Phillip Danault is the most under-rated player on the Canadiens.
He’s also one of the most under-rated players in the NHL.
That’s why it’s going to be very interesting to see how GM Marc Bergevin handles contract negotiations moving forward with the 27-year-old centre who can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
Brendan Gallagher will rightly become the Canadiens’ highest-paid forward with his new six-year, US$39-million contract extension that kicks in for the 2021-22 season with an average annual salary of $6.5 million. That’s $1 million more than both Jonathan Drouin and newcomer Josh Anderson earn.
With that in mind, if I was Danault I’d be looking for at least $5 million a year over six years on a new deal.
Bergevin is going to be tight up against the salary cap after the 2020-21 season, when Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia can also become unrestricted free agents, while Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can become restricted free agents. The GM won’t have the money to keep all of them, but can Bergevin really afford to lose Danault, who has a salary-cap hit of $3.083 million on his current three-year, US$9.25-million contract?
With Danault gone, which centreman would take on the job of going up against the other team’s top line every night as well as taking all the big faceoffs? It would be a big ask for youngsters Nick Suzuki and/or Kotkaniemi.
Danault posted 13-34-47 totals in 71 games last season to finish second on the Canadiens in scoring behind Tatar (22-39-61), won 54.5 per cent of his faceoffs and was a team-best plus-18 while playing against the opposition’s top offensive line. Danault is also a very effective penalty-killer and led all Canadiens forwards in short-handed ice time last season.
Danault is earning recognition around the league for his 200-foot game and finished sixth in voting last season for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward.
If Bergevin can’t come to terms with Danault, there will definitely be other NHL teams in the bidding.
He’s the type of player some people might not really appreciate until he’s gone.
GM has long history with Danault
Bergevin and Danault have a long history together, going back to the days when the Canadiens GM was director of player personnel for the Chicago Blackhawks.
During a video conference last Thursday, Bergevin said he travelled from Chicago to Victoriaville “many times” to scout Danault when he was playing for the Tigres in the QMJHL.
Bergevin was high on Danault and wanted the Blackhawks to take him with their first pick (18th overall) at the 2011 NHL Draft, but GM Stan Bowman opted instead to take centre Mark McNeil of the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders . The Blackhawks did take Danault with their second pick in the first round (26th overall), which they acquired from the Washington Capitals in exchange for right-winger Troy Brouwer.
McNeil ended up playing only two games in the NHL and spent last season with Linz EHC in Austria.
“Nobody’s perfect … I’m not saying I’m smarter than anybody else because, believe me, I’ve made mistakes,” Bergevin said about putting Danault ahead of McNeil as a prospect. “But on this one and during our meeting I told my GM, I said: ‘I think we should flip-flop the two (on their draft list).'”
When Danault was still available at No. 26, Bergevin said he “kind of nudged” Bowman and the GM said yes.
“So we drafted Phil,” Bergevin said. “The pick after was Tampa Bay and I believe they picked (Vladislav) Namestnikov . At the time, their GM (Steve Yzerman) came and saw me after and said: ‘We were going to pick Phil if you guys didn’t pick him.’”
After becoming GM of the Canadiens, Bergevin acquired Danault from the Blackhawks on Feb. 26, 2016, along with a second-round pick at the 2018 NHL Draft (Russian defenceman Alexander Romanov) in exchange for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. It was one of the best trades Bergevin has made as GM.
“So my history with Phil goes (back) a long way,” Bergevin said. “So if you don’t think I do like Phil Danault as a hockey player, then that’s the history of it.”
Gallagher a big Danault fan
Gallagher is one of Danault’s biggest fans after spending most of the last two seasons as his linemate, along with Tatar.
“Speaking personally, how much Phil has been able to help me has been tremendous,” Gallagher said during a video conference last Thursday after signing his contract extension. “He’s such a smart player and we talk about it all the time. But I really think it is undervalued, just his brain. How well he thinks the game, very competitive, good player. Wants to win at all costs.
“For him to be put in all those different situations that we use him in, it’s hard to ask anyone else to do that,” Gallagher added. “So to put it into words how important he is, it’s hard. Obviously, no player is irreplaceable. But he’s a guy that, for me personally, the last couple of years I’ve been able to play with and he’s definitely helped me out a tremendous amount.”
During a conference call after the Canadiens were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, Danault made it clear he wasn’t happy about the thought of becoming the Canadiens’ third-line centre in the future behind Nick Suzuki and Kotkaniemi in more of a defensive role.
“That’s my bread and butter (the defensive game), but I know I can bring more,” Danault said. “I proved that the last two years.”
Danault has 25-75-100 totals over the last two seasons and is a combined plus-35.
The good news for Danault is that Bergevin’s acquisition of wingers Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli means he could keep Gallagher and Tatar as his linemates with coach Claude Julien rolling four lines, including three that can produce offence. I can see Suzuki playing between Drouin and Anderson, while Kotkaniemi centres Toffoli and Armia. That would leave Jake Evans between Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen on the fourth line.
