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Getting to know the newest Maple Leaf: Alexey Marchenko

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Snapped up off of waivers, the newest member of the team has a history with some current Leafs.

Russia vs Finland - 2016 IIHF World Championship Ice Hockey: Semi Final Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images

Alexey Marchenko

Like most Russians, his name is often spelled differently, and he is Alexei when he is on the Russian national team.

He grew up in Moscow and played his entire youth career for CSKA Moscow, aka the storied Red Army team. He was then drafted by the Detroit Red Wings, which put him on a path to follow in the footsteps of the great pioneers of Russian hockey in the NHL such as Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Fedorov, CSKA’s current general manager.

Marchenko is not one of the greats. But that’s what the Russian five on the Red Wings were all about—opening doors for the people who came after. The subsequent waves of Russian players didn’t have to be twice as good for half as much money; they just had to be good enough.

He was a seventh round draft pick, and while the Red Wings are renowned for their Russian scouting and deep draft finds, he is not Pavel Datsyuk the second. He is a good pro, though, as Mike Babcock will tell you at the start of the video below.

You can hear it from Marchenko himself how he feels about playing on the Leafs, and getting back on a team with some other Russians. This video has a little practice footage in it too:

As Marchenko says, he knows Zaitsev. They did not overlap on CSKA, although they both played there; Zaitsev came the year Marchenko moved to the NHL and then grew into a much better player.

They did play together, with Marchenko playing the offside, at the World Championships, and they performed very well. They were on the World Cup team together too, but did not play a lot of time together, as Zaitsev was most often paired with Dmitry Orlov.

Marchenko is not a defender who scores. His highest career points were in junior—not unusual for defenders—and he did not quite hit one point per game in the MHL.

He is a defender noted for strong system play, good Corsi results, and he also plays on the penalty kill. If the plan, on whatever time frame, is to replace Roman Polak with Marchenko, he will need PK skills.

He has been in the NHL on and off since 2014, and yet he could not crack the Detroit lineup full time. Detroit is still not a team willing to go with youth over experience.

In his three year career, which includes a rookie year of 13 games, he has a CF% of 50.37, better than Niklas Kronwall, Danny Dekeyser and Jonathan Ericsson over the same period. In just his last two years, it is lower, driven largely by this season, where Detroit has stopped being able to execute on the ice and slid into the range of performance that makes you a lottery team.

Marchenko’s play has been fairly consistent as the team around him changed. He is better than his teammates at limiting shots against, not as good at generating offence. If you look at all defenders in the league in the last two years combined, his rate of Corsi Against puts him 76th. A lot of that high ranking is the team he played on. A lot of that is him.

The Puckalytics RelTM statistic gives you a rough idea of how a player stacks up relative to his team, while accounting for the quality of his teammates. When you look at that statistic, Marchenko is essentially in the middle of the league for both Corsi For and Against. He is, essentially, an average defensive performer, without any scoring ability to lift him up into the top four on a good team.

Babcock mentioned his passing ability, and he’s not the only one to notice that. Passing is a skill that can look offensive—it leads to shots for—but is also defensive—it creates zone exits. In some of the passing project data such as a look at passes that lead to dangerous shot attempts, Marchenko shows up higher than you might expect in lists of league defenders for someone who is likely never going to be a top pairing player.

Babcock also mentioned Marchenko’s contract. He’s not an RFA until after next season. His cap hit is locked down, and he also already meets the exposure requirements for the expansion draft.

Marchenko is not slated to play in Monday’s game against the Islanders. The Leafs return home after that game for one of their many back-to-backs, so he may not play on Tuesday either if the plan is to get him in more practices before they see what he’s got to offer.

The bar may seem to be pretty low to outperform Roman Polak, but Polak is a predictable player who never fails due to lack of effort, only lack of ability. If Marchenko emulates that characteristic, he might be well on his way to taking the job away from Polak.

The best possible scenario for Marchenko would be if he looks good enough to make Connor Carrick think about his own job security.