On Wednesday evening against the Winnipeg Jets, Canadiens’ forward Phillip Danault played arguably his best game of the season, offering a sign that perhaps he has regained full confidence after a sluggish start offensively. On Friday night, he played another strong game against the Vancouver Canucks. Regularly a top-line offensive contributor (by team standards), Danault only has two goals and 11 assists for 13 points in 30 games this season. Still, I think he has taken on a disproportionate brunt of the criticism this season when taking into account how the team more broadly has struggled, at times, with inconsistency.
The direct and frequent criticism in my mind is no doubt a response to a great report by La Presse writer Mathias Brunet that Danault turned down a 6-year, $30 million contract in the offseason. (From ‘Phillip Danault et le CH sont-ils si loin d’une entente,’ La Presse, 22 January 2021). The fan response to this news online might as well have been figuratively represented by a target being placed on the back of his jersey. After this, Danault’s performance was bound to be under the microscope more closely.
This is not to say no criticism is allowed. Of course, it is. Not scoring a goal for the first 25 games was a problem deserving of some criticism, but did it warrant the many calling for him to be scratched when he appeared to be playing well in other areas of the game? I am not so sure. Does it mean he is not worth the $30 million he apparently turned down? Maybe, but Danault is still a very valuable member of the team, and I think he may be turning the corner.
Danault’s Underlying Numbers
His underlying statistical numbers at even strength still highlight an elite level of effectiveness as a puck possession player. After Wednesday night’s game versus the Jets, his Corsi-for percentage (CF) was 57.5 percent, and his Fenwick at even strength was 57 percent. Just as a quick refresher, Corsi at even strength refers to the differential of shot attempts for and against while a team or player is on the ice at five-on-five. This includes shots that miss the net or are blocked as well. When Danault is on the ice, his team more often than not controls play. Fenwick, on the other hand, denotes a team’s offensive puck control over the course of a game. Once again, it is clear that when Danault is on the ice, the Canadiens are generally assuming an offensive posture.
With this in mind, it seems almost inevitable that the points will start to come more frequently for Danault, thus boosting his all-around confidence and performance. This can only benefit the Canadiens as the playoff race tightens and the pressure increases on their younger centers. The question is whether the criticism will be consistent if his stat line improves. In any case, there are still other reasons to suggest Danault’s confidence is rising, even if such a trait for a player can be harder to measure. Why else do I believe Danault is trending in the right direction?
Danault’s Tenacity and Sharp Penalty Killing
Even the eye test will tell you that Danault has been very tenacious on the puck in all three zones in the last three to five games. More so than in earlier portions of the season, where, at times, he seemed a little hesitant or passive. To me, this is a sign that he is engaged, and he knows he can be a difference-maker. On Wednesday, he was very hard on Jets forward Mark Scheifele every time he had the puck in any zone. He badgered him all over the ice and limited him to zero points on the night.
In regard to the penalty kill, it is true that the Canadiens have not quite performed to ideal standards this season. However, in the last two games, they have killed 100 percent of their penalties on four opposition opportunities. I understand that this is not a huge sample size, but the timing of these kills has been particularly important, and this is where Danault has excelled to help his team, showing his confidence is on the upswing.
On Friday against the Canucks, for example, Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a high sticking penalty on Tyler Motte at 12:54 of the third period while the Canadiens were still down a goal. This could have sealed the win for the Canucks. Instead, Danault made strong plays to help the team kill off the penalty, setting the stage for Nick Suzuki’s game-tying goal to secure the Canadiens one important point.
The first play was when Canucks’ forward J.T Miller faked a seam pass to Brock Boeser and instead attempted to feed Quinn Hughes at the point. Danault read the play well and managed to tip the pass out to center ice, killing the Canucks possession. In addition, he showed poise with the puck on one vital play, making a short pass under pressure to Joel Edmundson, who cleared the puck with ease. It is arguable, but these plays helped save a point for the Canadiens. Danault made those plays with a level of certainty that only confident players make.
If Danault can continue to play this way, he should be added to the list of factors indicating that the Canadiens will be a playoff team come the end of the season. Look for him to have a big impact moving forward.