A couple weeks ago, Michel Therrien announced his lineup vs. the LA Kings and confirmed that David Desharnais was a healthy scratch. Therrien referenced his nine-game pointless streak and noted how it was difficult to bench his former number one centre. Desharnais, ever the stand-up guy that he has always been, answered reporters’ questions and told them that he must be better in order to earn his spot in the lineup. Notwithstanding this, any objective perusal of the Habs lineup (and the young guns in St. John’s) would suggest that scratching Desharnais foreshadows something more is in the offing.
Let’s get the pleasantries out there and grant Desharnais his due. His is most definitely a feel-good story. A home-town, undersized player with considerable skill and more heart has managed to carve out a pretty fair run with the Canadiens. Desharnais has put together seasons of 48, 52, and 60 points during an era of low scoring in the league, all while adhering to Therrien’s conservative, defence first system. A few seasons ago, both he and Max Pacioretty were the Habs’ primary scoring threats on a team that lacked elite offensive personnel.
Desharnais’ breakout year was 2011-12 when he racked up 60 points serving as Pacioretty’s primary set-up man. He was rewarded with a four year, $14 million contract, which expires at the end of this season. While his production has not fallen precipitously since (he has put up seasons of 52 and 48 points in the interim), his offensive production has steadily diminished to the point where he has six points in 18 games this season going into Tuesday’s action (including his nine-game pointless streak and a two-point performance against Florida in the overtime game where the Canadiens suffered their first home loss of the year). Throughout his career, Desharnais has not performed well in the playoffs, registering only 13 points in 38 playoff games (not surprising for an undersized player that does not thrive in the dirty areas that so often decide tight playoff contests).
Thirty year old Desharnais is not the only Canadien off to a slow start (Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher come to mind). However, the long-term decline in Desharnais’s offensive numbers are persistent and striking. And unlike Plekanec and Gallagher, if Desharnais is not scoring, he is not contributing materially to the team’s success. Through no fault of his own, Desharnais is not physical, and, while positionally sound, he is hardly a shutdown defensive centre. Moreover, with his stature, Desharnais is certainly not hard to play against.
The Canadiens have options. It is true that the Habs do not have an abundance of top-six forwards in the system that are ready. But they do have a few younger players who can play on the third or fourth line for a lot less than $3.5 million. Witness the emergence of Phillip Danault and the options that open up for Therrien. With five natural centremen in the current lineup (Alex Galchenyuk, Plekanec, Danault, Torrey Mitchell, and Desharnais), things are getting a little crowded up the middle. To be certain, some of them can play on the wing (including Mitchell, Danault and Desharnais). But other wingers are available both in Montreal and St. John’s (Sven Andrighetto, Charles Hudon, etc.). Nikita Scherbak may not be on the Rock or in Laval long-term and Michael McCarron very nearly started the season in Montreal out of camp.
This is a difficult decision for Marc Bergevin and for Therrien in particular. Desharnais has been a good player and a good teammate for the Habs. He is never in the coach’s doghouse and, in this writer’s view, is one of Therrien’s favourites. But Desharnais is no longer good enough to be a regular in the Canadiens lineup, not if their team is healthy. Between his cap hit and his declining performance, the Canadiens should consider some alternatives.
There are better and more cost-effective options that can provide more than what Desharnais is now delivering and that will also develop and perform much better in the future. As the season progresses, perhaps a team that needs offensive help or is looking for depth might be interested in Desharnais. The Canadiens would be wise to take a hard look at any reasonable offer. While the contract will be a deterrent this early in the season, that problem will abate over time. Based on any evaluation of (i) the trends in his performance, (ii) the Canadiens roster; and (iii) the prospects in the system, Desharnais will not be with the Canadiens next year and is unlikely to play much late in the season or during the playoffs when there is much less space available for a player with his skill set.
If a reasonable deal can be made now or soon, the trade should proceed. Further, if a prospect is breaking down the door to the big club (or should a little bit of cap space be required to add some needed piece(s) at the deadline), the Canadiens should consider whether Desharnais should be sent down notwithstanding the relatively small risk that his contract would be picked up on waivers.
It is difficult to make these decisions on veteran players that have been material past contributors. David Desharnais’ professionalism and relationship with Therrien complicates this decision even more than others. However, in this writer’s view, on the merits, Desharnais should be moved or sent down to St. John’s at some point this season.