Todd Marchant as an Edmonton Oiler back in 1998, when mere immortality didn't keep him from defensive excellence. By Ian Tomlinson; image from cdn.picapp.com, all rights reserved.
When I picked my favourite post-dynasty Oiler I had to take a rather awkward view of the word "favourite". If I were to pick the Oiler who caused me most often to rise to my feet in celebration of his power with skate and stick and ice, Ales Hemsky would have skated away with the honours as confidently as he skates away with the puck. If it were the Oiler with whom I felt the most intense emotional attachment, none of you would be surprised if I selected Fernando Pisani. And if I wanted a post-dynasty Oiler who was just out-and-out the best player in franchise history at his position, then Curtis Joseph could have been the only option.
Instead, I'm picking my favourite post-dynasty Oiler because he's the main reason my favourite post-dynasty Oiler is even a discussion. I'm taking somebody who was a terrific role player, a hard worker, an elite defensive forward who never quite got his due in the days when the Oilers were wandering the wilderness. He had some nice offensive seasons for a defensive forward and one terrific campaign that got him a big contract, ballooned expectations to new heights, and did more to hurt his later career than a mere below-average season ever could have. I'm talking about a guy who arrived at the end of our lowest point and departed not long before our greatest modern-day triumphs.
I'm talking about a man who scored our Goal That Everyone Remembers, probably the most iconic single sequence in our post-dynastic history (and I'm sorry, Fernando, when I say that). I'm talking about the player who might be responsible for my throwing myself into the Oilers instead of just sucking at the crack pipe that is soccer all my life.
There could only have ever been one choice for my favourite post-dynasty Oiler, and it's Todd Marchant.
Marchant spent just over nine years as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, appearing in ten seasons. He played in the copper and blue so long that when he started it was the orange and blue. He was traded for Craig MacTavish, then the Oilers' captain, and saw the departure of three more in Shayne Corson, Kelly Buchberger, and Doug Weight. He was an Oiler longer than the succeeding captain, and longest-serving in franchise history, Jason Smith. His first game as an Oiler was with men like Kelly Buchberger, Shayne Corson, and Jason Arnott, while Bill Ranford and Fred Brathwaite split duties in goal. His last was alongside Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, and Fernando Pisani. He took the torch from the failed generation of the early 1990s and passed it to the players that finally brought us long-hungered-for success.
A man who once finished -19 in an NHL season, he eventually acquired a reputation as a defensive specialist, shutting down the likes of Mike Modano and Joe Sakic when those centres were in their primes and terrorizing the Western Conference on a routine basis. He also broke double digits in goal-scoring every full year he was in Edmonton, and finished below even only three times: his first three on the team, one of which was three games long and the second of which was shortened by the 1994-95 NHL lockout. He won faceoffs like nobody's business, might have been the fastest man in the NHL in his prime, and was almost omnipresently healthy. He is seldom talked about anymore, lost behind inferior players with shorter primes and higher profiles like Mike Peca and John Madden. But Todd Marchant was criminally, diabolically underrated.
That underrated-ness was one of my favourite things about Marchant. Like many sports fans I always had sympathy for the underdog, and a 5'10" former seventh-round pick who was constantly ignored for a Selke nomination despite being maybe the best defensive centre in the world is about as underdog as you can get. Even better, for a defensive forward, Marchant was so exciting to watch it could turn a young man to sin, twist him onto a road of high speed and quick chances and narrow escapes. To watch Marchant kill a penalty was to watch a predator as sure as any on the Discovery Channel: cruising near the blue line, always in the right part of the box, his eyes following the puck and yet never failing to track the player, one false move and crack, like lightning his stick would flash out and corral the puck, sending it smoothly out of the Oilers zone or, even better, corraling it onto his stick and turning on that ridiculous speed, speed that, the first time you saw it, you realized you'd never really understood speed on a hockey rink before, those jets that humiliated the best players in the National Hockey League.
And it's true, Marchant's hands were criminally bad. Axiomatically bad, probably the only thing that stopped him from becoming a forty goal scorer. He was a good-but-not-great passer and his shooting foibles were legendary (part of his underdog appeal, of course, but also infuriating whenever he'd thunder down on another breakaway and gun the puck into the Plexiglass). That didn't stop him, of course. In the seasons as an Oiler where he played at least seventy games he scored 19, 14, 14, 14, 17, 13, 12, and 20 goals, which is pretty good for an allegedly cement-handed forward in the dead puck era, and startlingly consistent. He was simply a man who got enough chances that he was bound to convert on some of them.
Take this goal, against a team from Texas on April 29, 1997. It's a fairly beautiful example of the Marchant oeuvre, so let's roll the tape.
