There’s no doubt Team Canada’s management group caused a few double takes when they released their full 23-man World Cup of Hockey roster in May, particularly when fans saw Boston Bruins super-pest Brad Marchand on the list.
The 28-year-old winger had rarely been mentioned among Canada’s elite, but after a dominant 37-goal season and a return to the national team at the 2016 IIHF World Championship – in which he posted seven points in 10 games en route to a gold medal – Marchand had earned his place.
And yet, his inclusion was still somewhat of an gamble. There’s no denying the Nova Scotia native’s talent, but his claim on a spot meant leaving off established names like Jason Spezza – who could’ve provided some valuable chemistry with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, then named to the squad – or Taylor Hall, who’s become one of the top wingers in the game.
Marchand was by no means guaranteed to succeed. But the prospect of him suiting up with longtime linemate Patrice Bergeron and offseason training partner Sidney Crosby had him set up for a possible international breakout.
Now on the cusp of the tournament’s final series against Team Europe, Marchand’s importance to Canada’s success is indisputable.
His offensive contribution is the most obvious aspect of his significant impact on Team Canada’s World Cup bid, but certainly not the whole story. Rather, it’s been Marchand’s versatility that has allowed him to become one of the team’s game-changers – a trait that shone brightly in Canada’s 5-3 drubbing of Russia in the semifinal.
For those who hadn’t spent much time watching Marchand, the diminutive winger’s skill-set likely seemed versatile only in that it meshed decent offensive skill with some useful agitation. The Bruins pest has become one of the league’s most detested names, the result of a years-long collection of extracurricular slashes, elbows, and post-whistle trash talk.
However, he’s also become one of the NHL’s best when it comes to the finer details of the game – in both ends of the rink.
He put that well-rounded approach on display against Russia, leading the team with three takeaways and serving as one of the squad’s key penalty-killers. Marchand amassed 2:20 shorthanded minutes in Canada’s semifinal win, third-most among Canadian forwards behind only Selke Trophy-winners Bergeron and Jonathan Toews.
Of course, he also posted two goals and tied for the team lead with six shots in the contest.
While much of Marchand’s success has come from his undeniable chemistry with Crosby, there’s certainly something to be said of the Bruins forward’s own impact on his All-Star linemate as well. Team Canada’s coaching staff is all too familiar with the struggle of finding suitable linemates for Crosby, as the Pittsburgh Penguins captain has often been stuck with wingers who are either unable to keep up with his pace, or too quick to disrupt scoring chances by trying to force the puck back to Crosby.
Marchand’s familiarity with Crosby from offseason scrimmages has allowed the two to mesh well, but their success has also been the result of some very simple tenants of Marchand’s game – specifically, his top-end skill in regards to loose puck recoveries and controlled zone-entries. Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire highlighted Marchand’s success in both areas last year, showing that these were skills in which he vastly out-performed the rest of the Bruins.
Crosby’s game is grounded in speed, both in terms of his actual pace coming up the ice and his quick decision-making once he’s in the offensive zone. He thrives with players who can think the game at his speed and, conversely, has been repeatedly stalled by those who find themselves a step behind.
Marchand has the foot-speed to push the pace alongside Crosby, but he also has enough skill to hold his own when the Penguins captain isn’t leading the play. He can carry the puck into the zone himself, allowing Crosby to get lost in the defensive coverage, or battle in the tough areas of the zone to recover pucks when that speed leads to a turnover.
Speed off the rush and puck recoveries have both been key factors in the success of the Bergeron-Crosby-Marchand line. Canada’s victory over Russia was a prime example, as the line contributed three goals – two of which came as a result of Crosby forcing a turnover, and one as a result of Crosby and Marchand entering the zone with speed.
The versatility of Marchand’s offensive skill-set – his speed, quick hands, ability to create space for himself – has allowed him to flourish alongside Crosby, while his attention to the defensive side of his game has made him indispensable to the team as a whole.
Canada now enters a three-game series with Team Europe, who have surprised all by coming together as a dangerous contender for the World Cup crown. The Canadians have barely been tested thus far in the tournament, but they’ll have their hands full with the unexpectedly formidable Europe squad.
Previous Canadian teams, like the one that suited up in Sochi, may have had some question marks leading into such a match. But Marchand’s rise, and the fact that he’s helped Crosby become the offensive cornerstone he’s always been expected to be, means Canada begins the final series with little chance of an upset.
Marchand currently ranks second among all tournament skaters in scoring (five points in four games), tied for first in goals (three), and second in total shots (17), with Crosby and Bergeron perched high on those lists as well. All things considered, it’s almost certain the trio’s totals will continue to climb over the course of the next few games, which may just be the determining factor in Canada claiming the World Cup once and for all.