“The Montreal Canadiens need a top-line centre.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Over the last several years, the Canadiens have struggled to find someone to consistently play alongside Max Pacioretty on their top line. At first, David Desharnais filled the role adequately, but as his talents waned, Alex Galchenyuk was unable (or wasn’t granted the opportunity) to step up in his stead. Two years ago, Phillip Danault found himself next to Pacioretty when Galchenyuk went down with a knee injury, but despite a more-than-solid season that defied all expectations from a player who entered the campaign as a fourth-line winger, Danault found himself supplanted by Jonathan Drouin.
Perhaps this was a clever bit of foresight — after all, Danault’s 2016-17 season could have been a flash in the pan, and the Victoriaville native’s detractors will point derisively at his significant drop in offensive output in 2017-18. But like many members of the Canadiens last season, Danault, too, has reasons for his off year that were beyond his control.
Even during his stellar 2016-17 campaign, Danault’s point-production didn’t leap off a stats ledger. Thirteen goals, 27 assists, and 40 points is a good year, but it’s not an elite year. Heck, it might not even be a “Lars Eller” year. In the same way, when one looks at Danault’s individual offensive metrics from 2017-18, everything seems to point to a third-liner, maybe a second-liner at best.
Yet even in his off year, we see glimpses of Danault’s offensive gifts shining through. Yes, the centre was subpar in terms of goal generation and shot production during his second season with the CH, but his five-on-five assist and rebound production were within the top 25% of centres (minimum 250 minutes played) in the entire NHL.
And that doesn’t tell the whole story. Drouin’s arrival didn’t just bump Danault down the depth chart, it robbed him of an extraordinary chemistry with Pacioretty for over half the season.
When Danault was on the ice with Pacioretty in 2017-18, all of the centreman’s individual metrics skyrocketed. He shot more, scored more, passed more ... basically did everything more, and begins to touch the 85th or even 90th percentile in key metrics such as assists, shots on goal, and high-danger-scoring-chance creation.
In terms of driving play and puck possession, Danault was always excellent. A strong work ethic combined with solid defensive awareness meant that the Habs were on the plus side of the shot clock when #24 was on the ice. 2017-18 was no different. Again, despite subpar point production, Danault is within the top 25% of centres in the league in every metric metric except goals-for percentage (GF%.
But it’s when we look at the Pacioretty-Danault combination that the magic truly becomes apparent.
In a down year for both Danault and Pacioretty, as well as the organization as a whole, the Canadiens enjoyed a positive goal differential when the duo was on the ice. Additionally, the pair was in the 95th percentile for scoring-chance generation, 98th percentile for Corsi-for percentage, and 99th percentile for Fenwick-for percentage, shots on goal, and high-danger-scoring-chance generation.
Alas, I can hear the cry from over the hills and far away: “Pacioretty is carrying yet another third-line centre!”
Despite both their names starting with the letter D, Danault is nothing like Desharnais. In fact, 2017-18 was an apt demonstration of how much both Danault and Pacioretty need each other. With Pacioretty on the ice, Danault personally notched four goals and eight helpers in approximately 350 minutes of ice time. Without him, Danault’s production falls to a mere five assists in about 300 minutes of play. Pacioretty, in turn, racked up four goals and four assists with Danault, and two goals and five assists in almost 500 minutes of ice-time without him.
A rudimentary hypothetical projection posits that had the duo not been torn asunder by the Drouin experiment, and if neither player had missed significant time due to injury, Pacioretty would have finished the campaign with about 13 goals and 13 assists at five-on-five. It’s a far cry from his 2016-17 numbers (22 goals, 20 assists), but almost double his actual 2017-18 output (six goals, nine assists).
For Danault, the effect is even more pronounced, as the centre sees his actual production of 17 points (four goals and 13 assists) leap to a projected 36 points (about 12 goals and 24 assists): numbers exceeding the 33 five-on-five points he accrued in 2016-17.
Ultimately, while the Canadiens continue to hunt for that elusive number-one centre, they should realize that they already have that individual within the organization. As long as their best winger stays with him.