Eight seasons after breaking into the Montreal Canadiens, David Desharnais has seemingly lost his spot in the lineup, having been phased out in favour of Philip Danault, and a transition of Alex Galchenyuk to centre.
Now that Claude Julien is in charge, Desharnais obviously has an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and earn his way back into the lineup in the final months of the final season of his contract, but it will be a tall task. To his credit he is no stranger to adversity, as he has been battling the odds his entire career.
Fighting to just make it to the NHL
Desharnais was skipped over during the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft in his first year of junior eligibility in 2002, and on his second go in 2003 was selected in the second round by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. In his rookie season he scored 23 goals and added 28 assists.
As a result of missing out on a year of Junior play however, Desharnais headed into his first NHL draft in 2004 unranked by the Central Scouting Bureau and promptly was ignored by all 30 teams. Compounding the missed season of Junior, Desharnais was further disadvantaged with a birthday of September 14th, which made him the youngest eligible player in the draft (cutoff is 18 years old on September 15th of the draft year), as well as one of the shortest at 5’6”. But Desharnais persisted.
Not to be discouraged, he finished fifth in QMJHL scoring with 32 goals and 65 assists the following season, hoping once again to get noticed, and yet despite the offensive output he was not drafted in his second and last year of eligibility. But Desharnais persisted.
He returned to Chicoutimi for two more seasons, and finished fifth in League scoring both those seasons, serving as captain of the Sags in his final season. His Junior career resume includes two all-star nominations, and three Frank J. Selke awards for Most Sportsmanlike Player in the QMJHL, as well as one Sportsman of the Year for the whole of the CHL.
When his final Junior season ended, he earned an ATO contract with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where he played seven games, scoring one goal in the process. However, he was released at the conclusion of the season. But Desharnais persisted.
He was invited to the Montreal Canadiens rookie camp as a tryout in 2007 and showed signs of offensive prowess, notably scoring on rookie Carey Price in the final intrasquad scrimmage, and generally positively raising a few eyebrows, enough to earn an invitation to the main training camp. But that’s when the size arguments started to pop up. He was the shortest player at Montreal’s camp, and it was his size that ultimately caused him to get cut from camp without a contract. He was sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs training camp on a tryout basis, and was finally sent to the ECHL Cincinnati Cylones where he signed an ECHL Standard Player’s Contract. A day before the ECHL season got underway, the Bulldogs came knocking and offered him an AHL deal as well. "David Desharnais made a favourable impression on Montreal during their training camp," Cyclones Head Coach Chuck Weber said. "That hard work has paid off.”
That season Desharnais would go on to win the ECHL scoring title with 106 points, get named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team, and win the Kelly Cup with the Cyclones. By 2008-09 he earned a full-time spot on the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and was their second leading scorer. During that season he signed a two-year NHL entry-level contract. Desharnais persisted and made the NHL.
The team was hesitant to fully invest in him however. After his initial contract expired in 2010 he signed a one-year extension. Then a second. His fourth contract was a two-year extension. Finally in 2013 he signed a four-year extension, hitting a career high $3.5M average cap hit. He persisted and he finally could consider that he ‘made it’.
Now he has to figure out what he needs to do to stay there.
What does Desharnais need to do?
- Improve as a winger: It is certainly not easy to switch positions this late into a career, but if Desharnais manages to return to the line-up it will most likely be as a winger on the third line. So far his experience on the wing in limited trials has been difficult, and he will need to find a way to stand out. As Michel Therrien said in 2014 about Desharnais “adapting to wing would be good for his career.”
- Find chemistry with someone other than Pacioretty: For the majority of his professional career Desharnais has been linked to Max Pacioretty, but the two players are now heading on different career trajectories. Pacioretty is established with Philip Danault as his centre and Alex Radulov on right wing. Desharnais will have to find a way to click with another player, most likely to be centreman Tomas Plekanec. If these two struggling forwards find a way to be more than the sum of their individual parts, then they will help prolong each other’s careers.
- Relentless forecheck: Desharnais must display the sort of fierceness without the puck that made him a pest early on in his NHL career.
- Shoot more: Preferring to be the set up man rather than the trigger man worked well for Desharnais when his winger was Pacioretty, but with a spot lower in the lineup likely to be in his future, he will have to count on his own shot in order to contribute positively to the team. Desharnais has soft hands, displays good patience, and although he does not have a hard shot, he has a very precise one.
Generally speaking, Desharnais can still be a very useful contributor to the Montreal Canadiens, as he is a veteran player with a lot of skill who is simply struggling to adapt to a new role as he is slowly being eclipsed by others in the organization.
If he can accomplish most of the points raised above, he might just be given a new lease on life by a new head coach, proving once again that he never gives up and persists despite the odds.
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