season, Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand has an early lead in the NHL scoring race. He is unlikely to remain there all season and there's little to conclude from three games, but his hot start -- which includes a five-point game in Boston's season opener -- is a continuation of the upswing he is experiencing in his career presently.
The first thing most people will think of when they think of Marchand is his reputation as a pest, or some might refer to him as a rat. Even the President of the United States once called him the "Little Ball of Hate." By the way, that was Pat Verbeek, Mr. President, but we understand why you'd call Marchand that. It is a reputation well earned.
Over seven, going on eight seasons in the NHL, Marchand has picked up 438 penalty minutes. He has been suspended four times for a total of 12 games and fined twice - once for a sucker punch and another time for a slew-foot. He is also often on the receiving end of an opponent's ill intent, drawing penalties, suspensions and fines from them on more than a few occasions.
Just last season, Marchand was speared by then Vancouver Canucks tough guy Brandon Prust, who said the $5,000 fine he had to pay was the best money he'd ever spent.
It is because of that reputation, that it has been difficult for many to come to a full appreciation for Marchand's overall game. What is lost in the penalties, suspensions, smack talk and everything else is that he is a highly-skilled individual who has probably always been capable of more than he's produced in his career. Now he's doing both.
Last season opened a lot of eyes. As the Bruins lost so much scoring from the season before, Marchand saw both his role and his minutes elevated. He had gone from important player to vital player and he delivered with a career year.
It may not have been enough to get the Bruins into the playoffs, but it was a turning of the tide for Marchand as a player. He had never just been a pest, but now he was producing at a level that put him among the game's elites.
Prior to last season, Marchand had never registered more than 180 shots on goal in a season. In 2015-16, he put 250 pucks on net. The result was 37 goals, smashing his previous career high of 28 and putting him at sixth in the league in that category.
There were games last season where you could see Marchand take over a shift and he showed the ability to put the team on his back sometimes. That may not have been true earlier in his career, but it has become part of his game now.
After the Bruins missed the playoffs, Marchand agreed to play for Canada in the World Championship in the spring. He had seven points in 10 games to help Canada win gold, and it was at that tournament that he solidified himself as a candidate for Canada's entry the World Cup of Hockey.
On one of the best Canadian national teams we've seen, Marchand was a top-line wing playing alongside regular line mate Patrice Bergeron and Canada's captain Sidney Crosby. That line could not have been more dominant, however it was Marchand who took center stage by scoring the stunning shorthanded goal that clinched the World Cup for host Canada.
He finished the tournament with eight points and made a lasting statement that last season was no fluke and he had arrived as one of the game's top wingers and only getting better with age.
In today's NHL, it has been determined over extensive research that was later refined by Eric Tulsky, who now essentially runs analytics for the Carolina Hurricanes, that a player's peak production years are usually going to come between the ages of 23 to 26. Marchand may be one of the exceptions to the rule, however.
Prior to last year, Marchand's best season was at age 23, when he put up 28 goals and 55 points. But he is undeniably playing his best hockey now and he turned 28 last spring.
While he may be maturing offensively, Marchand has not lost the edge in his game. He racked up 90 penalty minutes last season, five shy of his career high. So, yeah, just because he found his offensive game doesn't mean things are going to change in the pest department. That said, perhaps Marchand could make an even bigger impact if he stays out of the box and avoids supplemental discipline. Just a thought.
Though it is a really small sample size, Marchand's hot start to the season is important. The Bruins have gone 2-1-0 without Patrice Bergeron, Marchand's regular running mate, in the lineup.
His stepping up and setting the tone early is going to help this team in a big way. Not falling into a hole early is going to do wonders for the Bruins and they should have Bergeron back, too. That probably only makes Marchand more dangerous. On top of that, the Bruins are starting to get younger players into the roster as they slowly transition in hopes of breaking their two-year playoff drought.
Several of the veteran players are still going to be a big part of that transition, however. That's especially true of Marchand. He will be on a new eight-year contract worth $6.125 million per season, starting next year. It's a lot of term and money to give a guy who will spend most of that contract on the wrong side of 30, but it will be worth it if he can give them a few more years like he had last season.