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2015-16 Canadiens season review: David Desharnais was a victim of his usage

This year was statistically one of his worst, and yet when you look deeper, there is an argument to keep him around for another year.

David Desharnais' last goal of the season, shooting past Roberto Luongo on April 2nd, 2016
David Desharnais' last goal of the season, shooting past Roberto Luongo on April 2nd, 2016
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

David Desharnais is a controversial figure for Montreal Canadiens fans. For some, he represents everything wrong with the club: their inability to consistently produce and their lack of size. For others, he is a spark plug, a capable offensive forward with vision and passing skills who isn't always given a fair shake. So which narrative is closest to the truth? It turns out there is some validity to both camps.

Desharnais played in only 65 games this year, scoring 11 goals and adding 18 assists. He's had less than 29 points in only two other seasons: the 48-game lockout-shortened version in 2012-13, and his rookie year, in which he played only 43 games.

He averaged more time per game (in all situations) than all but Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk — all of whom outscored the Laurier-Station native by a wide margin.

CF/60 CA/60 CF% SF/60 SA/60 SF% SCF/60 SCA/60 SCF%
Desharnais 56.1 (9th) 53.5 (10th) 51.2% (9th) 30.7 (8th) 29.4 (12th) 51.0% (12th) 27.6 (7th) 26.6 (11th) 50.9% (8th)

Even a look at some deeper statistics point to Desharnais' most recent season being his worst to date. However, if you break down the season into sections, there is much more story to tell, and the narrative becomes far more damning for head coach Michel Therrien than for Desharnais.

There were two distinctly different versions of Desharnais this past season. He began the year on the Habs' third line, centring Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise, and the line was surprisingly effective despite both wingers having negative possession numbers. In a restricted third-line role, Desharnais had a positive impact on shot production and he and his linemates each produced more than two points per 60 minutes played.

Throughout the beginning of the Canadiens' slide in December, Therrien stuck to his lineup and kept the Desharnais line intact. Despite mounting losses, the team was still playing an effective style of hockey.

By December 19, however, the coach reverted to his tactic of putting the centre on the top line with the team's best goal-scorer in Max Pacioretty. The result was an incredible drop in possession and point production for Desharnais, and continued losing for Montreal.

The often-relied-upon duo stayed together for several games, while the Habs' Corsi-for percentage plummeted from 56% to around the 49% mark in mid-February.

Desharnais rolling 5-game CF Image credit: Corsica

The chemistry that once existed between Pacioretty and Desharnais is now a thing of the past. The team's top left-winger has outgrown his former pivot. For the near two-month stretch they played together, Desharnais collected only eight points, while Pacioretty had 13.

The captain, like most goal-scorers, had stretches of being hot and cold all year, but this string of games was one of, if not the least productive periods of his season. Only on two occasions did the two record points on the same goal, which counters the narrative that their skillsets are enhanced by one another.

After Desharnais' injury in February freed up Pacioretty to play with Plekanec, the Habs' top goal-scorer suddenly found his touch again. Desharnais was overmatched by top defensive competition, and he dragged Pacioretty down at the same time.

Desharnais' promotion cannot be solely blamed for the team's woes. In fact, he was a good player earlier in the season. He and his linemates may have been scoring at an unsustainable rate, but they were contributing in a supplementary capacity nonetheless.

When he is deployed properly, he brings an offensive boost to a depth line, but when he plays increased minutes with better players, he and his linemates suffer for it. It's abundantly clear that most issues with Desharnais are not actually about him as a player, but rather the coach's dependence on him, and poor lineup management that results.

Desharnais PvP Image credit: Corsica (Grey line = NHL median)

This weakness of Therrien's extended to the power play as well. Desharnais scored an abysmal 2.08 points per 60 minutes on the man advantage this year; one of Montreal's worst performers in that situation.

In fact, that was one of the lowest point productions among all NHL players. Despite this, he was sent out for 2:17 of power play time per game. Only four forwards got more ice time on the power play and all boasted a far better point production. Tomas Plekanec, for instance, was the least productive forward with more PP time, and he scored 3.39 P/60.

After returning to the lineup on March 24, Desharnais was once again playing more limited minutes on either the second or third line, and he was able to drive his possession stats back up around 50%. He also boosted his production rate with three points in his final eight games, but thanks to his two months as an anchor on the first unit, his individual stats were among the worst in his career.

This was Desharnais' worst season in a Montreal uniform for points per game, goals per 60 minutes, shooting percentage, and even faceoff wins. He did, however, score four game-winning goals, the most he's ever pulled off in a single season since joining the NHL, and that may have been a reason for his extended stay with the team's best players when all other metrics showed that to be a bad idea.

Consider now that Galchenyuk's increased ice time and his move to the first line were likely the direct result of Desharnais' injury, and you could say that the month away from the team may have been Desharnais' most significant contribution to the team's long-term chances.

Going forward

What should the Habs do with Desharnais? The centre has one year remaining on his contract, to the tune of $3.5 million. This isn't an astronomical price tag, especially should he be able to put up more points than he did this year. It would be a hefty price tag if he's relegated to a depth winger position where his contributions could be matched by a cheaper option like Daniel Carr or Artturi Lehkonen.

If Montreal plans to take a serious run at high-priced free agents this summer, then a buyout of his contract (for $1.67 million over the next two years) isn't such a bad thing. If the roster stays relatively the same, it may be beneficial to let him see out the final year of his contract and have it completely off the books come the 2017-18 season.

The bottom line when it comes to Desharnais is that the Habs have gotten a lot out of him since signing him as an undrafted prospect, and his play alone wasn't the main factor in the team's position in the standings. Some (including myself) have been very quick to vent frustrations on him in the past, but the real issue has been Therrien's addiction to Desharnais and his inability to play him where he belongs.

I believe there is still a place for Desharnais in the current Canadiens' lineup. Whether that is still the case in October will depend on Marc Bergevin's summer.