Heading into this off-season, the most pressing contract negotiation facing the Montreal Canadiens was that of Phillip Danault, who was a restricted free agent in an interesting position. He is without a doubt the best centre on the Canadiens roster, even if his offensive numbers aren’t sky high. He fits in well, however, serving as a player who can handle top-six minutes at both ends of the ice, and at just 25 years old he’s entering the prime of his career.
Danault’s new three-year deal is a great fit in more ways than one, the first being that the money and term it carries are spot-on for both sides. In spite of Danault being the Canadiens’ go-to centre option, he doesn’t produce at the level of other players who earned much more lucrative deals.
At the same time, he is a key piece in this lineup, and earned his bump in pay with this deal. At just under $3.1 million per year, he’s not taking up a substantial portion of cap room going forward. The term on the deal does more than give the Canadiens some stability down the middle in the near future; it gives them a solid timeline to let their prospects develop into NHL-ready players.
In the Canadiens’ current state, they shouldn’t be trying to rush some of their top prospects into the NHL right away. Ryan Poehling is already returning to St. Cloud State for his junior season, and will more than likely be the Huskies’ star player this year. Jesperi Kotkaniemi will return to Montreal for rookie camp and the Canadiens’ main training camp, sparking the thought that he might force his way into the lineup this year.
Factor in the drafting of players like Jacob Olofsson, Cam Hillis, Allan McShane, and the previous additions of Lukas Vejdemo and Jake Evans, there is suddenly a lot of youth that will be pushing for roster spots in upcoming seasons.
This is where Danault’s new deal begins to shine, as over the course of those three years the Canadiens can continue to replenish their prospect pool. and allow their current players to develop further.
Trying to rush any of these players into an NHL spot right now would likely be a mistake. As it stands in the NHL, the Canadiens have Danault, Jonathan Drouin, Tomas Plekanec, Jacob de la Rose, and Matthew Peca, while a potential re-signing of Michael McCarron compounds things even further. With the way the team is constructed, and with the pieces it’s missing, the organization would be unwise to burn a year off an entry-level deal for someone like Kotkaniemi. Letting him return to Liiga in Finland where he can continue his transition from the wing to a full-time centre would be the ideal course of action for him.
Poehling will have at least one more year (this year that is) at St. Cloud State left, which realistically sets his potential debut at the start of the 2019-20 season, and there is no guarantee that it will be at the NHL level either. He certainly has the talent, that isn’t the concern, there is just a slight adjustment period, and Poehling may take some time in the AHL as well before possibly becoming an NHL regular before that season’s end.
The NHL jam down the middle also stands to benefit both Evans and Vejdemo, who are both set to play for the Laval Rocket this year. Evans is coming from the NCAA while Vejdemo is coming across the pond from Djurgården of the SHL. Giving them an adjustment period in the AHL under the watchful eye of Joël Bouchard is a smart play. Teams like the Maple Leafs and Jets have kept some of their stars in the AHL for a little while to stockpile invaluable experience across the board before a seamless transition to the NHL, and the Canadiens can afford to take the same approach.
Of course, in the three years when Danault is playing for Montreal, all the prospects from the 2018 draft will likely begin to move into the North American pro ranks, and players like the aforementioned Olofsson could very well jump right into a big role sooner rather than later given his previous experience.
By the time his contract comes to an end, Phillip Danault will be 28 years old, and by that point will likely have some serious competition for a centre spot in Montreal. When you take in the factors of how cost-effective the contract is, and how the term matches a rebuilding timeline for Montreal, it makes Danault’s new deal appear even better than it already was.
With some smart handling of prospects in the upcoming seasons, Montreal could be in a great position by the time Danault’s deal expires.