Danault Is Canadiens’ Actual No. 1 Center

Montreal Canadiens forward Phillip Danault may not be the most offensively dynamic forward. He continues to prove his worth to the organization in many ways, though… most recently as its best option at center.

Canadiens Over Rangers

Danault is hardly a savior in other words, in spite of his recent four-point performance that almost single-handedly spared this incarnation of the team another embarrassment. He scored two markers, including the game-winning goal against on Saturday to prevent the Habs from dropping a second early-season contest to the Rangers, who are just slightly less worse off than the still-last-place Canadiens.

Philip Danault
Philip Danault – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That was seemingly in spite of the Habs’ best efforts to let this one slip away too, after giving up a two-goal third-period lead, before Danault broke the tie. It would seem nothing is safe for this team, maybe not even the No. 1 center spot, which has almost unanimously been declared as Jonathan Drouin’s to start the season.

Danault’s latest performance may give head coach Claude Julien second thoughts over the matter, though. His seven points trail Drouin’s by just one for the team lead, while his three goals put him in a six-way tie for first place.

Danault Exceeding Expectations

That last fact may not be that impressive 11 games into the season, putting all six players on pace for just over 20 goals apiece. On the positive side, it would put the likes of three of those players—Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Shea Weber—at or around what they were expected to score heading into this disaster of a season. It meanwhile puts Danault on pace for a healthy new career-high.

Obviously one game does not make a season and, without Danault’s four-point performance, he’d be underperforming with most of the rest of the team. The thing is, it hasn’t been one game. It’s been more than a half-season. Ever since Alex Galchenyuk went down with a knee injury last December, the No. 1 role had essentially been his.

Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin
Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

It was only after general manager Marc Bergevin traded for Jonathan Drouin and publicly declared Galchenyuk unfit to play center that Danault lost his grip on the position. Heading into this season, it was clear that Drouin was Bergevin’s guy, but, in a way, Danault was his guy first.

Bergevin Makes a Good Move

In one of his best moves as Habs GM, Bergevin sent Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks for a second-round pick and Danault in early 2016, effectively ripping them off in the process.

At the time, the Canadiens had been bracing for a non-playoff finish, while the Blackhawks were looking for extra depth to ensure a long playoff run. So, it made sense for Bergevin to give up the two pending unrestricted free agents. It may have even made sense for the Blackhawks to give up a player who had just one goal in 31 NHL games up to that point, in Danault. Considering Danault had just turned 23 and was a former first-round pick with defensive acumen to spare, maybe not. The extra pick made the trade even more of a disaster.

Weise ended up underperforming the rest of the regular season while each only ended up dressing for only four of the Blackhawks’ seven playoff games in a disappointing first-round defeat to the St. Louis Blues. Fleischmann, who Bergevin acquired for nothing, signing him after a successful professional try-out agreement, is no longer in the league.

All factors taken into consideration, the deal is perhaps Bergevin’s largest stroke of genius. It would honestly be for almost any GM.

The Drouin Trade Revisited

On paper, the Drouin acquisition wasn’t a bad move either. That’s despite the player going the other way, Mikhail Sergachev, absolutely tearing it up in the early going with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In retrospect (and foresight), giving up another puck-moving defenseman was maybe not the wisest decision on his part.

Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In Bergevin’s defense, most GMs would absolutely jump at the opportunity to acquire a 22-year-old third-overall pick coming off a 53-point season for a 19-year-old defensive prospect. What’s reprehensible is, in so doing, Bergevin seemingly put Drouin’s background as a native Quebecer ahead of his team’s most pressing needs. They needed a No. 2 left-handed defenseman and still do especially for the future as Weber gets older. They didn’t need another winger. So, logically, Drouin was ordained as the team’s new No. 1 center ahead of Galchenyuk, despite lacking professional experience at the position and possessing the same poor defensive reputation.

Bergevin and company essentially billed Drouin as being capable of filling one huge hole, presumably to help soften the blow of losing a blue-chip prospect who was projected to fill the larger hole. Losing Andrei Markov only exacerbated the situation. The team’s in dire strait defensively (and offensively) as a result.

Danault the Forgotten Man

Up to this point, between Galchenyuk and Drouin, Danault has been the forgotten man. You have to wonder why, though. He’s from Quebec, too. His defensive play is far and away whatever Drouin could ever bring to the table, plus forcing Drouin to play center might only force him to sacrifice some of his offensive prowess in order to focus on his play in the defensive zone. You don’t have that problem with Danault.

Philip Danault
Philip Danault – (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Granted, Drouin’s offensive skill is far and away whatever Danault brings to the table in sharp contrast. However, that’s not really what the team needs from its top center. It’s a nice-to-have, sure. What should be the top priority is an ability to get the team’s other top offensive players going.

While Drouin is a legitimate play-making talent, it’s Danault who seems to have superior chemistry with Max Pacioretty, who has led the team in scoring in each of the last six seasons. In fact, he lined up beside Pacioretty last night, technically already making him the No. 1 center.

In spite of his allegedly poor defense, Galchenyuk also showed chemistry between Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov over the first quarter of last season. In spite of his indisputably worse defense, David Desharnais showed it, especially earlier in his career.

Drouin just hasn’t, at least not to the same degree. It may come with time, but the Habs don’t have the luxury of time. They have to win right now, because, even though it’s only November, they may have already lost the season, needing approximately 88 points over the last 71 games (~.620 hockey) to reach the presumed playoff cut-off of 95 points. They need to go with what’s proven to work. That’s Danault.

The argument has been that a team with Danault as its No. 1 center can’t win it all. Hence the need for Bergevin to go out and acquire someone who can better fill the position… for the last five friggin’ years. If Danault can continue to perform as he did against the Rangers, regardless of the point production, that player may have been under Bergevin’s nose all along, though. Danault may be far from the ideal, but he may be the best the Habs have got. They should take what they can get at this point. It’s not about winning it all right now. It’s about winning, period.