I was a young boy of ten years old then, a bespectacled nerd only recently returned to Edmonton from two years of Australian exile. Those two years had robbed me of the time in my life when I should have been watching hockey and having the sport implanted in my brain, a situation not helped by the fact that my mother wasn't much of a hockey fan (she has since, mercifully, partially reformed). Since I'd been back from Down Under the Oilers hadn't made the playoffs or finished better than 14 games below .500 - pretty cheap meat to try and lure a young boy into a love affair. But with the city gripped by excitement after a half-decade's playoff drought the excitement drew even me into its arms, and as the Oilers traded body blows with the Stanley Cup favourite Stars - in what wound up an all-time classic of a series - I found myself sitting further and further forward in my chair. The Oilers fought and fought and dipped and seemed beaten, but dragged themselves off of the canvas and fought again and again. Joseph made the greatest save in NHL history and Doug Weight dumped the puck to that short fast guy on the right wing boards, he accelerated, and I gradually realized he wasn't going to stop accelerating. Andy Moog, who had seen a speedster or two in his time, spent the last famous moment of his famous career guessing wrong on a kid who shot 6.9% that season. And I was in love.
It was an affair both with the team and with the man. The fact that Curtis Joseph had made it all possible was forgotten once Cujo sinned by signing in Toronto for a big payday. Marchant endured. In 1998, entrenched as a Shutdown Guy at the tender age of twenty-four, Marchant quarreled with Mike Modano, Peter Forsberg, and Joe Sakic in one playoff season as the Oilers again scored a seven-game upset in the first round (over the Avalanche) only to lose in five in the second (against the Stars). Playing brutal playoff shifts on an inferior team against three of the ten best forwards in the NHL that season, Marchant was even. Even! He could have sawed off against Cyborg Gretzky that year, he was playing so well. And in the victorious series against the Avalanche, Marchant again scored in the decisive game, this time only on a guy named Patrick Roy who happened to be the best goaltender in hockey history, because that's just the way Todd Marchant rolled.
It all came crashing down, of course, because in those days that's what happened to the Oilers. After the 2001-02 season Kevin Lowe traded restricted free agent Doug Weight to the St. Louis Blues and in exchange received, for lack of a better phrase, "essentially nothing". Marchant got more ice time with better linemates and was asked to score more. Which he did, actually, notching a career-high twenty goals, a career-high forty assists, and what of course was a career-high sixty points to go along with a career-high +13, and (this is the part that should have set off the alarms) a career-high 13.7% shooting percentage. After almost a decade of being underrated because he was just the best defensive forward in the league in what was just the most isolated city in the NHL, people saw Marchant's name occurring in the game summaries a lot and said "hey, this guy can score a little". Which was good for Marchant, who was coming up on unrestricted free agency, but bad for whatever poor skunk bought into the one-year wonder and gave a guy approaching the wrong side of thirty far too much money to play a role he wasn't actually suited for.
That poor skunk was Doug MacLean, storied general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who saw a 29-year-old with a total of one twenty-goal season and thought "first-line scoring centre". He was asked to babysit teenage starlets Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev then thrown to the wolves, where he led the team's forwards in ice time, shot only 5.5%, and scored a career-low five goals to go with a career-low -17. Bam. Reputation destroyed.
And the horrifying thing was that, in spite of that abominable and atypical shooting percentage, -17 was pretty good for the 2003-04 Columbus Blue Jackets. If Marchant had managed his usual seven-and-a-half-odd percent, scored twelve goals and finished, say, -12, or if a general manager who actually understood hockey had signed him to a reasonable contract, maybe Marchant would be remembered differently around the NHL. As it was, post-lockout Marchant went on waivers (waivers!) after Columbus decided that nine points in eighteen games and -1 on a team that finished eight games below .500 wasn't anything like satisfactory. That story, at least, has a happy ending. Marchant went to Anaheim, played his old checking centre role and played it well, throwing in 13 playoff points and a +14 that spring just to prove that he still could. The next year, Marchant won the Stanley Cup and seeing him skating around with his so-well-deserved prize was the only tolerable part of that wretched season.
Marchant's still going, of course. He turned 37 three weeks ago: not so young anymore, no longer the bedazzling brilliance who could make Andy Moog and Patrick Roy beg for mercy if the stakes were high enough. Last year he was a team-worst -16, the sort of obscenity a young Marchant could never have countenanced. Ducks' fans are beginning to set aside his old heroics and emphasize his new mortality, which is understandable when a player as old as Marchant had a season as bad as Marchant's, but no less tragic. Marchant is ten points short of five hundred on his career and he'll probably get there, but only a very bold writer would predict many more.
The good news for Marchant is that, in a way, what he does from now on in his hockey career doesn't matter. Short of scoring on his own goal in overtime of the Stanley Cup final, there's not much he can do to put a tarnish on his legacy. Thirty years for now, when grandparents are setting their grandchildren on their knees and talking about the Edmonton Oilers, they won't talk about a man who Doug MacLean overpaid or who hung on a season or two past his time, but they will talk about the boy who taught Edmonton what speed really looked like, and about one cloudy night in April when he brought the thrill of victory to a city that had almost forgotten it.