For 25 minutes or so, the same question comes at Mason Marchment in a variety of different ways.
What’s the secret sauce this year?
Is your sense of confidence higher this year compared to previous years? Why do you think that is?
What have you consciously tried to do differently this season?
Eventually, the polite but persistent efforts of a reporter lead to Marchment, an undrafted player traded away by the Maple Leafs in Feb. 2020, giving his best theory on how he’s broken out for 16 goals and 42 points in 51 games after previously scoring just two goals and 11 points in 37 NHL games.
“Over the years, I’ve just tried to just keep playing,” the Panthers forward told The Athletic. “Just gotta play. Have fun. ”
Or, in other words: The Mason Marchment who is currently providing excellent value for the Panthers on a one-year, $ 800,000 contract is the same player he was when he was shipped out from Toronto in exchange for Denis Malgin.
That the 26-year-old has been one of the pleasant surprises of the NHL season might feel like the proverbial salt in the wound for some Leafs fans. Macrhment’s physicality, 6-foot-4 frame and scoring touch could surely be a boon to a struggling and constantly shifting Leafs fourth line right now. Malgin had a grand total of zero points in eight games as a Leaf and has spent the entirety of this season playing for Zurich in the Swiss A-League.
So what did the Leafs give up in Marchment? And is there anything that can be learned from both the trade and Marchment’s season?
“I fell in love with the game a little later in life,” Marchment said of being a late bloomer, but even that feels like an understatement, considering how different his trajectory is to other NHL players. His father is former punishing defenceman Bryan Marchment, who was selected 16th in the 1987 NHL Draft and went on to play 926 NHL games. But Mason only started playing in the OHL as a 19-year-old. He went undrafted by NHL teams and only started his professional career by signing an AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies.
There, he was told he wouldn’t play for the first stretch of the 2016-17 season, but would instead get outside his comfort zone and focus almost primarily on his development. His skating needed work. He became something of a poster child for the Leafs continued emphasis on development, as evidenced by the 35 games he played in the ECHL, and the many long hours he spent with former Leafs skating coach Barb Underhill before and after Marlies practice, trying to improve Marchment’s stride. He responded to challenges well, and the Leafs were encouraged by his commitment and work ethic.
Why did he have confidence in the Leafs’ plan, even while being told he wasn’t going to play games?
In 2015, Marchment was invited to attend the Flames development and training camp. Though he was among the first players cut from training camp, he remembers receiving a message from the team that stuck: With a little bit more development, he could become a good NHL player. He had size and good hands, after all. More refinement was necessary.
That came throughout his three seasons with the Marlies. Even while suffering from broken collarbones on two separate occasions, Marchment developed into a capable AHL player.
On Thursday, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who coached Marchment with the Marlies, praised his talent, hands and competitive nature.
“That’s why our organization invested in him the way that we did. And we had a great belief in him. He was a big part of our Calder Cup team and really progressed through that season. But it’s taken him a long time to get going, ”said Keefe.
With injuries to Leafs wingers Ilya Mikheyev and Andreas Johnsson hitting the team in 2020, Marchment got his first NHL call-up. He played sparingly in his first four NHL games with the Leafs, had one assist and failed to make an immediate impact.
Still, the trade came as a surprise to Marchment. Just three days earlier he’d logged 12:14 TOI, his highest total of all four of those games.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Marchment said.
The Panthers valued his size, and the heaviness he could bring to their lineup. They knew the 5-foot-9 Malgin was more of a fit for the Leafs, at least stylistically. Malgin had 184 games of NHL experience at that point and is 19 months younger than Marchment.
I asked Marchment if he wished he had more runway in Toronto to prove what he was capable of. He paused for a few seconds before answering.
“I got hurt, right? There were a bunch of injuries. I was there for five years, ”he said.
Help in the top nine was needed. From the Leafs’ perspective, they could trade Marchment, found money in their eyes, for a player with far more NHL experience.
Marchment said he was told by the Leafs they were looking for a player who could play alongside Matthews, and that Malgin and Matthews had spent some time playing together in Zurich in Matthews’ draft year.
“That was basically what was said to me: They were upset that I was leaving, but they thought this player could be good for them,” Marchment said.
