If you look up and down the Montreal Canadiens roster, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t contributing. Maybe even harder-pressed to find a Habs player who isn’t getting his dues for a job well done.
It’s just been one of those seasons, one in which Brendan Gallagher, in spite of being poised to eclipse the career-high 31 goals he notched last season, is ranked only sixth in overall team scoring. Think about that for a second.
Needless to say, gone are the days when the Canadiens are without a 20-goal scorer and Benoit Brunet is earning rave reviews as one of the team’s most valuable players, as was the case in 1998-99.
Oh, the Benoit Brunets, or diamonds in the rough, are still there. It’s a lot harder to find them though, when considering eventual recipients of the Jacques Beauchamp Molson Trophy, who typically don’t receive any accolades despite being dominant forces on the team. Here are the top candidates, ranked in decreasing order of their likelihood to win the award come the end of the season.
5. Antti Niemi
It’s odd to have to give a back-up goalie props for being an underrated reason for the Canadiens’ success, but that’s the point at which we are. Antti Niemi’s one of the few Habs who doesn’t get heaps of praise every night. Granted, a large part of that is due the fact he rarely plays, but, when he does get the net, he generally delivers with an 8-5-2 record.
His stats won’t blow anyone away. In fact, his .893 save percentage and 3.61 goals-against average far from instill confidence. It’s all the same undeniable how, for the second season in a row, Niemi is getting the job done as Carey Price’s backup.
4. Jordie Benn
In the eyes of many, depth defenseman Jordie Benn may be trade bait. After all, his contract runs out at the end of the year and he’s effectively a spare part… one who surprisingly helped to form the Habs’ second-most common pairing of the season with star Jeff Petry (according to stats compiled at the University of New Brunswick).
Maybe that isn’t necessarily all that impressive of a stat, especially seeing as Mike Reilly and Noah Juulsen comprise the most-used pairing on the season, but there is something to be said for stability. Benn, with his ability to play on either side, provides it in droves. The fact that he’s already hit a career-high four goals doesn’t hurt either.
3. Artturi Lehkonen
From a goal-scoring perspective, Artturi Lehkonen may be on the downswing. After hitting an impressive 18 in his rookie season in 2016-17, he’s got just 19 in the two campaigns since. However, while his 6.2 shooting percentage ranks below those of the likes of Benn and the much-maligned Charles Hudon, Lehkonen’s making the most of his opportunities by contributing in other ways.
Forget the fact that his 24 points heading into Thursday night action put him on pace to crush his previous career high of 28 (although, that is undeniably eye-opening). His skills and defensive awareness as a 200-foot player are what make him a valuable member of the Canadiens along with his versatility to play anywhere in the lineup.
Obviously the last few seasons could have gone smoother for Lehkonen. It’s not often the highlight of your season so far is a shorthanded assist that gets immediately taken away on a bogus embellishment call (that was later rescinded by the NHL). Nevertheless, as evidenced by that play, the effort level is there. Unheralded effort (and heart) has come to define what matters most when awarding the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy.
How in gods name is this embellishment on Artturi Lehkonen?
They just robbed the Finn of a highlight reel assist. pic.twitter.com/6SWBuJdmos
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 16, 2018
2. Brett Kulak
When Juulsen went down with injury, call-up Brett Kulak was quick to step in and keep his foot in the door. It’s practically stuck to the point few see him getting demoted back to the American Hockey League. He’s had that much of a positive impact on the Habs.
While his debut effectively coincided with Shea Weber’s this season, the Canadiens are 18-10-2 with him lineup (the Habs are 19-10-1 with Weber in the lineup, for the record). Kulak’s offensive totals aren’t game-breaking, but his underlying stats are, as he has proven to be one of the Habs’ best players at controlling shot attempts and scoring chances.
As it stands, even if he deserves a nod, Kulak won’t win any kind of honors, least of all any official trophy as an unsung Hab. He’s a victim of the numbers game and not just with regard to his meager six points on the season. It’s that his season has comprised just 30 games, which amounts to just over half of the Habs’ schedule so far.
It doesn’t mean Kulak hasn’t delivered, though. He’s done that and more for a player few predicted would develop into anything other than the temporary call-up he once was. He’s become a fixture on the left side instead.
1. Phillip Danault
Maybe it’s because his role as the team’s de facto No. 1 center has been usurped by Max Domi. Regardless of the exact reason, Phillip Danault consistently slips under the radar despite the fact he continues to post solid numbers. In fact, he’s quietly on pace to post new career highs and reach 50 points for the first time, all in spite of getting close to no power-play time. His 15 seconds per game rank No. 17, just above of, wait for it, Tomas Plekanec.
According to stats compiled by Marc Dumont of the Montreal Gazette, Danault’s five-on-five stats rival some of the game’s best (from ‘Analyze This: Case can be made that Phillip Danault is Canadiens’ MVP’, the Montreal Gazette – 23/1/19). Yet, he continues to go unnoticed by the opposition and, oftentimes, even Habs fans themselves.
The fact that his shutdown skills are top-notch, in the same vein as Plekanec’s, is all the more reason why he deserves more credit than he gets. It’s why he should be in serious consideration for the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy… and then win it for the second time in his career (2016-17).