On February 26, 2016, Marc Bergevin swung a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks that sent fan favourite Dale Weise to Chicago alongside Tomas Fleischmann for a second-round pick and Phillip Danault. Reaction at the time was positive on both sides as Chicago was loading up for a playoff run and Montreal was in one of the most humiliating free-falls in franchise history. For this reason, Bergevin was unloading free agents to be and acquiring a second-round pick was believed to be the catch of the trade in Montreal. Fast forward to today, and Phillip Danault has surpassed expectations as he alone has been worth that trade, never mind the significant selection in next summer’s entry draft. Despite this reality, Danault has become the new David Desharnais in that he is a polarizing figure on the roster, with some fans accepting this player as an adequate band-aid on the first line, while others believe he is nothing more than a great third line centre. I believe Danault to be a solid second line centre, and with his attention to detail in the defensive zone, Danault could be poised for a breakout season of 50 points playing on Montreal’s second line to accompany his excellent defensive play and his overall hustle.
Last season, Danault started the year as a third line winger. The team then suffered two bad blows: the Alex Galchenyuk injury and the decline of Tomas Plekanec. The 24-year-old Danault stepped up nicely even though he was playing in only his first full NHL season, providing stability and energy on the top line. What Danault lacked in skill, he compensated for by being an absolute puck hound. He was rewarded for this through ice time, respect from his teammates, and by staying on the top unit for most of the rest of the season. While it is more than fair to question Danault’s lack of skill and therefore his role as a top line pivot in the NHL, his overall dedication to his 200-foot games, and his speed and smart positioning make him capable of being a second line player.
Danault played approximately 41 games last season with Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov as his wingers as he dressed for every single game in 2016-2017. That 41-game mark in the calendar is approximately mid-December. This is also when his ice-time increased from roughly 14 minutes per game to 17-18 minutes per night. While this isn’t absolutely accurate, because Danault was temporarily bumped from this line when Claude Julien arrived, it is worth noting that Danault scored 25 of his 40 points during the second half of the season. That’s to say that playing on this line for the duration of the season, fans would have theoretically witnessed Danault scoring 50 points. Isn’t that some important production for someone who some fans see as a third liner? Consider that these same fans were mad when Bergevin refused to pay Radulov for his 54 points.
The last point was not meant to criticize fans or Radulov (who remains a much more skilled player than Danault), but merely to point out that Danault had a solid season, and should even show a slight improvement on that season since he is now 25 and has the experience of a full NHL season. His role on the team should diminish, as should the quality of his linemates, but also of his opposition. As mentioned in previous articles, I would like to see Danault start the season next to Artturi Lehkonen and Brendan Gallagher. While this line would make it difficult for Danault to reach my breakout plateau of 50 points, it is also not a stretch to imagine the top line not being functional for 82 games and Danault getting some playing time next to any of Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty, or even Jonathan Drouin. At the end of the day, the important detail is that Danault figures to play a role as a centre on one of the top two lines, a role that should be favourable to his reaching a higher point total.
Phillip Danault and the suggestion of a 50 point campaign is far from a guarantee. Plekanec is in a contract year and would love nothing more than to prove that last season was an anomaly and not the decline of his productive years. Should he be able to do this, Danault could easily be relegated to the third line. Furthermore, can Danault really be as durable for a second straight season and play all 82 games? This is a key factor as Danault doesn’t have the game-breaker ability and will likely require all 82 games to up his production. Finally, will his puck-hound ways follow Radulov out the door? This was a player that was having a tough time staying in the Chicago lineup. Granted, the Blackhawks are much deeper than Montreal down the middle, but it seems crazy to think Chicago couldn’t use the Phillip Danault of last season in their lineup.
Then again, Danault is a former first round pick. Perhaps he only needed the opportunity to show he was a capable player at the NHL level. And even if Plekanec returns to form, there is no guarantee that Galchenyuk remains a centre through the season (or even starts there). And even if demoted, playing with Paul Byron and Ales Hemsky could be a good fit for Danault. It would certainly provide a speed overload that would be difficult to defend for the opposition’s third defensive pairings.
Ultimately, if he keeps his feet moving the way he did last season, Danault will continue to have the trust of his coach, and the ice time should result in a boost in production. The expected top-six role on the team and his intelligence away from the puck should allow Danault to prove his worth as a second line middle-man in the league, which should give him a chance to improve on his production and push near the 50 point mark with strong offensive production. He’s trending well towards becoming the long-term replacement for Plekanec down the road.