After the trade, Marchment found consolation in some likely sources, including his father Bryan, who was traded six times, and an unlikely source. Marchment has grown close with former NHL forward, the oft-suspended Raffi Torres through golfing sojourns. Torres confided that he was frustrated when he was dealt from the Islanders in 2003 after being the fifth pick in the 2000 NHL Draft. Yet when Torres landed with the Oilers, he went on to score 47 goals across his first two seasons with his new team.
“All of a sudden it became the best thing for him,” Marchment said. “So, I ran with that.”
Ahead of this season, Marchment continued to take part in power skating multiple times a week.
“It’s come a long way,” he said of his skating. “I’m not the prettiest skater for sure, but I can get around.”
Beyond the need to improve his skating, Marchment insists he’s largely the same player he was a few years ago. Though he was again sidelined for nearly two months earlier this season with an upper-body injury, he argues he’s simply made the most of a new opportunity. He’s spent most of the season playing alongside talented young center Anton Lundell.
“Sometimes you can overthink the game too much,” he said. “And this year, I came in with a lot of confidence ending the season last year on the first line. So coming off that, I just tried to keep it rolling and play the same way. I don’t think there’s a secret sauce, but just mentally, it’s about believing in yourself. “
Marchment said the confidence he has in his game was instilled in him by former Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, who appreciated his work ethic.
“(Quenneville) putting me on the first line in the playoffs really helped my confidence,” Marchment said.
That confidence was evident when Marchment scored six points in a January game against the Blue Jackets and has continued as part of a Panthers team that has the most goals scored in the NHL,
So, if you’re Kyle Dubas and the Leafs organization, is there anything to be learned from the trade and Marchment’s ensuing breakout season?
Obviously predicting how Marchment’s season has unfolded would have been close to impossible to forecast. Even in the AHL, his production paled in comparison to his teammates.
Is the lesson not to go too heavy on one aspect of a player’s game when constructing a roster? Namely, in the case of Malgin, pure skill?
You could argue that having too much skill is never a bad thing. It’s also worth noting here that the Leafs had players like Frederik Gauthier and Kyle Clifford in the lineup with Marchment when he was a Leaf, so size and physicality weren’t in short supply.
Is the lesson not to make rash trades mid-season?
Of course, with Mikheyev and Johnsson out of the lineup due to serious injuries, top nine forwards were needed. When the trade was made, the Leafs had lost six of their last nine. Getting a player with bonafide NHL experience wasn’t the worst idea.
But acquiring Malgin could be seen as something of a bandaid solution, at the expense of a player the organization had invested serious time in.
You could argue that if the Leafs are going to continue to invest heavily in their development staff, then it’s more advantageous to keep projects like Marchment in the fold so they can reap the rewards. You could also argue trading these projects for NHL players is the benefit of their developmental resources. The Leafs just have to hope the player they would get back can help them right away. Malgin did not.
The Leafs still own Malgin’s NHL rights. He said earlier this year that while the Leafs offered him an NHL contract he didn’t think he would have played with the Leafs very often.
Perhaps the lopsided effects of the Marchment trade have resonated with Dubas. He held steadfast leading up to this year’s trade deadline that he didn’t want to dip into the team’s prospect pool to bolster his team.
“It is more so the prospects than the picks that were important for us to keep. We didn’t want to take away from our group of A-list prospects, ”Dubas said after the deadline. “On the hockey side, I think it just makes it even more difficult to deplete that group.”
Now, Marchment shouldn’t have been considered an A-list prospect at any time in his tenure with the Leafs organization. But his unconventional path to emergence with the Panthers reinforces that player development isn’t linear. Surprises happen with opportunity. Confidence takes time to emerge in some players. The case of Timothy Liljegren is even further evidence of that. He struggled to make an impact in repeated short stints with the Leafs to the point that it was fair to question whether he’d ever be an NHL player.
It now feels like Liljegren has earned himself a spot in the Leafs playoff lineup with an excellent second half of the season.
So full credit should go to Marchment for continually believing he could become a consistent NHL player, both against the odds as an undrafted player, but also while having to battle injury after injury. He’s now shown he can hang with talented players.
Marchment is out of contract at the end of this season. He’ll be due for a raise and the chance to prove that he can contribute the way he has with consistency next season.
But before then, he has another chance to go on a playoff run with a Panthers team that he’s helped push to where they are, at the top of the Atlantic Division.
Once again: Just gotta play.
“I’m just trying to ride this wave that we got going on here,” Marchment said. “And I’m having a blast doing it.”
(Top photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)