Phillip Danault was a first-round draft pick in 2011, but didn't see more than two games of NHL action until this season. He missed time at the beginning of the year after undergoing hip surgery, started his year with the Chicago Blackhawks, and was eventually traded to Montreal ahead of the deadline. With both clubs he was used in a heavily defensive role, which he filled well while managing to also contribute some points.
Danault was of course acquired by the Canadiens back in February, the main piece sent from Chicago in return for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. It was tough to know exactly what to expect from Danault coming in, but once he arrived, he quickly became a solid addition to Montreal's bottom-six.
While not a big physical presence, his stat sheet reads as that of a relatively solid defensive forward. In 21 games with the Canadiens this season, he started only 38% of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength. Despite this, the Habs controlled 51.9% of all shot attempts when he was on the ice. Many will be quick to point out the lack of scoring contribution, but defending is really what he does best.
The good news on the scoring front is that he actually seemed to gain momentum the more he played with the Habs. Three of his five points with the Canadiens this year came in the final 10 games of the season. So, while he should primarily be viewed as a defensive specialist, there appears to be some hope that he can develop offensively as well.
Credit: Corsica Hockey (Grey line NHL median)
He missed a few months while recovering from injury, and hasn't yet played a full season in the NHL. There is a potential upside to Danault should he be healthy, and he should be able to handle regular playing time next year. He's unlikely to progress into a top-six role, but could become a fixture on a defensive unit as someone reliable enough to keep the puck out of his own net, while possibly being able to contribute to a bit of depth scoring.
Another thing Danault was lacking this year was consistency with linemates. When he was traded, he spent time with a revolving door of fourth liners such as Mike Brown, Jacob de la Rose, Torrey Mitchell and Paul Byron - not exactly the kind of players who would help boost Danault's offensive stats.
Fortunately he received new linemates in David Desharnais and Sven Andrighetto, who ended up being his most common line combination; 23% of his shifts were with the two speedy forwards. This likely contributed to his production increase through those final 10 games of the season.
Where will he line up next season? The Canadiens have a lot of NHL centres in their current depth chart. Torrey Mitchell has a similar skillset but offers the option of a right-handed centre which the Habs don't have elsewhere. Other NHL centres are well beyond Danault in terms of ability to be regulars in the NHL.
From the farm, Charles Hudon can play centre, and is much more offensively gifted than Danault, though they are unlikely to fight for the same spot. However, Michael McCarron played up the middle for Montreal and St. John's, and could pass Danault for a bottom-six role.
Danault can also play on the left wing, where he is a clear choice over Stefan Matteau, but he'd then have to outplay Lucas Lessio and Paul Byron, both of whom offer different and possibly better options for the coach. Lessio is a crash and bang player that Therrien will like having over a complete season, while Byron is a speedster, who isn't a sniper but has a better finishing touch than Danault.
He could end up being a 13th forward, but he figures to be a perfectly viable roster player for the Habs. Next season's training camp will be a big one for his future with the club.