Blake Wheeler and Brad Marchand go way back and remain ardent members of the mutual admiration society.
The NHL stars took different paths but eventually broke into the league with Boston a decade ago, although Wheeler’s tenure with the Bruins was relatively short.
One’s a giant on skates who has developed into a premier playmaker. The other’s as diminutive as they come, making a name for himself as Boston’s resident irritant before evolving into an elite winger.
The Winnipeg Jets captain and Marchand have been combatants much longer than co-workers, and the respect each has for the other’s work is evident.
“(Marchand) is a great player, he plays extremely hard and he’s always hard on the puck,” said Wheeler. “There’s never an easy inch when you play against that (top) line. It’s a matchup that you don’t look forward to in a sense it’s not going to be an easy night but one you look forward to because it forces you to play your best.”
Marchand darts along the left side of perennial Selke Trophy candidate Patrice Bergeron, one of the NHL’s finest two-way centres. On Thursday in Winnipeg, the duo welcomed David Backes to the right wing, a spot normally occupied by David Pastrnak (out of the lineup following thumb surgery).
Marchand led his team with 85 points (30G, 55A) in 69 games prior to the battle in Winnipeg. He’ll finish with a career high in points and could eclipse the 100-point mark with a hot hand down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Wheeler has 19 goals — including seven in his last seven games — and is third among all NHLers in assists (65).
“Not a fun guy to play against. (Wheeler) has become a very dominant player in this league. You watch the way he carries the game each and every night, he leads that team over there,” Marchand said. “It’s great to see him develop the way he has. He really came into his own when he got here and got his game to a new level.
“You always want to see guys do well. He’s deserved and worked for everything’s he’s gotten. You’ve got to respect what he’s done with his game.”
Originally drafted by the Arizona-based Coyotes in 2004, Wheeler signed with the Bruins as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota in 2008 and played parts of three seasons with the organization before being dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers during the 2010-11 season — Marchand’s rookie campaign and the year the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup.
Wheeler said there was no doubt the 5-9, 180-pound Halifax product would distinguish himself as an offensive performer. He just had to get his foot in the door, rudely if required.
“Marchie, when he was clawing his way into the league, that’s how he earned his spot. He earned his spot being that tough-to-play-against kind of pest, a thorn in your side. He wasn’t playing on the power play, he wasn’t killing penalties early on, he was playing five-on-five, making life a living hell for the other team he was playing against,” said Wheeler.
“His offensive ability has always been there. Even when I was there and he was a rookie, he came right in and he was scoring goals, he was making plays. His opportunities have grown over time, and I think that’s the edge he has to play on to be effective. He’s always on that edge and that’s what makes him so good.”
Marchand, who has been repeatedly suspended and/or fined throughout his career, had accumulated 90 minutes in penalties prior to Thursday’s action, more than any other of the NHL’s top 70 scorers.
Yet, for the most part he’s been minding his manners, a conscious effort to clean up his act after the playoffs last season when he licked a couple of opponents, prompting a stern warning from the league to cease and desist.
Asked how he’s managed to stay out of trouble, Marchand turned from reporters during a Thursday morning scrum and rapped his knuckles on a wooden locker-room bench.
“Still lots of time left,” he said, laughing. “Hopefully that’s how it goes the rest of the year. It’s really toned down a lot this year. I’m just too tired to do it now, to be honest with you. Minutes have gone up a bit this year. The refs are pretty tight on that stuff now, so it’s kind of pointless. Gets to be more tiresome throughout the game than anything.”
Indeed, he’s matching up against the league’s top trios, while earning plenty of power-play time and killing penalties with Bergeron.
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said the team needs Marchand on the ice, not serving misconducts or worse.
“He’s been very, very good for us offensively. He’s just been a consistent guy, very driven, wants to be known as a productive player first,” said Cassidy. “Maybe when he first came into the league he had to be a bit more of a pest to establish himself. I think he’s well past that now, he’s trying to make sure he stays aggressive, assertive, annoying but not crossing the line. I think he’s done a great job of that.”
As Marchand eliminates the antics of old and focuses more on discipline and self-control, his legacy as a Bruin might well be unfolding now.
“Just on his points alone he’s unique. If he never hit anybody, if he was never involved in anything after a whistle, his numbers would make him unique,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “You have a guy with a tremendous amount of grit and gets to all the heavy areas and usually causes some problems and infuriates some people when he gets there, that makes him a special player.”
Maurice said Boston’s ‘little ball of hate’ managed to survive this long through sheer guts, buoyed by the presence of a certain 6-9, 250-pound bodyguard.
“That was sorted out the first year or two. If they hadn’t killed him by then, they’re not going to. He had to answer the bell enough early on his career,” said Maurice. “Having a guy (Zdeno Chara) that size on your blue line keeps things fairly calm. Nobody wants that.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).