Montreal Canadiens: The Curious Case of David Desharnais

David Desharnais takes the puck on the offensive for the Montreal Canadiens.
Desharnais wearing his former jersey #58. He’s since changed to #51. (Icon SMI)

By Matthew Macaskill (@Habsology)

The year is 2012 and the Montreal Canadiens are closing out a dismal season that sees them finish last place in the Eastern Conference and third to last in the league. Carey Price fails to finish the year due to a concussion. Fan favourite Michael Cammalleri is traded in the middle of a game to the Calgary Flames for Rene Bourque.

Jacques Martin is fired from his post as the team’s head coach. Interim coach Randy Cunneyworth fails to squeeze much more out of a hapless group of players that continue to dwindle in the league’s basement. General Manager Pierre Gauthier soon follows Martin as Owner Geoff Molson cleans house.

Among the wreckage of that 2011-2012 season were a few bright spots for the Canadiens. For one, the Habs went on to select Alex Galchenyuk with the third overall pick at the 2012 Entry Draft.

Max Pacioretty made a tremendous comeback from a broken neck and concussion suffered from a vicious check by the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara. In 79 games, Pacioretty posted career bests of 33 goals and 32 assists for 65 points. The left-winger matured into a true NHL power-forward with the help of veteran Erik Cole, no stranger to the role himself. Cole set a career high in goals with 35 playing a majority of the season with.So who’s to account for Pacioretty and Cole’s success in 2011-12? Every goal scorer needs someone to feed him the puck.

The middle man for the Canadiens two power forwards was none other than 5-foot-7 David Desharnais. The Laurier-Station, QC native paced his wingers with 44 assists and 60 points. The production seemed to indicate that Desharnais had finally brought his scoring prowess seen at the QMJHL, ECHL, and AHL levels to the NHL.

A Disappointing 2012-13 Season for Desharnais

David Desharnais looks on from Habs bench.
Desharnais (center) looks on from Habs bench. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Unfortunately for Desharnais, the 2012-2013 NHL season wasn’t as successful as his 60-point campaign just a year prior. He found his point totals fall to 28 in 48 games, with 10 goals and 18 assists. A number of factors could be attributed to the decline.

The season was marred by the NHL Lockout, which limited teams to a brief training camp. It’s possible that Desharnais was affected by this, but he put up 16 points in 16 games with HC Fribourg-Gottéron in Switzerland while hoping for the NHL and NHLPA labour dispute to end.

Maybe Desharnais’ production problems could be tied to Cole, who saw his totals dip to only six points in 19 games. When Cole was shipped to Dallas in exchange for Michael Ryder it broke up a Canadiens first line that had so much success just a year prior.

If Cole’s absence was a factor, how then do you explain Pacioretty finishing the year as the team’s leading scorer with 39 points and 15 goals in 44 games? Furthermore, how do you explain the point gap between Pacioretty and Desharnais when the two remained together for most of the short season?

Are Desharnais and Pacioretty Inseparable?

One aspect of Desharnais and Pacioretty’s relationship is very clear: Desharnais depends on Pacioretty far more than ‘Patches’ depends on ‘Davey.’ Still, Pacioretty never has a negative thing to say about his centre, happy to pour on compliments about David’s work ethic, skill, and determination to be first on the puck.

Early in the opening game of the 2013-14 season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pacioretty suffered a wrist injury. The injury forced him to miss the remainder of the first period and all of the team’s second game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Even when Pacioretty returned for the second and third period against the Leafs, it was clear he was still in discomfort and was unable to generate many chances.

Without their go-to trigger man, Desharnais and Briere found themselves ineffective, particularily on the powerplay. Coach Michel Therrien limited their ice-time in the second game of the season, and commented on their performance after the game: “We want the competition level to rise.”

Briere Enters the Fold, Joins Pacioretty and Desharnais

When Daniel Briere signed two-year contract with the Habs as an unrestricted free agent after being bought out by Philadelphia Flyers, many wondered where he would fit into the lineup. Briere is a natural centre, but expressed his willingness to move to the wing if meant he could help the team. It quickly became evident that the biggest hole among the Canadiens top nine forwards was at the right-wing position on Pacioretty and Desharnais’ line.

Renaud Lavoie was keen to point out the budding relationship between the French Canadians, both of whom have beat the odds to carve out NHL careers as diminutive yet talented forwards. The trio was quickly assembled during the Canadiens training camp, but Briere doesn’t exactly bring the same dynamic to the line that Erik Cole did.

Time will tell if Desharnais and Briere can truly develop the chemistry required to give the line a second option to score. As it stands, neutralizing Pacioretty is an effective strategy for snuffing their offense.

Desharnais is No Stranger to Adversity

Generously listed at 5-foot-7, Desharnais has faced adversity throughout his career as people questioned wondered if he had what it takes to compete against opponents march larger than him. Desharnais continued to prove the naysayers wrong with his dedication to this sport and willingness to work harder than his peers to climb the professional ranks while those with size were left behind.

Desharnais was an elite scorer during his four seasons with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL where he scored 126 goals and 374 points in 262 games. He twice won the QMJHL’s Frank J. Selke Trophy, which is awarded to the QMJHL’s ‘Most Gentlemanly Player.’ Desharnais’ highest honour came in his final season with the Sagueneens as he captured the Canadian Major Junior – Sportsmanlike Player of the Year award.

But Desharnais’ first taste of adversity at the professional level came when he failed to make the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs after graduating from the QMHJL. Still, he remained focused and accepted his assignment to the Montreal Canadiens ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones. The 68 games he played for the Cyclones in 2007-08 proved to be his last. In addition to the 29 goals, 77 assists, and 106 points he put up in the regular season, he added 33 points in the playoffs.

Desharnais picked up a number of awards in his rookie and sole ECHL season:

  • Most Valuable Player
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Leading Scorer
  • Playoff MVP
  • First All-Star Team
  • All-Rookie Team

Needless to say, Desharnais was promptly promoted to the AHL the following year.

It was in the AHL where Desharnais first found himself playing on a line with Max Pacioretty. The two quickly found chemistry and success at the AHL level and ultimately received call-ups to join the Habs during the 2010-11 season. They never looked back.

Can Desharnais Survive the Habs Youth Movement?

David Desharnais is knocked down by Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau knocks down David Desharnais (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

If his drop in production in 2013 was a blessing for the Habs in any way, it’s that it allowed GM Marc Bergevin to sign Desharnais to a decent, cap-friendly contract. While the $3.5 million dollar cap hit is affordable, it’s the four-year term of the contract that may cause the team issues moving forward.

The Montreal Canadiens are laden with a number of young players making their mark on the franchise and warranting more ice time. The kid line of Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk have most recently picked Desharnais’ pocket of valuable minutes. If David Desharnais continues to show signs of regression, he may find himself falling further down the Habs depth chart.

Considering the 27-year-old is in only the first year of his four-year contract, the team may have to remain committed to Desharnais for the foreseeable future. Getting him back on track is in the Canadiens best interest if they expect to make succeed this season and go deep into the playoffs.

For a Quebec born player who grew up watching the Habs and is currently living out his dream playing for them, you can bet that Desharnais isn’t about to sit back and watch it wash away. If anything is true of David, it’s that he’s not going to go down without a fight.