Spreading out the offence
If Julien does indeed spread the offence over three lines, that could mean fewer goals for Gallagher, who was on pace for his third straight 30-goal season before COVID-19 shut down the regular season when he had 22 goals in 59 games.
That doesn’t worry Gallagher.
“I couldn’t care less,” Gallagher said. “The year I scored 10 goals (in 2016-17) we were a playoff team and you’re excited. That’s awesome. I scored 30 goals and we miss the playoffs. I would gladly trade those in for a playoff opportunity.
“We’re in a situation now where we obviously have depth throughout our lineup,” Gallagher added. “My expectations are to produce every single night. That’s not going to change. I’ve kind of always had the belief that you got to do more than score. You got to find other ways to contribute because when you’re not scoring, what are you doing to help the team? If you’re a 30-goal scorer and, let’s say, you’re scoring one goal a game — which generally you’re going to have a few multi-goal games in there — what are you doing the other 50 games? How are you contributing? How are you helping the team?
“There’s obviously going to be more situations where you need to step up and do your job and goal-scoring is part of what I do, but it’s definitely not all of it. Not even close. There’s lots of areas for me to feel like I’m contributing to the team and that’s something that I put that expectation on myself not to do every few games, but you want to be a consistent player and do it every single night.”
Bergevin echoed Gallagher’s comments.
“With Gally scoring 30 goals we still didn’t make the playoffs,” the GM said. “So hopefully with the people we bring in he might score less. It doesn’t mean he’s less effective, it doesn’t mean he isn’t doing his job. It’s just that there’s more scoring around to go and that hopefully translates into team success.”
Gallagher sets example
The Canadiens selected Gallagher in the fifth round (147th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft and Bergevin uses him as an example for other players drafted in later rounds.
“I use his example a lot when we draft players,” the GM said. “I say: ‘You’re first (round), second, third, it doesn’t matter. Just you know quicker where you’re going. Because, at the end of the day, Brendan Gallagher is a fifth-round pick and look at him today. So if you want to put the time in, you want to put the effort, you want to sacrifice, then there will be a chance for you. So don’t go by where you’re drafted because, at the end of the day, I don’t care.”
Another diamond in the rough?
Goalie Cayden Primeau could become another diamond in the rough for the Canadiens after being selected in the seventh round (199th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
But the 21-year-old’s path to the NHL hit a bit of a roadblock when Bergevin acquired Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues to back up Carey Price and then signed the 30-year-old goalie to a two-year, US$5.75-million contract extension that runs through the 2022-23 season.
“Obviously, before I did anything I talked to our goalie coach (Stéphane Waite) and I got his advice on: ‘Where do you see Cayden?’ and Cayden is a very good young promising prospect,” Bergevin said. “And the best for him we see now is to play some games. I mean, you look at Corey Crawford, who Stéphane had in Chicago, played lots of games in the American Hockey League. So goalies are probably the ones that take the most time to become ready to play. So there’s no rush for Cayden and extending Jake doesn’t mean we don’t see Cayden. We’re protecting him as far as being a goalie. And, again, time will tell. We see him as a really hot prospect, but the rest is going to be up to him to show that he’s still progressing to become an NHL goalie sooner.”
Primeau posted a 17-11-3 record with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in 33 games last season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket and played two games with the Canadiens, posting a 1-1-0 record with a 2.52 GAA and a .931 save percentage.
When Bergevin was asked if he expects Allen to remain with the Canadiens through the duration of his contract, the GM said: “That’s the plan. Obviously, with the expansion draft (next year for the Seattle Kraken) we have to protect Pricer, so (Allen) will be exposed, obviously. That’s something that’s not a secret. Obviously, we do like Jake.”
COVID-19 helped Habs
The COVID-19 pandemic actually helped the Canadiens, who didn’t deserve to get in the playoffs, but ended up making it as the 24th and final seed in the expanded format. They upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round before losing in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
The experience gained — especially by youngsters Kotkaniemi and Suzuki — should pay dividends moving forward, even though the Canadiens lost out on any lottery chance of getting Alexis Lafrenière, the No. 1 overall pick at the NHL Draft who went to the New York Rangers.
“One thing I could tell you, and believe me when I say this, COVID is horrible for everybody,” Bergevin said. “For any kind of business, for people, I mean it’s horrible what’s happening to the world. But for us, it was out of our control, but if I can take something good that happened from shutting it down it’s that we were able to play. So to go from 9 to 16 (in the draft order), not having a chance to go to 1 and having Alexis, who is probably going to be a franchise player … and there’s no guarantee of that. There’s a lot of positives that came back from this for us.
“Not only KK and Suzy, but Pricer, the way he was focused and rested and Weby’s (captain Shea Weber) got some great hockey left in him. So overall I think there was a lot of positives came out of going into the bubble in Toronto.”
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